I tasted a couple dozen California reds yesterday with James Laube and Tim Fish in Wine Spectator's Napa office, and I was struck by how many of the reds seemed slightly off or tainted. Most of the wines were Napa Valley Cabernets, but we also tasted Cabs from Sonoma. Granted, we weren’t tasting cult or big-name Cabs. But the wines were just not singing in my opinion, and we ended up retasting about one in three bottles—not a typical number for one of their tastings. It was like listening to music from blown speakers or something. Anyway, when we retasted the wines, most seemed a little better.
In my tastings in my office in Tuscany, I probably retaste 10 or 15 percent of the Italian wines I review. The percentage is even lower with Bordeaux. Most of the time I retaste because a wine is merely a bit dull, not showing true "corkiness," aka, that wet cardboard characteristic caused by 2,4,6-trichloroanisole, or TCA, which is commonly cited as the substance responsible for producing corky wines.
Yesterday’s unusual experience and Laube's recent blog on systemic TCA taint made me think about the problem that many European producers had with "corkiness" in the 1990s. It motivated me to dig up a story I wrote on TCA problems in French wines in 1999. A lot of the "corkiness" problems at the time were due to the chemically-treated wood being used in wineries for cellar construction, wine bottle bins and other purposes. Now European producers, particularly in Bordeaux, are paying much closer attention to their cellars than in the past to ensure that they don’t have problems with contaminants such as TCA, TBA or related chemicals that could lead to taint in their wines.
I think that many problems producers elsewhere have with "corky" wines have nothing to do with the cork itself, but with problems in wineries. I wonder if something like that is going on in California?
I dug up my notes from that 1999 story, which I had on my laptop, and found a quote from a cork producer about the problem that never made it into the final article: “Our experience suggests that external contaminants are responsible for more than 80 percent of the problems associated with corky bottles,” said Mario Borges of Juvenal Ferreira de Silva, a cork producer and exporter. “Our production of cork products is very rigorous in quality control and we have no cork taints in the products we sell.
“The problem with wooden palettes and other treated wood in cellars is one of the biggest external contaminants in wines. The others include such things as badly cleaned bottles, poor storage conditions, improperly run bottling lines. They all contribute to the corky taste of wines,” he added.
Obviously, a cork producer is going to take this line, but it’s still something to think about. A lot can go wrong with a wine and cork in the cellar if a winemaker isn’t careful ...