Obviously my colleague James Suckling struck a nerve with his blog describing how a sommelier fumbled a corked-bottle issue at a Las Vegas restaurant. At last check the comment count has topped 70.
Several postings seem to suggest that it’s easy to tell if a wine is corked. One said, “If it gets an 84 (the high end of the "Good" scale) and it's corked—it must be very good wine indeed!” Two recent cork-related experiences of mine prove that it’s not an either-or issue. In fact, the nastiest form of cork taint takes the edge off the wine or introduces an off character, rather than slamming it with full-blown yuk.
When the characteristic aromas and flavors of corkiness—the tang of wet newspaper, moldy, mildewy and thoroughly revolting—are blatantly present, they announce the taint loud and clear. When present at low levels TCA, the chemical that produces the ugliness, might just mute a wine’s pleasant flavors, or clip the finish. Sometimes the wine has to sit in the glass for a few minutes before the presence of TCA becomes apparent.
That’s what probably happened with Suckling and his friends in Las Vegas.
It happened to me recently with a wine from my own cellar that I took to a San Francisco restaurant to celebrate my daughter’s 30th birthday. I decided to decant a Leonetti Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon 1989 and bring it to the restaurant in the rinsed-out bottle.
I pulled the bottle from my 53° F. cellar, decanted it and stuck my nose over the decanter. I smelled fruit, so I assumed it was OK. But I didn’t taste the wine, or I would have noticed a telltale extra-tight grip of tannin that often happens with corky bottles. At the restaurant, after admiring the bottle profusely, the waiter poured our wine. I took a sniff. Uh oh. I didn’t remember that papery, earthy smell from when I decanted it.
The wine also had some lovely rich fruit and spice, which made it like one of those reversible images that look like a chalice at first but when you stare at them for a few seconds they morph into two faces.
My daughter has become something of the wine maven for her circle of friends. (A dad can be so proud.) She looked up from her glass and asked, “Dad, is this wine corked?”
In the hour or so since I decanted it, the wine had seen enough air and warmed up by 15° or so, which released more of the aromatics. The TCA level was low, but she caught it. After a few more sniffs and sips, I agreed. I missed it at home, probably by not pouring a sip before refilling the bottle. I ordered a nice Casa Lapostolle Syrah off the list.
Earlier that week, in a tasting with Chris Camarda of Andrew Will winery, one of his 2006 wines seemed less expressive than expected. It was still a good wine, but it lacked the richness and depth that his other wines showed. Chris agreed that it wasn’t what it should be. At first he thought it was just going through a tight phase, but after a while he agreed that it was affected by a low level of TCA.
Both incidents illustrate just how insidious cork taint can be. The blatantly corky bottles are easy to spot. It’s the ones that are in the gray area, that some of us can identify and others not. That’s what happened to Jim and his friends in Las Vegas. Good sommeliers know this, and will cut us some slack if we don’t pick up a problem right away. Obviously the guy in Las Vegas had a different agenda.
Badly tainted wines are easy to spot and replace. Most confounding are the iffy ones that we experienced wine drinkers can spot, if we’re on our game, but most people would just write off as wines they don’t like. In my book, that’s the worst effect of a bad cork.
Troy Peterson — Burbank, CA — January 21, 2009 4:23pm ET
Karl Mark — Geneva, IL. — January 21, 2009 4:48pm ET
Larry Schaffer — central coast, ca — January 21, 2009 5:06pm ET
Kasey A Carpenter — Fort Worth, Texas — January 21, 2009 8:05pm ET
Fred Brown — January 21, 2009 8:27pm ET
Harvey Steiman — San Francisco, CA — January 21, 2009 8:51pm ET
James Peterson — San Antonio, Texas — January 21, 2009 11:01pm ET
Adam Wallstein — Spokane — January 22, 2009 10:36am ET
Matthew Lo — Zurich, Switzerland — January 22, 2009 2:04pm ET
Harvey Steiman — San Francisco, CA — January 22, 2009 2:13pm ET
Kathy Marcks Hardesty — Pismo Beach, California — January 22, 2009 9:36pm ET
Noel Bonisch — New Zealand — January 22, 2009 10:04pm ET
Jennifer Awbrey — Austin, Tx — January 23, 2009 5:31am ET
Harvey Steiman — San Francisco, CA — January 23, 2009 11:34am ET
Kasey A Carpenter — Fort Worth, Texas — January 23, 2009 8:54pm ET
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