Cork taint is not a fun issue for the wine industry to deal with. Cork producers have their business threatened by it. For wineries, the product they've worked hard to get from vine to bottle is threatened by it. For consumers, the product they've paid money for is threatened by it.
In tasting wines for review, I come across cork-tainted wines all the time. The wine is always then retasted from a second bottle—assuming it's a clean bottle, I'll base my opinion on the wine then.
Sometimes, however, wines show a consistent cork taint over several bottles. Then I have to dig a little deeper. It's never pleasant, but it's part of what we do. I've written before on the "cellar funk" problems at some South American wineries, as well as a TCA-taint induced recall of wines from Spain's Vega Sicilia. My colleague James Laube certainly has his share of stories to tell also. For more on cork taint, you can reference background here.
Recently I came across three consecutive bottles of Le Cheval Fou Hermitage White 2007 that all showed a whiff of the musty, tanky aromas that signal TCA taint. I had the third bottle tested by a lab, which found TCA at 2 parts per trillion (ppt), a threshold where trained tasters can detect the flaw.
Two additional bottles were then run through my blind tastings and turned out fine. I rated both of the bottles 89 points, with very similar tasting notes. Consequently, my official review of the wine will be based on the clean bottles, as it's obvious not all the bottles produced are corky. Still, three corkers in a row is a bit of a red flag.
Le Cheval Fou is a new boutique label from John Schwartz, co-owner of Napa Valley's Amuse Bouche winery. Partnering with Danielle Price, wine director at the Wynn Las Vegas properties, Schwartz selects barrels of Hermitage from the stocks of Ferraton Père & Fils, an Hermitage-based winery owned by Michel Chapoutier. The Chapoutier technical team makes the wines; Schwartz handles labeling and shipping of the wines to his private client base. The Hermitage White 2007 is the debut release for the wine; a red cuvée debuted in the 2005 vintage. (I rated the 2006 at 89 points).
"When you work with cork, there's always a risk," said Schwartz. "That's a fact of doing business with cork."
After advising Schwartz of my findings, he went back and opened an additional 12 bottles of the wine and found some that he thought might be problematic. The samples he sent off for testing came back with a reading of 0.8 ppt, below the threshold of perception for most people.
Schwartz did not want to comment specifically on my findings with the wine, pending his reviewing everything from production to end product to see what issues there might be. He did stress that he was certainly looking into the matter with serious intent and that he had never had any cork taint issues with either wines from Le Cheval Fou or Amuse Bouche before my red flag.
My gut tells me that a batch of corks is the culprit, rather than any problems at the winery itself. The Chapoutier technical team fastidiously checks for TCA in its facilities on a regular basis and claims the wineries are clean. Having visited both the Ferraton and M. Chapoutier facilities on several occasions, I have never caught a whiff of any possible TCA, nor have I ever had any noticeable cork issues with Chapoutier or Ferraton wines.
With just 225 cases produced of the Le Cheval Fou '07 white, however, a handful of faulty corks suddenly become a noticeable percentage of bad bottles. That's a major headache for a small operation to deal with. With a retail price of $125 per bottle for the wine, it's a significant headache for the consumer as well if they happen to get a bad bottle.
"It's very frustrating, because corks are out of our quality control process. We control the wine, the barrels, the atmospheric conditions in the winery. The wine is quality controlled at every stage before bottling and we have a process that checks every month," said Gregory Viennois, the technical director for all of the Chapoutier wines who also oversees the production for Schwartz' Le Cheval Fou label. "But after it goes into the bottle, with a cork, all of that can be ruined."
Though TCA taint can come from other sources, the cork is the weakest link in the chain. Because of the threat cork taint brings to the wine industry, cork manufacturers have had to retool their production and quality-control processes over the years to combat the issue.
"It's a combination of preventative and curative measures," said Carlos de Jesus, the communications director for Amorim, a high-end cork producer. "When you're dealing with something that gets measured in nanograms, that combination of layers is needed."
Gas chromatography, which can measure for possible TCA taint during the production process, is the most effective preventative weapon, detecting TCA at below-human threshold levels so that offending material can be removed from the production process. Amorim also has wholly-owned subsidiaries in every market they do business with. These subsidiaries receive the semi-finished cork product for eventual branding and delivery, thus ensuring Amorim maintains its own quality control as long as it possibly can along the production and delivery chain.
"Are we delivering more corks with fewer problems? Yes," said de Jesus. "But we can't offer a blanket guarantee of perfection."
Cork taint remains a significant problem for the wine industry. It's not a pleasant issue to deal with from the perspective of the winery, the cork producer or the consumer. But it is one that needs to be discussed by all the parties involved. And they should all keep in mind that it's not a "blame game"—It's a "let's get it fixed" game.
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