Bodegas Vega Sicilia, maker of some of Spain's most prestigious and expensive wines, recently issued a recall of its 1994 Valbuena 5.0 Reserva after discovering a problem with trichloroanisole taint, which causes "corkiness" in wines. The cost of the recall is estimated at about $3 million. However, few distributors or consumers have returned any wine.
The problem of TCA taint, which does not pose any health hazards, manifests itself as a musty odor, often described as reminiscent of wet, moldy newspapers.
At Vega Sicilia, the TCA taint was first detected by winery personnel, who noticed an unacceptable level of variation from bottle to bottle of the 1994 Valbuena. At first, it was feared that the problem might stem from wood treatments used in the $8 million renovation started on the bodega's cellars in May 1998. (SeeWood Preservatives Blamed for Corky French Wines.)
However, after exhaustive testing of the winery, only negligible amounts of contaminants were found in the cellar. The testing was conducted by an influential consultant on the subject, Pascal Chatonnet, an enologist at the University of Bordeaux.
"We analyzed several different wines from several different vintages and found small traces of TCA taint in just one wine [the 1994 Valbuena]," said Chatonnet. "The cellar itself had minimal traces of TCA, so we then tested the corks. We found supplies of cork from three of the bodega's cork suppliers to be clean and two that were inconsistent, and this is where we think the problem is."
Since the corks from all of the suppliers had been commingled, the bodega could not recall specific lots of the wine and thus issued a recall of the entire production run. Yet despite the recall, few American distributors or European consumers (the Bodega markets directly to private customers in Europe) returned any wine. Only about 1,000 bottles have been returned out of the 130,000 bottles the winery released.
Since the corkiness problem appears to affect only a small percentage of the 1994 Valbuena, it seems that most people would rather take their chances on having a tainted wine than return the expensive and rare bottling. The wine received a score of 94 points on Wine Spectator's 100-point scale when reviewed in the Nov. 15 issue. After learning about the recall, Wine Spectator staff bought another bottle at retail for tasting and found it consistent with the original review, with no trace of taint.
"Basically, the chances of getting a tainted bottle aren't much more than the normal overall chances of getting a corky bottle. It wasn't a question of a widespread problem, but rather one where the winery felt its reputation was at stake," said Todd Helmus of Europvin, the U.S. importer of Vega Sicilia.
The winery offered to replace the 1994 Valbuena with the 1995 Valbuena, which has not yet been released, and an early release of their 1996 Alion The Alion would be labeled "crianza" rather than its normal "reserva" designation due to the shorter aging period. Alion, which retails for about $35 compared to Valbuena's $70, has been rated outstanding by Wine Spectator in four of its five vintages since it debuted, in 1991.
In the meantime, Vega Sicilia continues to have Chatonnet monitor its cellar, for TCA. Working with its cork suppliers, the bodega instituted quality-control measures both prior to and following shipments of corks. The winery also stopped purchasing corks from the two purveyors whose supplies were found to have incidents of TCA taint.
Chatonnet said, "If we want to keep the cork as a traditional way of stoppering the bottle, the cork industry needs a small [quality] revolution. Right now it is very important that the wineries are aware of this."
For more about cellar contamination:
For more on the issue of cork taint: