The quality of corks appears to be taking a turn for the better. For the second year in a row, we encountered fewer "corked" bottles in blind tastings in Wine Spectator's Napa office than we did in the previous year.
When we taste blind, we keep track of wines we think have cork taint, marking down any bottles that show the musty, moldy flavor often caused by 2,4,6-trichloranisole in the cork. This isn't a scientific analysis; we don't test every wine for TCA. But when we retaste a second bottle of the suspect wine, we usually find that the wine itself was sound.
In 2011, out of roughly 3,100 bottles of California wine topped with cork (another 269 were topped with twist-offs), the percentage of "corked" wines dropped to 3.8 from 4.8 in 2010—making it the best year since we started tracking this. In 2009, nearly 7 percent of the wines were corked, and in 2007, it was 9.5 percent. An 8 percent rate would be equivalent to nearly one bottle a case, which is horrible.
Cork taint is a complicated matter at many levels (you can read more about it in this piece on TCA and one of my previous columns on the subject). Each of us has a different threshold or tolerance for TCA taint; some people are immune to it, while some pick it up at very low levels.
TCA isn’t harmful to your health, but “corked” wines are the bane of wine drinkers—good money down the drain. They’re bad news for producers, too, since low-level cork taint, which doesn’t obviously appear to be taint, can strip a wine of its flavor, making you wonder if the wine was any good to begin with.
If you’re new to wine or this subject, flawed corks are but one main reason many producers have switched to alternative closures, the most popular being twist-offs. More wineries are turning to twisties for wines that are usually consumed shortly after bottling, such as Sauvignon Blanc.
A “corked” bottle can spoil a meal or event where a special wine was intended to be served, or ruin the last or only bottle of a wine you have. I suppose the best place to encounter a corked wine is in a restaurant, where you’re more likely to obtain a replacement.
If you do encounter a cork-tainted wine, you may or may not have recourse. I suggest you either return the bottle where you purchased it (if you still have the receipt) and/or notify the producer. Most producers will replace a spoiled bottle. But even those who won’t replace a “corked” bottle should be made aware of the problem. That’s how the whole matter of cork taint came to the level of awareness it has in the past two decades.
So in fairness to cork producers, the trending is good, but far from perfect. Cork producers claim the incidence of TCA taint is now at or below 1 percent overall. That still bothers me. But maybe that’s an acceptable level. You tell me. I’ve had enough great wines ruined by flawed corks to last a lifetime.