Now that we've finished our annual look back at cork performance in Wine Spectator's Napa office blind tastings from the past year, it appears the incidence of cork taint has remained near last year's all-time low.
Meantime, the ranks of those seeking alternatives to natural cork (the most popular of which being twist-offs) are rising, if ever modestly.
Cork manufacturers say that the quality of corks is improving, largely thanks to more rigorous factory inspections and increasingly state-of-the-art technologies. But more vintners are choosing twist-offs than ever before: About 25 percent of the wines submitted for review in 2015 and 2016 were bottled under screwcap.
In 2016, our tasters (myself included), who review all wines blind, flagged 3.83 percent of all cork-finished wines for suspicion of some kind of flaw, usually it's TCA. That's not far off from last year's all-time low of 3.5 percent. ("Suspicion" is the key word here-we don't send the questionable corks or wines to be tested by a lab.)
Cork-finished wines from California, however, showed a gain in suspected TCA taint, at 3.3 percent, up from last year's low of 2.6 percent.
TCA-related cork taint is usually obvious. Tainted, or "corked," wines display pungent mold, damp basement and chlorine odors. Low-level TCA is harder to detect—it diminishes a wine's expressiveness, muting or dulling its flavors and body—and perhaps even more insidious: We all know the culprit when a wine is obviously corked, but a wine with just a touch of TCA might be written off as just simple and boring.
Of the 6,769 wines reviewed in our Napa office last year, 5,065 were bottled under cork; of those, 194 were flagged for retasting.
Our tastings here include wines from California (at 3,487 wines in 2016, the largest category), Australia, New Zealand, Oregon and Washington. New Zealand leads the way with twisties, at about 90 percent, and whites and rosés account for most of the twist-offs overall.
Ever since the spotlight hit TCA taint in the 1980s, many closures have been tried. First there were synthetics, then twist-offs gained popularity, taking the largest share among alternatives. They're increasingly favored for early-drinking whites such as Sauvignon Blanc, as well as rosés, and, to a much less extent, reds like Pinot Noir. It's a reflection of vintners' and consumers' approval.
But no matter where you stand on the issue of closures, twist-offs are the clear winner when it comes to the frequency of flawed wines.
Suspected Cork Taint Rate in Wine Spectator's Blind California Wine Tastings
2016: 3.27 percent tainted
2014: 4.53 percent tainted
2007: 9.5 percent tainted
2006: 7.0 percent tainted
2005: 7.5 percent tainted