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Tainted Cork Woes

Corks are better than they used to be, but they'll never be perfect
Photo by: Greg Gorman

Posted: Jan 17, 2014 5:20pm ET

A reader who is also a winemaker asked me about a new brand of cork this week, Diam 30, whose makers claim it will hold up for 30 years and guarantee it to be free of TCA taint.

I'm skeptical that there will ever be a perfect cork. Corks will always introduce the risk of a spoiled wine.

Most winemakers readily acknowledge that cork taint is widespread, and most say they are inspecting their corks with greater regularity, backed up by a steady decline in TCA taint over the past 10 years. But only a few vintners address the issue by using alternatives like twist-offs. (Their ranks are growing, however, despite a rare few making the switch back from screw caps to corks).

Meantime, countless wine-drinking experiences are ruined each year. Maybe worse, many TCA-tainted wines are tasted by unsuspecting consumers who simply decide that they don't like the wine, as in, it's not a style of wine that appeals to them.

We've been keeping track of the number of California wines we suspect are flawed by cork taint in Wine Spectator's Napa office since 2005. In 2013, after five consecutive years of steady decline, the incidence of cork taint rose by about half a percentage point.

This past year, of the 4,347 California wines reviewed in blind tastings, 427 came under twist-offs, leaving 3,920 under cork, of which 167, or 4.26 percent, were suspected of TCA taint. It's nowhere near our high-water mark of 9.5 percent in 2007, but it's an increase nonetheless, and wine drinkers should be wary.

Cork Taint Rate in Wine Spectator's Blind California Wine Tastings

2013: 4.26 percent tainted

2012: 3.67 percent tainted

2011: 3.8 percent tainted

2010: 4.8 percent tainted

2009: 6.9 percent tainted

2008: 7.5 percent tainted

2007: 9.5 percent tainted

2006: 7.0 percent tainted

2005: 7.5 percent tainted

Andrew J Walter
Sacramento, CA —  January 17, 2014 8:13pm ET
what is the rate of twist off failure (reduction)?
Bernard Leveille
Winnipeg, Canada —  January 18, 2014 9:09am ET
Does anyone know of a publication in the "Scratch & Sniff" variety
that includes cork taint?
Carlos Feliz
CURITIBA, BRASIL —  January 20, 2014 8:37am ET
How do you know the taint comes from the corks and not from bad kept wineries?
Thomas Matthews
New York —  January 20, 2014 11:47am ET

You raise a good question; TCA taint has numerous sources besides corks. Wine Spectator retastes all wines that suggest TCA taint in our blind tastings, and if the second bottle is taint-free, we assume the source of the taint in the first was the cork. However, in some cases, multiple retastes of the same wine have all shown TCA, and then we must suspect a systemic source at the winery. We have brought our findings in some cases like this to the attention of the wineries, and some have untaken their own investigations, confirmed our suspicions and cleaned up their operations. That's win-win for both wineries and consumers.
Michael Schulman
Westlake Village, California —  January 21, 2014 6:43pm ET
It may only be about a half point increase, but that equates to a 16% increase in TCA over the previous year. Nobody flinches at half a point, but 16 points, yes. Can't say I've had many "reduced" wines from screw caps. I'm not a winemaker, but I buy a lot of wine. I'd like as much of my wine to be good when I open it as possible. I wish more "premium" wines offered Stelvin type tops. To those that tell me to "Go put a cork in it", I tell them "Getting screwed is better."
Don Rauba
Schaumburg, IL —  January 24, 2014 10:36am ET
Cork schmork!

I've said it before, but the real tragedy of cork is that it can (and does) rob you of "once in a lifetime" opportunities to taste wines that you dared to finance and waited patiently for, to mature. Even if the retailer or winery are more than willing to replace the product with another one, they will typically not be able to replace from the same vintage. That's the problem. I didn't wait patiently for the 2008, I waited for the 2002!
Dan Merry
Suffolk, England —  January 26, 2014 4:16am ET

I'm surprised you found 427 California wines with twist-offs. And a curious question: Which is more susceptible to taint, red or white?
Joseph C Warren
Oklahoma City, Ok —  January 28, 2014 3:02pm ET
I am drinking much more high end wine with the benefit of the Coravin system, and I suspect I am not alone. I wonder if that trend will further deter some winemakers from adopting non-cork closures?
James Zalenka
Pittsburgh, PA —  February 2, 2014 5:04pm ET
I'm okay with twist off closures, but the glass stopper is more elegant. Since air does get into the wine over time with cork seals, it does change the wine as it ages, mostly for the better in my experience. What will happen to a fine wine as it ages with one of the air tight stoppers? Should you even bother to lay down such a wine?

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