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The Twist Goes On

Incidences of cork taint remained low in 2016, while twisties held strong
Photo by: Greg Gorman

Posted: Jan 27, 2017 10:05am ET

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

2015: 2.63 percent tainted

2014: 4.53 percent tainted

2013: 4.28 percent tainted

2012: 3.73 percent tainted

2011: 3.87 percent tainted

2010: 4.76 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

David Ramey
Healdsburg, CA —  January 27, 2017 4:29pm ET
Jim, you don't mention Diam...
Howard Mozeico
Oregon —  January 27, 2017 5:12pm ET
Just curious, how many wines as a percentage of those tasted WITHOUT corks were flagged for suspicion of some kind of flaw?
Howard Mozeico
Oregon —  January 28, 2017 1:26pm ET
Just curious, how many wines as a percentage of those tasted WITHOUT corks were flagged for suspicion of some kind of flaw?
Gus Weed
Napa, CA —  January 31, 2017 6:49pm ET

I am the tasting coordinator at the Napa office. I can field that question for Jim.

In 2016, Wine Spectator editors tasted more than 1,700 wines under screw cap in our Napa office. Less than 3 percent of those wines were marked for retaste, for a variety of reasons, with only a handful suspected of being flawed, typically due to oxidation.

Augustus Weed
Tasting Coordinator
James Gerace
Phoenix, AZ, USA —  February 1, 2017 8:43am ET
I am blessed or cursed with an extra sensitive sense of smell and taste and find the percentage of flawed wines at least twice as often as you reported. Have noted at gatherings that there are folks "enjoying" badly corked wines, not to mention the mildly flawed ones. We also drink lots of champagne and sparkling wines and rarely encounter corked or other flaws in them.
Tim Mc Donald
Napa, CA USA —  February 1, 2017 1:17pm ET
Jim, I always enjoy your thoughtful annual closure commentary and I agree that twisties are a top choice and a good one for closure solutions. We are closer to a TCA free world with twist off twist on toppers that they now represent a 1/4 of the total global wines evaluated in the offices of Wine Spectator. While I applaud the innovation, as a daily wine consumer, I am still not happy with a 3-4% failure rate on natural cork when there are such great closure options for vintners. Curious why you did not mention the designer corks whether they are agglomerated types (like all the sparkling stoppers) brands like Diam, Suber, Vink to name a few. How about plant based closures used by smart Vignerons like Pam Starr, J. Lohr, Eberle, Ken Wright, Poe, Wind Gap, Sea Smoke, Hess, Hardy Wallace, among others? Both have zero-defect claims with regards to TCA and represent real innovation in the closure solution world. Both even have OTR oxygen transfer rate options. Twisties are better but not always best...can you say reduction? Full transparency, I have done some consulting work with closure solution producers where I have learned about every available wine topper. I did pour a couple of cellared bottles down the drain over the weekend....both rated 90+ in WS - one from Italy the other Napa. If only they had been topped with a twistie, Noma Green Cork or an agglomerated closure...
Wimberly Miree
Birmingham, AL, USA —  February 2, 2017 1:47pm ET
My personal experience reflects the trend of reduction in incidences of "corked" wine, and I highly compliment the industry for addressing this problem. I have to admit that my collection is much more (almost exclusively) tilted to very high quality wines, and I suspect that explains why my long-term experience has shown many fewer incidents of corkiness than your tests, which I assume includes a greater representation of the entire range of qualities. I stand ready to be corrected if that is not the case. Also, while I am a very experienced taster of over 50 years and thousands of bottles of wine, I may not be as sensitive to corkiness as the average person. However, I am usually one of the first to notice it in group tastings.
James Laube
Napa —  February 2, 2017 6:08pm ET
James, many believe there are more *corked* sparkling wines/Champagnes, so count your blessings.
James Laube
Napa —  February 2, 2017 6:10pm ET
Wimberly, our experience is the opposite, that is the high-priced wines have a higher incidence of TCA taint...

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