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Corky Wines Are Not Always Due to the Cork

Posted: Jan 17, 2007 3:24pm ET

I tasted a couple dozen California reds yesterday with James Laube and Tim Fish in Wine Spectator's Napa office, and I was struck by how many of the reds seemed slightly off or tainted. Most of the wines were Napa Valley Cabernets, but we also tasted Cabs from Sonoma. Granted, we weren’t tasting cult or big-name Cabs. But the wines were just not singing in my opinion, and we ended up retasting about one in three bottles—not a typical number for one of their tastings. It was like listening to music from blown speakers or something. Anyway, when we retasted the wines, most seemed a little better.

In my tastings in my office in Tuscany, I probably retaste 10 or 15 percent of the Italian wines I review. The percentage is even lower with Bordeaux. Most of the time I retaste because a wine is merely a bit dull, not showing true "corkiness," aka, that wet cardboard characteristic caused by 2,4,6-trichloroanisole, or TCA, which is commonly cited as the substance responsible for producing corky wines.

Yesterday’s unusual experience and Laube's recent blog on systemic TCA taint made me think about the problem that many European producers had with "corkiness" in the 1990s. It motivated me to dig up a story I wrote on TCA problems in French wines in 1999. A lot of the "corkiness" problems at the time were due to the chemically-treated wood being used in wineries for cellar construction, wine bottle bins and other purposes. Now European producers, particularly in Bordeaux, are paying much closer attention to their cellars than in the past to ensure that they don’t have problems with contaminants such as TCA, TBA or related chemicals that could lead to taint in their wines.

I think that many problems producers elsewhere have with "corky" wines have nothing to do with the cork itself, but with problems in wineries. I wonder if something like that is going on in California?

I dug up my notes from that 1999 story, which I had on my laptop, and found a quote from a cork producer about the problem that never made it into the final article: “Our experience suggests that external contaminants are responsible for more than 80 percent of the problems associated with corky bottles,” said Mario Borges of Juvenal Ferreira de Silva, a cork producer and exporter. “Our production of cork products is very rigorous in quality control and we have no cork taints in the products we sell.

“The problem with wooden palettes and other treated wood in cellars is one of the biggest external contaminants in wines. The others include such things as badly cleaned bottles, poor storage conditions, improperly run bottling lines. They all contribute to the corky taste of wines,” he added.

Obviously, a cork producer is going to take this line, but it’s still something to think about. A lot can go wrong with a wine and cork in the cellar if a winemaker isn’t careful ...

Dr J Rosenblatt
Montreal, Canada —  January 17, 2007 5:51pm ET
James, you rated the 2001 Montosoli Brunello (Altesino) a "96", but there have been much lower ratings from WA and WE (much lower and inconsistent ratings in the mid-80's). Could this be due to a problem with the vineyard for this vintage. I am considering investing in a few cases of this traditional monster, but have some concerns, given the very different ratings.
James Suckling
 —  January 17, 2007 7:06pm ET
I really like the wine. And I bought some myself. So what can I say? I think the others got it wrong. As I remember, the wine is very closed and tight right now -- as it should be.
Dr J Rosenblatt
Montreal, Canada —  January 17, 2007 10:00pm ET
Thanks for the confirmation. Much appreciated. I'll go with your call...
Mark Kurz
Yokohama, Japan —  January 17, 2007 10:57pm ET
James - the list of non-cork reasons for corky wines should apply to screw tops also....poor storage, poor bottle cleanliness, etc. However, the screwtop could be more robust protection against these other non-cork problems....treated wooden pallets, cellar wood, etc. The cork might not be the root cause of the contaminant, but it could still be an enabler by not protecting the wine. I don't have a bias for corks or screwtops, and the debate gets pretty tired for me....can't some PhD thesis put this to rest with true chemical analysis with a good statistical sample size. The Ginger vs MaryAnn or Wilma vs Betty debates are much more entertaining.
Martin Stoevesandt
Germany —  January 18, 2007 11:28am ET
Hi James,I believe there is a similar problem in California. The most famous wine with such a problem being BV. But if you ask me, a lot of Chateau Montelena's wines have the same problem. If you have a real cork problem it will not go away with decanting. To figure out whether it's reall or not I learned to add a little water to an equal amount of wine. If it stinks more, it's the real deal, if not, it is probably something else. Other than cork-contaminated wines get often better after a couple of hours. Just try anything from Ducru Beaucalliou between 1970 and 1995, it's terrible for two hours and then recovers. They remodelled the cellar in 96. Now the wines are fine. Many Figeacs' from the eighties and nienties have the same problem. A very famous Californian wine, which seems to be tainted is 85 Heitz Marthas Vineyard, of which I had one great bottle and participated in about 6 to 8 less remarkable somewhat musty bottles. All in all, I had many more bottles tainted by something other than the cork, than by the cork.Martin
Joseph Byrne
Gardiner NY —  January 18, 2007 1:59pm ET
James, Were any of these wines you tasted, screwcaps. If they were, it could indicate the process in making the wines is at fault. Only screwcaps I had that are at fault are from high levels of hydrogen sulfide and that is a mistake of the winemaker and they are not "moldy" like TCA. Cork is and will always be the biggest contributor to TCA and hinting it on the wine making environment deflects where the real problem is.Thanks Joe
John B Vlahos
Cupertino Ca. —  January 18, 2007 3:11pm ET
James, you bring up an interisting point about contaminants. In Dec. of 2005 I attended a tasting of burgundies from France. Two hundred different wines were available for the trade. I had occasion to taste about sixty wines over a four hour period, and noticed that most of the wines reminded me of old barrels; some even had a slighty musty aorma. The tasting booklet that was furnished to us listed each wine and gave some details of its character and makeup. In only three of the two hundred wines listed was it indicated that new barrels were used in the making. The others were silent on the subject. By the taste it seemed obvious that old barrels were prdominately in use. This might explain the slight musty aroma, and other odors, in most of the wines. Do the French consider this a desirable characteristic?
Kirk R Grant
Ellsworth, ME —  January 18, 2007 4:30pm ET
James, I am writing a purchasing report & analysis for the 5 first growths for a paper in college. Part of the assignment is to interview 'a credible expert in the field' I was wondering if it might be possible to email you my questions and do an online interview of sorts? The paper isn¿t due for two months¿but I wanted to try to nail down the areas that might be the hardest parts first. The alternative is to simply do a purchase report on a car like 90% of the class, however I try to put my effort into something I find interesting whenever possible. Thanks for your time¿
Pascal Valadier
Portland, Oregon —  January 28, 2007 4:39pm ET
Finally read this great article. I am a winemaker up in Oregon, and I work very hard to avoid all of the contaminants you have mentioned in this eye opening blog on this sour subject for the industry as a whole. Choice of wood products used beside barrels are many in the industry; paletts, bins, barrel racks, etc... Two other contaminants I have experienced are the use of treated city water. It is treated with chlorine, so I avoid to use it if I can or have it filtered to remove as much chlorine as I can. The other one is the use of clorine cleaners in the cellar, floor mainly. Since paying close attention to this contaminants, I have been able to see that corkage in the wines I bottled significantly diminished (I have not tracked it quantitatively by lack of time and resources that most small wineries have). In the past 30 years, cork producers have invest large amounts of fund into the problem, and have done a great job in lowering significantly the occurrence of TCA. Cork being a natural product, they can't take it down to zero, even if they try to, but they are doing a great job.On top of all this, I have tasted wines that had the "corky" flavors that were not corked with natural corks but screw caps and synthetic corks.It really is time to look closer to all the other possibilities when it come to Chlorine related problem in wines. After all the C in TCA means chloro.

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