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Final Thoughts on Cork Taint

Photo by: Greg Gorman

Posted: Apr 21, 2008 1:59pm ET

Cork taint can be a can of worms.

Several readers have accurately addressed most of the questions posed here since Friday's blog entry, "Corks Worse Problem as Price Increases."

Daniel points out that Wine Spectator has covered cork-related issues extensively, not only in the context of TCA-infected corks, but also about instances of entire wineries having been affected.

Chris addresses the moldy newspaper character that often accompanies badly corked wines, and the fact that detection is a matter of thresholds (as are many things in wine, whether it’s perceived flaws such as brettanomyces, volatile acidity, or excessive oak, acidity, tannins, bitterness or sweetness). Some people pick up TCA at impossibly low levels; some only when a wine is undrinkable.

Frank says that cork taint occasionally manifests as an herbal, green olive or earthy flavor, occasionally confused with terroir, the good kind of earthy. TCA tastes very bitter and chalky, like biting into an aspirin.

Brian and others correctly point out that we have several ways to measure cork taint, which isn’t always TCA. We’ve used labs—I’m guessing that the number of tested bottles is in the hundreds—most of the time the tests have indicated some level of TCA. Other times they have shown other taints.

At Wine Spectator, we taste multiple bottles, and when one wine is corked and the other fine, that seems to demonstrate that the cork, and not the wine, is the issue. We also can smell corked bottles when they’re opened (by our tasting staff) and for a long time, when we’ve encountered corked wines, we smell the cork itself, which usually points to the problem. Indeed there are many instances when the combination of brett and bad cork makes it a coin toss as to which is the worse flaw.

Chris also is correct that poor corks can lead to oxidation, yet by tasting a second (or third) bottle, we can determine whether cork might be to blame, or eliminate cork entirely.

To Michael and Bill: I'm not sure if automation or machine-loaded corks are a factor, nor am I sure about whether the more expensive corks are tested; this varies from winery to winery.

I'm not sure either how random TCA taint is. I'm aware of the problems encountered years ago by David Bruce (as chronicled in George M. Taber’s book, To Cork or Not to Cork: Tradition, Romance, Science, and the Battle for the Wine Bottle). And winery owners have told me they’ve had 25 percent of an entire vintage ruined by what they described as TCA-laced corks (yet they’ve still stuck with corks). But as I understand it, it’s not likely you would find more than one corked bottle per case, unless the entire lot of corks had been exposed to taint.

Jay, those of us who review wines know that bottle variation, regardless of the cause, can explain why one critic may rave about a wine that others might simply think is ordinary.

I also believe there is still some cellar-related TCA taint in wine. Many old cellars have plenty of molds and have been cleaned using chlorine, which can create the ideal conditions for systemic TCA taint.

Jonathan, the time a cork spends in a bottle doesn’t seem to be a factor. I’ve tried wines submitted as barrel samples that were bottled that very day that were tainted by TCA, meaning that it happened almost immediately.

Christy, we’ve had very few problems with twist-offs. Most common has been what we think was heat damage, that is, a bottle or two from one shipment tastes cooked, but subsequent bottles are fresh. I would also agree that not all bad-tasting wines’ corks are tainted by TCA, which is why we don’t attempt to assign a specific blame. Some corks are simply moldy, or dirty, wherein the term "corked" simply means a bad cork, not necessarily TCA. Synthetics are suspect too, as they show signs of bottle variation within a year or two of release. And yes, some twist-offs have had a reduced quality.

Hugh worries about encountering a corked bottle that’s been cellared, which may leave the consumer out of luck as far as getting a replacement from most wineries. Moreover, the wines you want to age the longest run the risk of the cork expiring (as in, breaking, crumbling or leaking) with time.

Ken, my guess is that your guess is right: You open a special bottle that’s been highly rated and wonder what all the fuss is about—no flavor, green, bitter, muted—probably a bad cork or poor storage. Sometimes the "corky" quality becomes more notable with air; we sometimes keep wines we suspect are off overnight, and the next day they reveal the flaws.

Cork failure is a serious problem. Consumers are owed wines that are not flawed by their seals. The industry knows how big a problem cork failure is, but as long as consumers continue to let them of the hook, they aren't going to fix it. They also fear that customers might stop drinking their wines if they use alternatives, and understand that some people feel that cork is the romantic, traditional seal that has the magic pop when it’s opened. I like the romance, tradition and pop, too, but have had too many good wines spoiled to cling to what is a flawed closure. I would have no problem with corks if they did their job.

Andrew J Walter
Sacramento,CA —  April 21, 2008 6:20pm ET
Amen...I'll take pretty much all my wines bottled under screw cap please. Thanks for your work on this subject
Karl Mark
Geneva, IL. —  April 21, 2008 6:48pm ET
Jordan Horoschak
Houston, TX —  April 21, 2008 6:57pm ET
James, excellent work and you covered this topic very thoroughly - we appreciate it. Do you know of a way to artificially cork a wine? For example, if you wanted to show someone the difference in a side-by-side comparison of a fresh wine and corked wine, is there a way to contaminate just one glass to replicate what it might smell like if it had been corked? Maybe adding a very small drop of bleach? (Obviously, not to drink!).
Roy Piper
April 21, 2008 7:43pm ET
The fact that one in eight of the top wines were corked is to me the statistic that stands out the most. If this is the best that can be done at the highest level, then cork's days may be numbered. And what is interesting is that the taint rate is essentially unchanged over the last several years despite all sorts of new tricks I have heard of to try and eliminate the problem. I hope WS keeps consumers up to date with this issue, as it is of great interest to both makers and collectors.
Tony Lombardi
Petaluma, CA —  April 21, 2008 7:56pm ET
Bring 'em on! Another highly regarded opinionmaker said, "I believe wines bottled with corks will be in the minority by 2015."
Jim Gallagher
Jim Gallagher —  April 21, 2008 9:29pm ET
I like Whitehall Lane's solution of a glass plug that is easily twisted to remove. It seems to be less of a change than typical screw cap twist offs. The bottles I have opened have been fine, I have no idea how they will do over the long term.
Don Rauba
Schaumburg, IL —  April 21, 2008 11:43pm ET
I like any alternative closure that's not cork.

In addition, I prefer the cell phone to the phone booth, remastered CDs to scratchy vinyl and cable TV to broadcast.
Steve Ritchie
Atlanta, GA —  April 22, 2008 8:21am ET
Thank you, James, for dealing with the vigorous objections and sticking to your guns on this one. I am still amazed that in a world where every other product must deliver 99%+ quality, we wine lovers defend an obsolete technology that fails 10+% of the time. What also amazes me is that the cork fans worry so much about the "potential" of taint from the Stelvin cap (still unproven) and are so blind to the well-documented failures of cork. Keep up the good fight!
Hugh L Sutherland Jr-m
miramar beach, fl —  April 22, 2008 9:57am ET
It is encouraging to see the less expensive wines using screw caps. The drinkers of these will be the drinkers of the more expensive wines later as they move to better quality wines. They will be the ones that demand better quality wine. It is disappointing that more of the wineries have not followed the experimentation that Plumb Jack has. More discussions and comments like these may sometime in the future convince wineries to give up the idea that the customers don't matter.
Ted Henry
Napa, CA —  April 22, 2008 6:21pm ET
Jim, I still think that big reds will not age as well under screwcap. Have you done a side by side tasting of the 1997 reserve cab from Plumpjack? Please do and let us know!
Jordan Horoschak
Houston, TX —  April 22, 2008 7:55pm ET
Ted, Harvey Steiman did a cork vs. screwcap tasting of Plumpjack at the Pebble Beach Food & Wine and blogged about it. In general, he and the crowd couldn't consistently determine which closure was used on the wine - i.e. there is no difference between cork and screwcap (at least for those wines and for those vintages tasted).
Tim Mc Donald
Napa,CA —  April 24, 2008 12:30pm ET
Jim, Great recap of why it makes sense to keep up the effort on pushing for zero-defect closures. If the problem with natural corks is not fixed, we all have to continue the fight. The answer is in front of us...it is called choice. No matter whether the closure is made out of glass, a synthetic, the screw-cap or crown, a zork or a technical cork. They all have the guarantee of no corked wine. Even the box/bag is becoming more popular. I tasted around 250 bottles this past weekend and I know that the problem is yet to be fixed although it seems to have improved considerably. Keep up the noble fight on perfect closures. Cheers,Tim
James Laube
Napa, CA —  April 24, 2008 12:35pm ET
Tim, I suppose you were judging at a wine competition (and not opening 250 bottles at home...?;-) Do the judges keep count of corked bottles? What percentage of the wines were rejected? If wine competitions kept track, that too would be good random measure of failed corks and at what different price points.
Tim Mc Donald
Napa,CA —  April 28, 2008 8:22pm ET
Jim, I do keep track and I know that some judges may also but, most judges I would guess do not. Only a couple of wine competitions keep a little bit of stats on this flaw issue. My percentage is somewhere between 1 and 2 percent, however, the total is no longer just cork finished so it is not a good number. Five to ten years ago I recall it was nearly 10 percent (when most wines wee sealed with cork). Maybe that is why like you, I have been an advocate of zero defect closures. I do feel that cork performance has improved dramatically the past few years, however I do like the fact that there is a choice for wine producers and the wine consumer is the clear winner as they can enjoy a lower level of problems in their wines.

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