Corked wine ~ Wine Faults ~ Part 2

Corked Wine - the only true wine fault

The smell of a wet dog is often associated with the wine fault, cork taint or corked wine. Other terms used to describe it are damp cellar, wet cardboard, mushrooms, wet newspaper, musty and mouldy. Cork taint is actually quite a difficult aroma to describe. Personally I think of it as a strong aroma of dusty cork.

At even quite low levels it can render a wine undrinkable; although not harmful, the corked wine will generally be best poured down the sink or returned to the wine retailer. If you think the wine served to you in a restaurant is corked, complain to the sommelier - he or she should not have served it to you in the first place.

For this reason and, as mentioned in my blog on more minor wine faults, cork taint is considered the only true wine fault. For many years no-one really knew the whole story around corked wine with the cork industry taking the brunt of the blame but it is only in recent years that the whole truth has been uncovered.


The scientific bit about corked wine

Cork taint is contamination caused in the main by 2, 4, 6-trichloroanisole (known as TCA). This compound is generated when phenolics in cork or in wood react with chlorine found in disinfectants, pesticides or wood treatments used in the winery and the resulting compound in turn reacts with damp fungi or mould.

Contrary to popular belief in the wine industry for many years, it is not just cork that can be responsible for cork taint. Wooden barrels or even in wood in the winery structure or equipment can harbour these naturally-occurring phenols and moulds and so TCA can even affect bottles of wine that are sealed with synthetic corks or screwcaps, though the chances of it occurring are reduced. TCA is also one of the reasons why barrels may be toasted before use in the winery.


Corked wine characteristics

A wine affected by TCA smells musty and the fruit flavours and aromas of the wine are usually slightly or completely flattened. Red wines, white wines, sparkling wines and fortified wines can all be affected; TCA has no preference but is slightly easier to detect in dry white and sparkling wines than in red and fortified wines. 

The remedy for corked wine?

Unfortunately there is nothing that can be done to improve a corked bottle of wine. And unlike some other aromas, the wine will not improve by swirling or decanting; cork taint will just get worse in contact with air. It is also difficult for wineries to avoid but, with the risk of whole batches of their wine being ruined, producers of quality wine have moved away from chlorinated products to hydrogen-peroxide-based cleaning solutions since that is something that they can control.

The extent of cork taint

I was once told that 1 in 12 bottles were affected by TCA. I'm not sure that I ever believed that number but from personal experience I would say that occurrences of the problem have become much less frequent. Recent figures I have read based on scientific studies suggest that these days less than 2% of wines have TCA, though to some wine lovers the contamination may be too slight to detect or may be masked by other faults such as oxidation (which will be covered in Part 3 of my Wine Faults series).

If you ever get the chance to smell a corked wine, take a gentle sniff so that you can recognise the smell in the future. Some people are more sensitive to the smell than others but for most people, once you have smelt a truly corked wine, you will not forget the smell, however you may wish to describe it!


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Lindsay Cornelissen DipWSET is passionate about good quality wine and set up Wines With Attitude to share that passion with other wine lovers.

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