« Back to Articles

Put a cork in it?

By Debra Meiburg MW

Corked or corkiness are terms used to describe wine tainted by a sneaky compound called 2,4,6-Trichloroanisole, or for the scientifically impaired, TCA. When TCA and wine cozy up, the result is an unfortunate mustiness, like dank towels that should have been washed weeks ago or a stack of mildewy newspapers in your back hallway.

Conservative estimates suggest five percent of the world’s wines are corked — a defect level that would be unacceptable in most industries. After decades of ignoring complaints, the cork industry is scrambling to eradicate TCA, but in spite of sanitization techniques ranging from chemical treatments to beta-irradiation, cork purveyors still cannot ensure these little pieces of tree bark are taint free. Cork is, after all, a natural product.

Complete TCA eradication is impossible, argues the cork industry, because it is only later, through exposure to chlorine-based products, that harmless cork mold spores form the nasty TCA compound. While cork producers long ago ceased exposing their cork supplies to chlorinated products, this insidious chemical is pervasive, being used to bleach raw materials used in shipping palates, cardboard boxes and even the wood supporting winery walls.

Human sensitivity to corkiness varies, but most folks are able to detect TCA in infinitesimal concentrations, as low as six parts per trillion (6 ppt), which is the equivalent of a tenth of a finger nail in China – or forty hairs in Hong Kong. At lower levels (2-3 ppt) TCA will not be detected by 99% of the population as the musty character is greatly diminished; nevertheless, the wine is damaged. At these low levels, TCA gives the impression the wine is very austere, as though the fruit has been ‘flattened’ or ‘dumbed down’, which particularly irks winemakers as it drives unwitting consumers away from their brand.

In response, winemakers are increasingly moving toward screw cap closures or cork alternatives, such as plastic corks or glass stoppers. Tradition dictates that the winery take responsibility for tainted wine, which results in a tedious paper chain leading from retail to distributor to importer to winery. Fed up with the imposition of corked wines, many large supermarket chains in the United Kingdom, have demanded key suppliers package their wines in TCA-free screw caps closures.

In Hong Kong, most retailers will honor your request to return a corked wine as long as you present the bottle within a day or so of opening, return it substantially full and have the original receipt. Unfortunately, most wine lovers have faced the disappointment of opening a bottle lovingly stored for years only to find it is corked. There is little recourse in this case.

In a restaurant, beverage staff will always pour a splash of wine into the glass for host approval. If you detect a musty or moldy aroma, by all means, draw it to the attention of the server and request a new bottle to be opened. Staff familiarity with cork taint varies, so do not be surprised if the restaurant manager takes a whiff before authorizing the second bottle. Occasionally – and it is extremely rare – the restaurant team will disagree with your smelling prowess. In that case, offer to pay for both bottles with the understanding that the staff will objectively compare the quality of the two to evaluate your assertion. Alternatively tell them to put a cork in it — so to speak — and order a different wine altogether.

Comments 3 Comments for “Put a cork in it?”
  1. gdfo on 06.04.13 at 23:04

    At a company I worked for we were sampling a german wine. The importer was there. They poured the wine and out of every one there no one mentioned that one sample was ‘corked’. I did. Sure enough the importer noticed it too after smelling the wine in my glass. Even people who are in the wine business do not always pick up on it. Corked wine is just part of the business for wineries that use corks. Eventually there will come a time when it can be prevented or the industry goes to another closure.
    A restaurant employee should NEVER doubt the word of the guest in regards to sending back a ‘corked’ or otherwise bad wine.

  2. Brent on 06.07.13 at 09:06

    A fun yet succinct and informative column. I’m inclined to say one of the most crucial issues for producers who bottle under cork is, as you mentioned, that the quality of their brand will be tarnished based on assessments by “untrained” consumers. Persons who study in formal wine education programs have surely pinpointed the precise aroma of TCA and can distinguish it from a natural but distasteful flavor profile. Unfortunately, many general consumers may not have the wherewithal to make this distinction. Imagine how many delicious wines out there have been rerelegated to the “I don’t like it” pile based on an infected bottle. Probably too many to count…..

  3. Charles Ashworth on 06.08.13 at 15:14

    As you know, Debra, this story has been around for a long time. What surprises me is that ten years after I confidently predicted the demise of cork (in Bordeaux), so much cork, and corked wine, is still being sold. Of course, given the choice of a traditional cork or a screwcap, other factors will almost certainly come into play. Cheers (Saturday morning breakfast coffee)!

Leave a Comment
Name (required) Mail (will not be published) (required) Website Your Comment