For those of you unfamiliar with this topic, briefly, cork taint is a flaw in wine that is caused by defective corks. It produces an unpleasant, musty smell in the wine often described as wet dog or wet newspaper, most aptly called ‘corkiness’. For me it conjures up pictures of walking into my grandparents house, coupled with spending time in the stone foundation basement of my sister’s 1880 home. And while these things are fine in their own right, I by no means want them in my wine.
So why is this important? Well, most reports suggest that around 5% of all wine is affected by cork taint. That means that if you drink 30 bottles a month (I’m not the only one, am I?), 1.5 of them are corky. Chances are, this number has gone down in the past ten years due to the increase in screw-cap or other alternative closures.
So let’s get down to business. For those of you who are geeky like me, I’ll briefly explain what causes corkiness in wine. Let’s start with the cork. Cork is an organic substance that is actually harvested from cork oak trees. Most cork oaks in the world are located in Portugal, somewhere around 1.6 million planted acres, and cork harvesting is an incredibly sustainable practice since the farmers only strip the bark from a tree and don’t actually kill the entire tree. The cork oak replenishes its bark just about every ten years. More than half of the world’s wine corks come from Portugal and the most prized region for this is the district of Evora. Since cork is organic, it needs to be treated and sterilized to remove any bacteria or fungi that could be present. Basically, there’s a complicated chemical, commonly called TCA, that hides in the cork and interacts with the wine causing the unpleasant smell and also muting other more pleasant aromas. TCA works its way into the nooks and crannies of natural cork and is imperceptible to most detectors, including the human senses, until it interacts with the wine in bottle. This means that there is virtually no way for us to prevent TCA from occurring. The important thing is knowing what to do when you find it.
1) Don’t drink corky wine. Not only is wine affected by cork taint flawed wine, but it is downright unpleasant. You shouldn’t subject yourself to it. Any good retailer or restaurant will refund your money or replace the flawed product. You should never feel that you have to drink something that is poor quality. Even the person who made the wine would agree to this. I know, I’ve asked them.
2) Don’t be afraid of corky wine. If you think a wine is off, don’t be afraid to say something. Especially if it’s a wine that you’ve had before and this glass tastes strange, trust your instincts that it might be a bad bottle. However, that doesn’t mean that every bottle from that producer will be bad. Don’t be afraid to try another bottle of the same wine or, at the very least, another wine from that producer. Most producers choose to switch from cork closures to alternative closures because of this very thing. They are afraid that consumers will no longer drink their wine if they have a bad experience with it. Give the producer another chance and, especially if you prefer cork closures, don’t give them another reason to switch closure types.
This brings me to my next point of discussion: which closure is best? I have come across several different types of wine bottle closures. They are as follows:
-Screw cap (or Stelvin)
-Zork (yes, that’s right, zork; also a 1980s computer game)
-Glass (I've only seen this on a few producer)
There has been study after study performed on the subject and countless more in progress as we speak. As far as I’m concerned, however, there is very little perceivable difference for most of us. A general rule of thumb I follow is that if it’s a bottle I want to age for a while, I lean towards a real, natural cork. If it’s something I plan to drink relatively soon, a screw cap is just fine. I am not now, nor have I ever been, a fan of synthetic corks. I find them unnecessary and difficult to use. Zorks just seem strange to me, and as I mentioned above glass closures are extremely rare. Cork agglomerate are those corks that look like a thousand tiny pieces of cork glued together. Unlike screw caps, I usually associate this type of closure with less expensive wine.
CorThe most important thing to me in all of this, however, is to maintain an open mind and remove all prejudices based on closure. I suppose the cliché is “don’t judge a book by its cover”. Well, don’t judge a wine by its closure. First of all, there are perfectly acceptable wines that come in bottles sealed with every one of the closures I listed above. Second, there are perfectly horrible wines that come in bottles sealed with every one of the closures I listed above. It’s not fair to any producer, who for the most part is just trying to do what they think is best for their wine, to write off a bottle just because it has a screw cap or a real cork. Every wine should be evaluated on its flavor and aroma, not on the packaging (though we can certainly have a separate evaluation for packaging as that can also be either spectacular or abhorrent).
Here's a great article about corked wine:
Food & Wine
And two that may surprise you (pay particular attention to the comments on the second article):