Last week, Vineyard & Winery Management Magazine ran a featured story titled “CORK Through the Media’s Eyes: Have wine writers put a cork in their criticism of bark stoppers?” written by WineCurmudgeon.com’s Jeff Siegel.
The story (in which I’m briefly quoted) asks whether or not the natural cork stopper industry has reached the point in which cork taint is largely a thing of the past. I provide the role of “contrarian opinion” in that I still see the rate of cork taint as an issue with which the cork industry needs to more effectively deal.
I’ve got nothing against natural cork closures, mind you. In fact, I suppose that I prefer them in a nostalgic, “Django Reinhardt playing softly in the background while I retire into my brushed-canvas sage Pottery Barn love seat” kind of way. I have grown totally convinced that screwcap enclosures are totally sound for long-term storage of fine wines, and I sure as sh*t don’t like synthetic corks and wouldn’t trust them to keep a wine long-term any further than I could comfortably spit a rat (don’t visualize that if you can help it – nasty).
I think for me this is a problem of “once bitten, twice shy” in that I’ve encountered what I consider far too much cork taint-affected wines – while the percentage is tiny, it’s still too high; certainly higher than what we’d consider acceptable in other food-related products.
I’d love to hear your take on this – is cork taint going the way of the dinosaur? Or is it alive and (un)well in your cellar?
44 thoughts on “Putting A Cork in Cork Taint?”
Agreed. I can't think of any other consumer product, food or otherwise, where a defect that potentially ruins the entire experience is so high. Plus keep in mind that some consumers who are new to wine might not understand that what they're tasting is cork taint — they may just think that's the way the wine is supposed to taste. Kind of unacceptable. When I choose wines for classes or am picking up a bottle to bring to a friend's place, am much more apt to go for a screwcap wine (all else being equal, of course.)
Sasha – thanks, GREAT insight; while at TasteCamp this past weekend, more than once at the larger tastings I advised pourers that a bottle was corked and their reply was basically "thanks – no one had mentioned it."
Which is a bit scary because some may feel that the particular wine is just bad and give it a negative review…
I think based off of my experience this past weekend at Taste Camp and a post taste camp dinner in Ithaca, where I totaled 5 corked wines – cork taint is still there.
Totally agree, Spoon – I was kind of shocked at the number of corked bottles we encountered on our trip, actually.
Yeah Joe, I've had five wines that were TCA tainted when opened in the last month. Corked wines are definitely alive and unwell.
I must be lucky so far, of the 130+ wines I've reviewed in the last 6 months, I've only had 2 off bottles that could be attributed to either cork taint or cooked. BUT – I know the issue is definitely crazy and just a little unwell…
Josh – maybe you should play the lottery? :-)
During Hubby's and my oenophile time, which started seriously in 2002-ish, we've encountered three, maybe four corked bottles. One was at the very beginning, and we thought the wine was awful, but now that we know more, was probably corked. Other food disasters we've had to deal with included moldy grapes (not the fermented kind), a moth in a can of artichoke hearts, and less than fresh meat, all from grocery stores. The difference is that we were able to exchange the tainted foodstuffs, but we've never tried to get our money back for a corked wine. Can you do that, or is it a risk that the consumer assumes?
@RandomOenophile – I'd say you should certainly try to return corked bottles, though you'll have a tougher time likely since it's not as obvious to most as a moth in a can! :)
Cork taint in my tastings is way down but not gone. We open over 5,000 bottles a year, and we once saw corked wines in teh 5% range. Now, it is more in the 1% range. Even that is too high, but indicates that someone is doing something right with their "better late than never" attention to detail. Plastic plugs are not the answer although I will grant that they are not a big deal, except for my preferences for cork and screw cap, in wines intended to have a live line of months, not years.
Screw caps, however, are not a perfect answer either. They do not do anything in the way of getting rid of bottling SO2, for instance, and in our recent Sauvignon Blanc tastings, most wines with bothersome SO2 levels were covered by screw caps. The screw cap is here to say, but it has not replaced cork as my closure of choice for long-aging wines. Listen to your daddy.
Thanks, Dad! Interesting tidbit on the screwcaps enclosures. I also find it interesting that some high-end bottlings (Cade, for example) have gone all-screwcap; I wonder if SO2 issues aren't as prevalent as cork taint (and therefore it's worth the risk to switch), or if some of those producers are in for issues with SO2 in the future…
Wow, John – five in a month… that's terrible; here's hoping your luck improves!
I've gone months without a single corked bottle; this was just the law of averages evening the score.
I agree cork taint still exists, yes, but my 2¢? I am surprised at how many wines are returned to us as "corked" that are really displaying other wine flaws. "Corked" seems to be becoming a catch-all phrase for "there's something wrong with this wine but I don't know what it is."
Diff. people have diff. levels of ability to sniff out TCA, perhaps leading to such widely variable polling results s?
A couple of very pertinent points. We taste with panels of five professionals. While they have varying degrees of acuity to all kinds of things, almost no one misses cork taint when it is there in spades. It is the lower levels fo cork taint that are harder to pick out and undoubtedly some wines get dinged for all kinds of other flaws, including lack of character, when cork is the culprit. But, the other side is also true. Many flaws in wine can be labeled as cork taint, including any mold issue, some old barrel issues and a range of reactions that are not cork related but have similar chemistry. Many of those originate in the winery, not in the cork as Beaulieu was forced to admit some years ago.
When I quote 1% or so as current cork taint, that number is based on the views of not one palate but several professional palates all tasting the same wine.
While I think cork taint has reduced, it's still there, and it seems to be more prevalent in higher-end bottlings. I also agree that cork taint has become somewhat of a catch-all for a flawed wine. I think the cork gets blamed when it the flaw could have come from a barrel that wasn't cleaned properly, or a hose that wasn't sanitized. Interestingly, I seem to get more flawed wines from France; I guess they all haven't cleaned up their wineries enough.
Regarding Richard's comment- All the really low grade natural corks are never exported to the US market, they stay in Europe and used in inexpensive wines. The US market uses technical corks (1+1, DIAM, etc.) for inexpensive wines. These technical corks are steam treated bits of cork glued together that are (mostly) free of TCA. I think that explains why you see more taint in high end wines
I also agree with Charlie's guess of 1%, that about what I see from the wines poured at the tasting room. Way down from just a few years ago. The cork industry has made a huge effort to reduce taint. They used to use Chlorine in the water that the boiled the cork bark in (leads to TCA formation), they almost never changed this (often tainted) boiling water and their rejection limits for TCA were way too high. They have come a long way and are still making improvements. They kinda have to if they want to stay in business.
Personally, I prefer caps on SB, Chenin blanc, Pinot gris- things like that. Everything else I like cork *for now*.
Thanks, Ted – I'm with you on caps for those type of "drink soon-ish" white wines.
Sounds like much progress has been made in TCA reduction, but that there's also a challenge of sorts in terms of educating people on what is a cork-related fault, and what isn't.
I tell you, there's nothing worse than opening a great bottle of wine only to find out it has cork taint. I read one of the bazillion comments that really states a salient fact. No other consumer product has this level of poor quality and gets away with it.
Even Toyota's "accelleration" issue wasn't this prevalent. Oh well, at least it gives us something to chat about!
Tell you what Brian – if 1% of your grocery purchases were faulty or rancid, you'd notice it! :-)
There is no doubt that cork taint is still with us – though probably not as prevalent as it was a decade ago. More care certainly is being given on the production side – and more wineries are employing their own techniques to raise the percentages against using bad corks.
That said, you cannot look at a cork before it goes in the bottle and know that it is bad – that's not how it works. Therefore, I have a feeling we'll be dealing with this issue for quite some time.
A few other points – I'm convinced most consumers have no idea what a 'corked' wine is. If they encounter a wine they don't like for various reasons, but don't want to say they don't like it, their initial reaction will be to call it 'corked' . . .
In addition, if a wine is just slightly corked, stealing the wine of its fruit but NOT leaving a wet cardboard smell behind, how would a consumer know that the bottle has been ruined by the cork? I see this too often – and the consumer will generally just say they don't like the wine and may never buy it again, not because of the quality of the wine but because of the cork.
As far as screwcaps go, I'm seeing less and less 'sulfur issues' with these bottlings. Yes, if you bottle with too high a Free SO2 level and use a saratin liner, your SO2 may be more noticable for an extended period of time . . . but it will eventually blow off.
Looking forward to reading more comments (-:
Thanks, Larry! "I'm convinced most consumers have no idea what a 'corked' wine is. If they encounter a wine they don't like for various reasons, but don't want to say they don't like it, their initial reaction will be to call it 'corked' . . " – that is so true, and I've found it is true in some cases for those who are writing about / blogging and reviewing wines.
There is a lot of truth in your story and in many of the comments, and one can safely conclude that cork taint is less of a problem today than it was 10 years ago. However, don't underestimate the commitment of the cork producers — they are well aware that their future is predicated on reducing the percentage of cork taint even further. I can't speak for all cork producers, but I occcasionally do projects for MA Silva Corks USA, and believe they are committed to reducing cork taint to the point of being obsessed with it. They are not paying me to write this, and may never see these comments, but I have no doubt that co-owner Neil Foster is as committed to his mission as any businessman I've ever met.
Thanks, Joe Gargiulo, JAG Public Relations
Thanks, Joe – it's good to know that the industry is obsessing over it, and I"m guessing that the screwcap emergence has lit a fire under them. The reduction of cork taint in the last several years is probably testament to their work.
Hey, 1WineDude, two comments:
1) I produce some small quantities of wine and agree with Charlie Olken – we see about half a percent of wines corked – and we test all the time – perhaps lucky – but I will say that only five years ago, we were seeing closer to 5% cork taint. So, it's good that it is getting less. Having said that, I have to disagree that screw caps are as good as corks – in the short term, yes, but in the long term to age a wine for 20 years, no. Then again, who ages wine even a year any longer?
2) to follow…
Below part "2" has nothing to do with your original posting on cork taint, but here goes:
2) (and please don't take this the wrong way), but since when is it becoming common practice to use profanity on blog sites? I'm seeing it more and more frequently on both sites and in the comments, as in "and I sure as sh*t don’t like synthetic corks…" as you relate above. Again, suppose I'm picking on you as a "catch all" for my… shock. This is the fifth "piece" of profanity I've seen today on a blog. Guess I'm an old fogey, but if one wants to be taken seriously as a writer and be taken seriously, it just seems that profanity should be off the table. Just as in a business, if someone you were talking to used a swear word every other word or even a few in a two hour converstaion, one might have serious reservations about them? Or maybe not. Perhaps I am just getting old and crochety…
Thanks, Rich. I hear your point regarding aging wine for long periods of time under screwcap, but some pretty wise folk like Randall Grahm cite the ability of stelvin closures to age wine for considerable periods of time, so there is at least some evidence in support of screwcaps being able to age wine – whether or not those wines age better under stelvin vs. cork is another matter I suppose.
And to answer your question, I think you are just getting a little f*cking old and f*cking crotchety! :-) Actually, this is the first post in a while where I used profanity so I think it's actually just dumb luck, or something in the blogging "air"…
Oh boy! Thanks Dude. I mean, I worked in an industry that used swearing as a profession and now still do some work (to support my wine habit) among guys who think cursing is the best thing next to white bread and Budweiser, so, sorry it seemed to f*cking rub you the wrong f*cking go*amned way, because, f*ck me to tears, I meant no f*cking offense – I mean, s*it, Dude, I can go*damned f*cking talk f*cking like this the whold s*itty, f*cking, g*damned f*cking day! and f*ck me! I sure as h*ll sound f*cking intelligent, f*cking don't I? So, here endeth the lesson from the crotchety old f*rt…
HA!!! Rich – excellent response, laughing my ass off over here…!
Dude, thanks! Glad you got the sense of humor. I tell you it's a tough act! After I wrote it, I thought "Uh, oh! what if he doesn't get it and thinks I'm serious!" but I should have known better after reading you all this time. I've just never commented before. I try to keep quiet – I get in trouble when I say things!
Thanks for posting this story Joe. It is exactly what has been debated in Europe for quite some time and now much of the market there understands that if you have a good solution be it the right screwcap and the proper installation or a technical cork such as Diam, the issues that should be debated are oxygen transfer rates, not TCA. We still have reportedly incidents of 5-7% according to different sources and it is UNACCEPTABLE. Diam has commissioned a blue ribbon panel to look into this in the US and wants to get the dirt out from under the carpet. Their work in Australia and the UK to bring this issue to light has made the wine industry more honest with itself and more importantly consumers.http://www.charlescomm.com/bignews/?p=228
Thanks, Kimberly – just FYI, the link in your comment looks malformed, so I'm reposting it here:
I like a vigorous debate as much as anyone, but I have to object to the language used in Kim Charles' comment above. Kim Charles does PR for Diam. She is not in a position to call people's products UNACCEPTABLE. and to quote unnamed sources that are belied by the proof.
I find that UNACCEPTABLE, and, as a fan of Kim Charles, I find her comments disappointing. There is nothing objective in them. And I have no axe to grind with any closure except the axe that grinds the truth.
And, Joe, my talented progeny, I worship Randall Grahm, but, as he readily admits, his many visions have not always rung true. His use of Stelvin is built on belief, not on proof, just as his earlier belief in plastic plug corks that spoiled his Cigare wines of the mid-90s. Yet, at the time, he held a much publicized funeral for cork. Funny thing is that the best wines a group of us tasted with him a few weeks ago were his mid-80s Cigares sealed with natural cork.
Thanks for that. I simply did not want to get into the argument about corks. It's like the age old "high alcohol, low alcohol" debate – no winners and no losers, and I am certainly not going to change anyone's opinion regarding corks. I simply have found that in my fairly high end Cabernet, the corks work better. But, my wines are meant for ageing. The 2005 is just now beginning to show it's depth and suspect it will be better in 2020. Having said that, my 2007 Cabernet will likely hit it's peak in 2013 or so. Would screw caps have worked with the 2007? Maybe, but since I truly believe the cork will help the wine's ageing, I continue to use them and sort of throw fate to the wind worrying about potential cork taint – but one bottle in 200 is not bad for me – I will take those chances…
Hey pops – *very* interesting development about the tasting group with Randall! I wouldn't say that there is *no* evidence to back up his belief on the Stelvins, but then there's no evidence I'm aware of to conclusively prove it, as you noted. Cheers!
Winemakers should check out the new Nanocork available from ACI Cork USA. It almost completely eliminates the TCA problem and still has that satisfactory real cork appeal.
It's really no issue that TCA will exist in significant percentages as long as natural corks are being used. Anyone who thinks otherwise is a fool. There are, however, alternatives apart from screwcaps or artificial stoppers. There's at least one widely available aggregate cork closure (DIAM) that seems to pretty much erases the issue, and no doubt there will a number of others on the way. Aggregates have the advantage in that they have the elasticity of natural cork, but without the natural nooks and crannies where TCA grows, nor with the inconsistent Oxygen Transmission Rates that come with the territory of natural corks.
I've spoken to vintners like Randall Grahm about this; and Grahm, for one, is saying that he'll continue usage of Stelvins until he sees more evidence of the viability of aggregates like DIAM. That's understandable, since I have the same attitude towards synthetics of Nanocork after years of being personally burned by synthetics in my own bottlings.
Thanks, Randy – always a pleasure to have you stop by!
As someone who has worked in wine retail for the better part of the last decade, I'd say that corks are improving with regard to the incidence of TCA, although it still exists in too many instances for my taste (pardon the pun). I'm of the belief that the emerging popularity and more widespread use of alternative closures like screwcaps is a major factor in cork industry's recent investment in improving their product. But for that, we might still be seeing "corked" wine in 10% range. So big thanks from me to the Stelvin people and to New Zealand winemakers who were early and enthusiastic adopters of screwcaps and really led the way.
In response to @randomoenophile, you should absolutely bring a corked wine back to the shop or winery where it was purchased and ask for a replacement! Any reputable merchant will replace a flawed bottle for you. And, if they won't, my advice is to shop somewhere else because you're not getting the kind of service you deserve as a wine consumer!
Thanks, Amy – I agree, and 'm glad to see that some of the alternative closures seem to be getting the cork industry into high gear on anti-TCA measures (not that they were ignoring the issue in the past, but still…).
Cork taint is to wine as unintended acceleration is to Toyota —
As someone who tastes a lot of wine during the course of a month (ITB both wholesale and retail, plus a monthly tasting group of mostly industry wine people), I can attest that TCA is still with us. About 3-7% of the bottles that I encounter have muted fruit, or the characteristic wet dog/cardboard hints that I've come to associate with TCA.
If a manufacturer/producer of a product KNEW that 3-7% of his product would most likely leave a bad taste (literally) in his customer's mouth and most likely ruin the experience, thereby insuring they wouldn't buy his product again — why wouldn't he use an alternative? Glass stopper, DIAM, Stelvin — something to insure a positive experience and reinforce the customer's enjoyment?
Thanks, Sherman – I suppose that producer would have several reasons, including economics…
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