I’ll try to keep this short. I don’t want to belabor the point, and there’s probably 1,000 articles on the topic already.
I had an experience with corked wine this past week that made me question my professional integrity. Actually, I didn’t really question my credibility (I mean, sh*t happens) but I was irritated that I missed that one of the wines in my bag was corked. I was tasting with a restaurant account and the wine director called it out before I could even get my nose out of the glass. I must have had an inclination, because I lingered over the aromas longer than usual, but I wasn’t confident enough about it to speak up. Much of deciphering if a wine is corked or not is trusting your instincts, and that’s where I went wrong. I mean, if I sniffed my half & half a few times because it was questionable, I probably wouldn’t pour it in to my coffee, or yours. Same idea.
In my defense, the wine was only slightly corked. In fact, it probably would have squeaked by some of my other customers. But that doesn’t do anyone any good because a slightly corked wine has zero personality. Cork taint mutes the fruit aromas and flavors and prevents the wine from being its best self. That means you aren’t going to enjoy drinking the wine and, for me, it means I’m not going to be able to sell it.
If a wine is extremely corked, you should be able to tell right away, by the smell alone. If the wine smells like wet cardboard, damp newspaper, musty basement, or your puppy running in to your arms after coming in from the rain, chances are it’s corked. If a wine isn’t horribly corked, you might have to taste it before you’re sure. Although it really is more about the aroma, a corked wine will taste flat and lifeless and can confirm your suspicions. You may even get the sense of moldiness on your tongue (blech). Have no fear, drinking corked wine won’t make you ill, it just won’t taste very good.
So, what to take away from all of this? If you’re at a restaurant and think your wine is corked, speak up. Usually the Sommelier or server will confirm your suspicions and get you another bottle. Try not to mistake a wine you just don’t like with a wine that is genuinely corked. That’s not going to help when you get another bottle and it tastes the same.
If you purchase a wine from a retailer and you think it’s corked, return the cork to the bottle and take it back to the store if possible. Honorable shop owners will give you another bottle once they confirm it’s corked. Don’t bring the wine back with a few ounces left in the bottle and claim you kept tasting it to make sure. Not cool.
If you’re interested in what “corked” actually means, the culprit is a compound called TCA. It can be formed when a natural fungi, which is present in the bark of cork trees, comes in to contact with substances that are found in bleaches and other products that are, ironically, used to sanitize and sterilize wineries. If the cork is infected, the wine becomes infected. There is also the possibility of TCA contaminating an entire cellar or winery, finding its way in to barrels and boxes and wreaking havoc. Depending on who you ask, TCA affects 2%-5% of all wines bottled with natural corks. This means you’re sure to experience a bottle, or a few, in your lifetime.
Of course, there are other faults that occur in wine. Besides cork taint, the other fault you will likely come across is cooked wine. Wine becomes cooked when it is exposed to extreme heat. A cooked wine will smell dull, with more raisiny aromas than fresh fruit, and will taste flat or stewed. If a wine is stored improperly — near the kitchen in a restaurant, in a hot basement of a wine shop, or in the trunk of your car or your hot apartment with radiator heat — it will suffer from heat damage.
At the end of the day, if you think something is wrong with your wine, trust your instinct — just like you would with that sour carton of milk.