What Does It Mean When a Wine is ‘Corked’?


I am having a lot of fun these days in the tasting room and elsewhere asking folks what they think of when I say a wine is ‘corked’. It is a bit ‘disturbing’ as well, though, since there obviously is a LOT of misinformation out there, and it seems as if the wine business really isn’t doing too much to change that.

It’s been really interesting to hear the descriptions thus far, and I thought I’d share some with you – and please note that many of these are from ‘experienced’ wine drinkers:

‘It’s when a wine just tastes bad.’

This, to me, is still one of my favorites . . .

‘It’s when a wine has a port-like flavor and smell.’

This can be many things, but if I had to guess, it would probably be oxidized, perhaps from exposure to heat at some point.

‘It’s when the cork breaks up when you try to take it out’.

You may not know this, but most wineries ‘measure’ the moisture in corks before they go into the bottle during the bottling process. If it’s too dry, the usually reject the lot, for it won’t create a perfect seal and therefore can cause too much oxidation during bottle aging, and can lead to leaking, or perhaps brittle corks. (And on the flip side, it can be problematic if it’s too moist as well.) Corks also dry out over time if wine is stored vertically, for the wine is not in contact with the cork anymore. This is one of, if not the, main reasons why most bottles should be stored on their sides.

‘It’s when a wine smells like vinegar.’

There are many potential causes of this, but this should not be a descriptor for a ‘corked’ wine. High levels of volatile acidity lead to the smell of vinegar in a wine, and there are a couple of different causes. In many cases, this is due to the wine itself – either having very high pH’s that make it difficult to keep the wine from ‘oxidizing’ and leading to this, happening during the winemaking process, or perhaps due to a bad cork seal leading to oxidation.

‘It’s when a wine smells like a barnyard’

Nope, in most cases, this would be due to brettanomyces, a ‘spoilage’ yeast that is generally caused by poor cleaning in the winery or perhaps bad cleaning of older barrels. Brett, as we refer to it, can also continue to ‘bloom’ in bottled wines if they are bottled unfiltered and if they are exposed to elevated temperatures at any time during their lives.

I happen to have a hose bib right outside of the back door to my tasting room, and I discovered long ago that the water that comes out of there is a perfect ‘standard’ for TCA, which is the telltale sign that a wine is ‘corked’. The water smells like wet cardboard/wet cement/damp and moldy basement. THIS is what is meant when a wine is ‘corked’, or at least ‘bad enough’ that these scents are noticeably present. (If a wine is just ‘slightly’ corked, the aromatics will simply be ‘muted’.)

Why am I writing this? I believe there really needs to be more education about ‘corked wines’ in our industry if we want to get a true idea of how many bottles out there are truly affected by this. Right now, the feeling is that the ‘problem’ is getting better and better because of steps taken during the production process. The reality is, though, that if consumers have no clue what a ‘corked’ wine truly is, could numbers that we’ve been seeing be ‘greatly understated’? And more than that, don’t we as an industry owe our ‘customers’ a better understanding of what they are drinking and why a wine may not smell or taste the way it is ‘supposed to’?

We owe it to consumers to let them know that wines do go bad, and explain to them how and why. These are the ‘touch point’ opportunities for us in tasting rooms, at wineries, in restaurants, at wine shops, during wine seminars – use those to not only highlight the ‘good’ things, but also let them really experience and be able to name some of the ‘off’ things as well.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this please.



8 comments on “What Does It Mean When a Wine is ‘Corked’?

  1. Brian says:

    I was tasting at a winery in Healdsburg over the weekend. The girl at the tasting bar was pouring the winery’s most expensive PN @ $70+. When she ran out half way through pouring us. She grabbed a new bottle and poured my taste from it. I immediately picked up TCA and mentioned it to the group. I smelled one of their pours, from the other bottle, and it was fine. I handed the glass to the girl pouring and said it has some TCA, take a sniff. She sniffed my glass and said “It’s incredible!”
    I just shrugged.

  2. Brian,

    A perfect example of the ‘problem’ I’ve discussed. That scenario does not help our industry as a whole, and you may have come across as being ‘pompous’ when you were simply trying to point something out. We need to find a way to better educate our industry from top to bottom – period.


  3. Ed says:

    So it wasn’t tri- chloro- acetic acid. 🙂 I brought this to the attention of a winery up in Northern California. They thanked me for the feed-back. I described the product and year. There was no batch number on the bottle. I described who I stored it , served it etc. etc. I was not expecting it but they sent me a replacement @ no charge. I was a club member.

  4. Bummer . . . that is just not right. They should have happily replaced. I say ‘out em’!!! 😉


  5. Tony Mastres says:

    Well, I’m not “sure” of too many things but that I’m very confident of is tasting TCA taint in wine. Other flaws are a bit harder to nail down but TCA stands out and seems to be running about 1-2% of wines for us. I always smell the side of the corks that come out of bottles we consume and 90+% of the time I can identify TCA (if its there) before I ever taste a sip of wine. What can you do? If its a local producer I’ll notify them and return the bottle but if its a moderately priced bottle from a remote producer I call it a cost of doing business 🙂

  6. Great Blog Larry – thinking back to Davis – 3 to 5% of wines are “corked” when using natural corks. But define “corked” – obvious smell of cork or not as good as the others. That is the problem I have found, sometimes it screams cork and you know, the other time you open two bottles of the same wine and they are different. That is not bottle variation but rather one was affected. Ironically sometimes both wines are good and you have to go back to what should it have been. Anisoles like; TCA and TBA seem to be more prevalent when using agglomerates or particle corks, unless your are BV Wines that corked the whole cellar (kind of like the old Davis cellar).

    Screwcaps can be corked if put in those types of cellars as the taint is airborne. So the type of bottle closure, which is primarily dependent upon the winemaker’s desire for bottle aging, needs to be weighed considerably. Some cork producers like DIAM claim taint-free and you can purchase corks based on how long the wine should age. But at the end of the day, glued together or punched straight from the bark of the oak tree we have to remember it is a composed of a natural product and therefore somewhat unpredictable.

    In all cases winemaker or consumers have the right to move to another bottle if it is suspected.

  7. Tony,

    Thanks for playing 🙂 Your last comment seems to be common among those that have affected bottles – they feel that sometimes, it’s just ‘not worth the hassle’ to deal with returning that off bottle. Without returning it, though, that winery will never have a clear picture of how bad their TCA problems may be, though, and therefor ‘industry stats’ may be skewed from what they truly are. In addition, from my opinion, as a consumer product, it should be returned to keep the entire process ‘honest’. Yes, there certainly can be ‘off’ bottles for many reasons, but I think the old school concept that that is part of ‘what to expect’ should not be anymore.


  8. Michael,

    Thanks for the reply! Yep, there are many ways that wines can be affected by TCA, and yep, there have been scattered issues with screw cap wines being ‘corked’, but in those cases, I have to believe there were ‘systemic’ issues at the winery itself.

    The real problem from my perspective is consumer and industry education – folks at all levels simply are not ‘informed’ about the topic enough and something has to be done.

    Have you worked with DIAM at this point? One thing I am interested in is age-ability with these corks and how they ‘breath’, knowing that the ‘cells’ that exist in ‘normal’ corks would not be the same in these based on how they are made. Curious I am!


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