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.