Cork Taint 101: Is My Bottle Corked?

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If you like to drink wine on the regular, you’ve probably heard the term ‘corked‘ before. Most people are probably aware that it’s a thing, and that it’s not a good thing. Personally, I was always aware of TCA, but until we had a corked bottle in my first WSET course I doubt I would have been able to identify one confidently.

What is Wine Cork Taint?

Wine Cork Taint is known in the industry as TCA (and to chemists as 2,4,6, Trichloroanisole), cork taint effects about 2-3% of bottled wines (or about a bottle in every 2 cases). This doesn’t sound like much, but if you drink wine on the regular, you’ll likely encounter a corked bottle around 100 times in your life (which starts to get very annoying).

How a Wine Becomes Corked

tcaA corked wine does not mean a wine that has tiny particles of cork floating around in the glass. Corked wine has become contaminated with cork taint, which is not simply the taste of the cork. It is caused by the presence of a chemical compound called TCA (2,4,6 – Trichloroanisole). TCA is formed when natural fungi (of which many reside in cork) come in contact with certain chlorides found in bleaches and other typical winery sanitation and sterilization products. If a winery uses infected corks, the wine unfortunately becomes tainted. In extreme situations, TCA can contaminate not just a single batch of corks (and wine), but you can say goodbye an entire cellar or winery if the infection spreads. Since the recent discovery in the early 1990’s of the cause of cork taint, most wineries have stopped using chlorine based clearing products.

The Taste of Corked Wine

While unpleasant to taste, and a total buzz kill, cork taint is not in any way harmful to your health. In addition to a lackluster taste as the fruit is dulled, corked wines smell and taste of:

  • damp, soggy, wet or rotten cardboard;
  • wet dog;
  • wet newspaper;
  • what I imagine an attic smells like on an episode of hoarders.

The obviousness of the corked smell and taste depends both on the extent of the taint, as well as your individual sensitivity to it. Sometimes it is barely noticeable, and other times you’ll know the second you open the bottle.

Can I Return a Corked Bottle?

If you discover that a wine you just opened is corked you can certainly bring or send it back. Most retailers generally don’t question it when you return a corked bottle – though maybe don’t finish the bottle before bringing it back!

In a restaurant, the same logic applies, however sometimes it requires a little bit more sensitivity. If you are not used to looking for faults in wine, you may feel intimidated (I certainly do) and not detect the taint when the sommelier or waiter first asks you to taste the wine. It may take a while for you or somebody else in your crew to question the wine and ask if something doesn’t seem quite right. If this happens, don’t feel scared to call back the server and explain, asking them to taste the wine. If the wine is corked, it should be immediately obvious to the sommelier.

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