Based on my talks with winemakers over the years, I get the impression that many think cork taint, a contaminant that can negatively affect a wine, is currently at a low and perhaps even acceptable level. My experience says otherwise.
Last year, after tracking the more than 1,200 wines I sampled that used natural corks, 3.59% appeared to be cork-tainted, or were “corked.” That’s a completely unacceptable percentage.
Moreover, while some believe cork taint is mainly a problem in inexpensive wines, my experience does not bear this out. In 2017, the average price of all cork-tainted bottles I sampled was just over $36. That’s not an inexpensive bottle of wine.
Cork taint is typically caused by 2,4,6-trichloroanisole (TCA), but it can be caused by a number of other compounds. It presents itself as a musty aroma or taste often described as reminiscent of a damp basement.
Most often, the cork is the culprit, though it can have other causes, like TCA tainted barrels. At its worst, the faulty wine is undrinkable. At its most pernicious, it simply mutes the aromas and flavors, but is otherwise essentially undetectable to the taster.
The industry has come a long way to address cork taint, but it needs to go much farther.
Many winemakers believe that the steps they take to minimize cork taint are sufficient and that they don’t have a significant problem with it. I don’t believe that’s the case. I have had numerous corked bottles from wineries with very strict protocols that used expensive corks.
Bottom line for winemakers: Unless you use an alternative closure, or individually test corks for TCA, you have a problem with cork taint.
How much of a problem, though? Sensitivity to cork taint varies widely by person. The 5 percent of people most sensitive to the problem are said to be 200 times more sensitive to it than the least. I think many people, and certainly most wine professionals, assume that if a bottle is corked, they’ll detect it. But that’s not necessarily the case. It’s possible a tasting room staff could pull corks on 100 bottles and never taste a tainted wine but someone else who is naturally more sensitive would.
Even if cork taint isn’t strong enough to be overtly noticeable, it doesn’t mean that a person’s perception of the wine won’t be affected in some way. The most harmful problem comes when a bottle may not be tainted enough to be identified as faulty, but leaves a person mistakenly believing that it’s just not a very good wine.
The industry has come a long way to address cork taint, but it needs to go much farther. While new technology that tests individual corks for TCA has the potential to significantly reduce cork taint, its higher cost remains a barrier, particularly for less expensive wines.
To me, cork taint remains a significant issue, certainly in the wines that I sample. It’s a problem that I won’t consider to be fully addressed until all wines don’t have taint caused by cork. To aim for anything less is shooting too low.