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Cork Taint - "Excuse me, waiter: my wine is corked!"

Wine etiquette is an absolute minefield, and cork taint can strike at any time. You always see in movies that moment where the waiter in a fancy restaurant hands the customer a freshly popped cork to smell to make sure they are happy, and the customer usually has no idea what to do. What the waiter wants you to look for is cork taint.

You probably hear the term ‘corked wine’ banded around a lot of the time, but what does it actually mean? It has nothing to do with bits of cork floating in the wine – that’s probably due to clumsy bottle opening (believe me I have done it plenty of times!) What it’s referring to is a specific chemical compound which is found in cork or other wood in the winery (such as barrels) that makes its way into the wine and ruins the flavour. The most common of these compounds is 2,4,6-trichloroanisole or TCA, as it’s usually abbreviated to.

Whilst it’s not actually harmful, it can render a wine undrinkable, and if it’s really taken hold, the smell is unmistakable as soon as you open it. That smell of mouldy, musty cellar just jumps straight out of the bottle and hits you round the nose. But even to lesser degrees it can suppress the fruity characteristics of a wine by up to 50%, making it seem utterly dull and lifeless. It really is only a tiny amount as well, with anything from between 2-5 parts per trillion being capable of literally sending your bottle of wine down the drain.

A lot of work is going in to preventing the spread of TCA in cork, but given that most cork is only harvested every 8-10 years, progress is slow, so it’s estimated that around 3% of wines under cork will still be affected.

You may wonder why wineries still insist on using cork if this is such an issue. But for many producers the benefits of a cork outweigh the negatives. Cork is, after all, the perfect stopper that allows the very slow exchange of oxygen from inside and outside of the bottle which gradually allows a wine to age and develop without spoiling or leaking. Airtight screw tops are brilliant for preserving the fresh and fruity characteristics of a young wine, but not so good for allowing that magical development which is part of what makes wine drinking so enjoyable and thrilling. So it seems that, for the forseeable future at least, cork is here to stay - so keep on sniffing that cork!