Corked Wine 101: Does Your Wine Cork Pass the Smell Test?

Real cork has been used for over 300 years in the winemaking industry as an excellent way to slow down oxidation and allow wines to age. Perhaps you have come across a James Bond character being passed a cork to sniff by a sommelier in the movies or at a restaurant and thought, “what in the world!?” It may seem odd, but don’t brush off cork whiffing as wine snobbery just yet; it might save you some disappointment. We’ve got the basics of what corked wine is, how to detect cork taint and what to do if your wine is tainted.

Let’s begin with what corked wine is not:

  • It is not a reference to wine that is sealed with a real
  • It is not the experience of a cork crumbling, disintegrating or falling into the wine

Pro tip: A coffee filter can be used to filter cork out of your wine and enjoy it without the crumbly bits!

So what exactly is corked wine? The answer is a bit of chemistry. Microorganisms naturally occuring in wood, such as cork bark, produce anisole. When anisole comes in contact with chlorophenols (think chlorine from cleaning products, pesticides and wood preservatives) they create chemical compounds called 2,4,6-trichloroanisole or TCA. Other compounds (like TBA) are possible, but TCA is usually the guilty compound causing cork taint. If you have a TCA tainted cork in a bottle, you are guaranteed to have some level of cork taint dull or ruin your wine.

What is the risk of purchasing a bottle of corked wine: The jury is out and you will find varying statistics. Average claims typically state between 5-6% of wines are contaminated with cork taint. If you are an avid wine drinker, you are likely to come across a tainted bottle or two.

Can I get sick? There is nothing to fear here. TCA isn’t harmful but it might ruin the full enjoyment of your dinner. The chemical compound can mess with your palate and definitely means you won’t get the best flavour and aroma profile of your wine.

What smells should I look out for? TCA smells musty, like a damp basement, old sweater, cardboard or wood rot. Some even describe the smell as wet dog. Descriptions may vary, but most people agree that once you have had a clear experience with TCA infected wine, you will never forget it.

How does it impact the wine? Notes of fruit, spice and oak will be muted, so if you are drinking a wine you are familiar with and notice the typical profile you expect is missing, it might be a corked wine. Really, could you enjoy a gourmet dinner paired with the smell of wet dog?

What smells are okay? If your cork smells like wood (not left in the forest to rot wood) you’re just fine. Cork is, afterall, wood. For aged wine, it is normal for wine to have seeped into the cork; it will likely give you a teaser of what will be in the bottle. If it smells like a great, aged wine then hurray! Finally, if your wine cork is simply clean and smells like nothing, that is also no cause for concern.

Is it easy to detect? That depends. Sensitivity to TCA varies from person to person. It may also depend on the concentration of trichloroanisole present in the wine. Some levels of TCA may leave you with just a hint of musty. A highly TCA concentrated wine can smack you in the face like you just walked into a 100 year old damp basement. If you are drinking a wine you know and love and it has none of its normal fruit, tastes dull and has a flat aroma profile, there is a good chance it has some level of TCA.

Can’t I just tell from the wine poured in my glass? Possibly, but the concentration is typically greatest in the cork, the source of contamination. If it is not heavily concentrated in the wine, the taint may not be as recognizable in the poured wine until it has sat for a while. Oxygen allows the aromas in wine to emerge and if the aroma is TCA you may be in an awkward spot to call the server over after consuming a decent amount of it with a declaration it is corked.

What can I do if my wine is corked? Knowing the basics of detecting cork taint can save you from being extremely disappointed. First, don’t pour the bottle down the drain! The place you purchased from will want to do their due diligence too. Recork, return and relax. Your favourite boutique wine shop will likely be reimbursed so you are not harming your favourite local store. You would do the same for flawed clothing or a well done steak that you asked for medium rare. Your assessment of a wine may also be mistaken if your only experience of it was corked. If a wine seems incredibly dull and lifeless but came highly recommended by others, you may have just had some bad luck. If you suspect your wine is corked, return it and give another bottle a try before writing it off.

How do I avoid cork taint?

If you are drinking wine sealed with real cork you can’t eliminate the possibility of cork taint. However, quality controls from the cork producing companies have vastly improved over the years with new testing and cork cleaning technology.

Cork alternatives such as synthetic closures, glass stoppers and screw caps eradicate this issue and can have some other beautiful benefits to the end product of a wine as well. Screw tops were a solution that has proved to be competitive even when it comes to ageing a wine. There is a lot of complexity to the cork controversy, but you will find many screw top corks on some of the finest wines here in the Okanagan.

Don’t miss out on some high quality, divine tasting Okanagan wines because of the screw top myth. Don’t judge a wine by its seal. If you love the satisfying pop and tradition of uncorking a wine, we understand and love it too. However, passing on a wine because of a screw top is becoming passé. Choosing a cork alternative is the one way to completely avoid the disappointment of a corked wine.

Many of the first class wineries available on our Vines and Views tasting tours offer cork alternative-sealed wines. Book your Kelowna wine tour today, we guarantee your experience won’t be tainted.

Vines & Views

Kelowna Wine Tours – Penticton Wine Tours

Vernon Wine Tours


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