You attend a wine tasting. You nod your head while the winemaker says things like “notes of cherry bark” and “long, silky finish.” You fall in love with a certain bottle and purchase it for a special occasion, only to open it and discover the wine smells… off. Musty, maybe. Some describe it as wet cardboard, wet newspaper, even wet dog. It could mean your wine is “corked.”
Corked wine, also referred to as flawed or tainted wine, is caused by the presence of 2, 4, 6-trichloroanisole, or TCA, a contaminant sometimes found in food and beverages. TCA is produced when chlorine bleach meets wood. Since cork must be cleaned when it’s processed, TCA can get into cork and infect a wine. Though you can’t get sick from drinking corked wine, experts say at least five percent of all wine bottles are contaminated by varying amounts of TCA.
While most people associate it with cork contamination, TCA is a pervasive, insidious compound that can creep into a bottle of Cab during any step in the wine production process, especially before bottling.
“It’s not just the cork,” said Rachel Speckan, director of marketing for Maverick Wine Co. and former national beverage director for City Winery. “Before bottling is where the high occurrence of contamination occurs. It could be broken down into the woods it comes into contact with, the barrel, the wood in the tank, structures in the building, the winemaking materials… Even a screw cap can be corked. A very small amount can infect an entire winery or an entire batch of wine.”
There are multiple strains of TCA, each imparting slightly different characteristics, none of them pleasant. One, said Speckan, is the wet cardboard characteristic. The other strains will mask or mute a wine’s fruit character, thereby undoing a winemaker’s hard labor. “It does unpredictable things in the bottle, so you never quite know what you’re gonna get.”
A seasoned pro like Speckan can detect TCA immediately. I can detect a corked bottle with the wet cardboard characteristic fairly well. But in other situations, I’ve wondered whether a wine is flawed or I’m simply turned off by its natural taste and smell.
Mike Baker, senior buyer for wine retailer Vin Chicago, says corked wine is extremely common, but it takes a while to identify. If customers find themselves with a less-than-satisfactory bottle or glass of wine, they should take it back to the store or ask to speak to the restaurant manager. A lot of Vin Chicago’s customers ask store personnel to taste a suspect bottle when they bring it back, asking if it is in fact corked. “It’s a learning opportunity,” said Baker. “It’s an opportunity to connect with our customers and have a conversation with them about what they’re tasting.”
Baker finds cork taint easier to identify in New World wines that are usually meant to be livelier and more fruit-forward, as opposed to a wine from Bordeaux or Rioja that exudes earthier, funkier flavors. He’s also encountered customers who voice concerns about a wine that simply has unfamiliar characteristics.
“With cork taint, it takes a lot of times running into a corked wine before you can really start to hone in on what those flavors are,” he said. Baker highly encourages people to start a dialogue with retailers or the restaurant’s sommelier or manager when they suspect a corked bottle. “I think wine geeks like to show off their knowledge and experience. It takes a while before you’re able to immediately process it.”
Wine can possess other flaws, as well, not just from TCA. Wine can oxidize if the bottle is exposed to oxygen through a faulty cork or less-than-ideal storage. It can also be “cooked” when exposed to high temperatures for long periods of time. Flaws can also occur during production, as certain processes impart a funky flavor to wine.
If you’re having an unpleasant experience with a wine, said Speckan, you should tell somebody. “Once you can identify cork taint and are able to say ‘this wine is flawed,’ versus ‘this wine is not my preference,’ I think that will help.” One way to do that, she said, is to simply “drink more.”
Tainted cork has been a problem for ages. The industry has responded with alternate closures, such as the screw cap, glass stoppers, artificial cork, composite cork, and aging in stainless steel as opposed to wood barrels. Corked wine gets returned and refunded along the supply chain, so if you do taste something “off,” you’re doing the business a favor by saying something.
And if the wine isn’t flawed after all? “In general, it’s the job of an industry professional to provide the client with a pleasurable experience and give them clean wine,” said Speckan. Baker wholeheartedly agrees, saying Vin has a “no questions asked” policy if a customer is dissatisfied with a wine. “Ultimately we’re in the service business. Just like any good seller of any product, if their customer has a concern about a quality issue, they’re going to want to immediately take care of that customer, regardless of whether it’s real or perceived.”
So, the next time you smell or taste something “off” in your wine, relax and know you can return it or ask for something else, and learn something about the flavors you’re tasting in the process. Because no one likes a wet dog, especially on the table.