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What is corked wine?

“Isn’t all wine corked,” you may be asking? Well, yes, unless it’s a screw top, which is becoming more and more popular in the winemaking world. But when we talk about wine being “corked,” we mean something else. Corked wine, also known as cork taint, is a phenomenon caused by the presence of TCA (2,4,6-trichloroanisole) – a frustrating little molecule that can spell the demise of many a wine.

Really, the only way to identify corked wine is to smell it. Think: wet dog or wet cardboard. 

However, a very faint TCA presence can sometimes go unnoticed by the novice wine drinker. Mildly corked wine may only subdue the aroma and taste of the wine. However, I should note that TCA does not have a specific smell, but that it’s actually masking the wine’s inherent nose.

So, how does this happen in the first place?

The mechanism at play is that TCA finds its way into corks, among other things. The TCA actually comes from a fungus reacting to a plant fungicide that contains chlorine. TCA can be found all throughout a winery – in the cardboard boxes, the oak casks, but the primary breeding ground is the cork itself.

And I should note that corked wine is completely safe to drink. It won’t hurt you, but it certainly won’t be the experience you had in mind.

If you believe the statistics, the average wine drinker will encounter around 100 bottles of corked wine in their lifetime. It’s about a bottle in every 2 cases of wine, about 2% of bottled wines. It’s not so much a matter of if you’ll encounter cork taint, but when.

Something to remember is that when the sommelier brings you your wine and pours you a little in a glass, he’s not waiting to see if you like the wine, but for you to tell him if it’s corked. It’s completely OK to turn back a glass for cork taint. Somms want you to have a good experience and sending back a bottle isn’t considered impolite at all.

Wrap up

So long as winemakers are using real cork in their bottles there will always be a chance for contaminated wine. And if (when) you run into a bottle that has been corked, return it if you can, and if not, just pour it down the sink and open something else.


Further reading

How to tell if wine is corked, Wine Folly


By Ryan Wagner

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