Is My Wine Corked: How to Tell & Causes For It

We know you know what corked wine means. I mean, nobody gets to this point in their wine investment journey without being aware of the potential pitfalls. Because this pitfall is a stonker. Let’s go through the funnel: the fine wine investment market is dependent on the final user, i.e. the person who buys the wine to drink. Enthusiasts pay vast sums of money to get that rare bottle of 1982 Chateau Margaux, or that mythical 1945 Chateau Mouton Rothschild, and when they get it, they expect it to be flawless. So what happens if they open their beloved bottle only to find it tastes, well, a bit mouldy. They won’t be very happy, that’s what. 

Issues with corks are the number one problem and fault with wine today. The term refers to a wine that has been contaminated by the cork (the official term is “cork taint”). Frequent wine drinkers or wine investors (it is easier than ever with a wine investment app) may have come across such a bottle in their time, but if you don’t know the signs to tell if a wine is corked, read on.

What Does Corked Wine Mean?

Corks have been used to seal things since the 1600s (although it would take until the mid-1700s to create a corkscrew). The material became popular first as a simple way to seal a glass bottle but gained popularity when it was realised that it could slow down wine’s oxidation process. This would allow the wine to continue to age and gain quality in the bottle, with little risk to the product inside. In theory at least.

Corked wine is a bit like a gatecrasher at a party. You’re all getting along famously and there is this one person who ruins it for everyone. At the end of the night, it’s all anyone can talk about, despite having had an amazing time before the unwanted guest turned up. Corked wine has a tendency to ruin it for everyone else. But it doesn’t have to.

How Does Wine Get Corked?

Wine becomes corked thanks to a tiny molecule known as 2,4,6-trichloroanisole (TCA for short). When a wine is tainted by TCA, the taste is less than nice – think those awful smells of wet dog, wet cardboard and beach bathroom and you more or less get it. TCA is a fungus that is found in various parts of winemaking – in corks, on labels, on and in cardboard and is thus in the air at all winemaking facilities. The fact that it is a chemical that is present is not the problem. It’s when it gets into the wine that it becomes more complicated.

What happens is this: microorganisms that are in the air enjoy the taste of cork (or tree bark in its more primitive stage) very much. So they eat it, leaving behind minute holes that are invisible to the naked eye. The airborne TCA slips into the wine and creates a nasty chemical reaction that ruins both the taste and the value.

How Do You Tell If a Wine Is Corked?

This is very much a case of if it looks like a duck, and walks like a duck, it probably is a duck. If you think wine is corked, and it takes like your wine is corked, then it probably is corked. Trust your instinct on this. 

First of all, does it smell bad? And when we say bad, we mean that wet, mouldy, forest smell. Then the taste – does it taste like a rusty old penny? Does it taste flat and lifeless? Does it taste of, well, cork?  We won’t go into all the intricacies of wine flavours here as we do it very well in our article on the subject but like many things, it’s a matter of personal taste. Some people are less sensitive than others and might find that the taste of cork in their Cabernet doesn’t bother them. Others, particularly the wine-educated, would rather drink a warm vin de table than a cool, corked Chablis.

By the way, if the cork crumbles into the wine upon opening, that does not make it corked. Annoying, yes, corked, no. 

Is Corked Wine Safe to Drink?

Perhaps this title should be rephrased as is corked wine nice to drink? No, not really. It’s not harmful to your health in any way, just not very nice on the palate. 

What Should You Do If Your Wine Is Corked?

If you are drinking (or rather, not drinking) your corked wine in a restaurant, send it back. You are paying quite a lot of money to enjoy yourself, and having a drinkable bottle of wine is part of that. If you are not 100% sure whether the wine is corked or not, ask the sommelier to give their opinion. 

If your wine has come from a merchant, just do the same thing: take it back. In both of these cases, the customer is (usually) right. And if they don’t take the bottle back, well, do you really want to be spending your money there anyway? 

But what happens if it’s a bottle that you’ve had in the cellar for some time, and can’t just return it. Well, you’re in luck. Scientists have discovered a way of extracting TCA from wine, effectively removing the “cork taint” and the dodgy taste. Pour the wine into a jug filled with cellophane wrap. Let it soak for about 15-minutes, then pour into another decanter and enjoy. Apparently the chemicals in the cling film act as an antidote to the TCA. But we’ll have to take the scientist’s word for this, we haven’t tried it ourselves. We suspect it would leave wine tasting flat and muted, and those are not two adjectives we like to hear when talking about fine wine.

How Can You Prevent Corked Wine?

So how can we stop those pesky microorganisms from eating through our precious wine corks? Well, the most obvious answer is to use an alternative substance. Screw top bottles are immensely popular in new world wines but have yet to make an impact in France and Italy. Synthetic corks are as well becoming more commonplace. Both of these solutions have a 100% success rate, but sadly lack the romance of natural cork. 

In reality, less than 5% of naturally corked bottles suffer TCA contamination. That’s one bottle in every 20 bottles, and even then we think that’s an over-exaggeration. Winemakers, particularly those who produce fine wine, work very hard to keep their wineries free of TCA, and in most cases, they do this very well. Many of us will go through our entire lives without ever even tasting a bottle of corked wine, let alone sending one back. But if you do get a bad one, don’t be afraid to put a cork in it. 

While luck definitely plays a role in preserving your wine, proper wine storage can help you avoid such issues. Read our article on how to store wine and find out why it is critical when investing.

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