So here is the scenario. You pick up 2 bottles of your favorite chianti to bring to a friend’s pizza party. The first bottle tastes great! Fresh, vibrant and juicy…just as you remembered it. Now you crack open that second bottle. However this one smells a bit funky, tastes a bit different, and just isn’t quite good as that first bottle. Is your chianti corked?
I. And what exactly is corked wine?
Corkiness or a corked wine is a wine fault that is caused by certain molds/funghi that in most instances will be found to live and grow in cork trees. These molds can and do live in cork even after it’s been harvested, processed and shipped out in the form of finished corks. For most people these molds (which are related to the same molds that create penicillin) are innocuous and remain unnoticeable, unless they come into contact with chlorine or chlorophenol compounds at any time during the winemaking process. .
What happens when these cork bark molds and chlorine interact? You guessed it.. the formation of an aromatically unpleasant compound known as TCA, or more specifically tri-chloroanisole.
As you can imagine, the possibilities for the formation of TCA are quite numerous. For instance cork, bark undergoes sterilization in the production of corks, and bottles need to be sanitized before being used.
Of course, the use of chlorine and chlorine based products are often found in our water supply, as well as in numerous cleaning agents. For this reason, wineries need to be extra vigilant when it comes to their water source and how they sanitize not only bottles but all winery equipment.
While small amounts of TCA a wine can result in a very subtle loss of aromatic fruit and vibrancy, (like, you know this wine doesn’t taste as fresh and vibrant as it usually does) larger amounts can impart distinctive and off putting aromas that ultimately render a wine pretty much undrinkable.
II. What does a corked wine smell like?
Descriptors often include: wet cardboard, swamp, moldy mushrooms..
If, you open a bottle of wine, especially a young and more fruit driven bottle of wine, and any one of these stale, musty aromas hit you in the face, then heads up, you could be dealing with a corked bottle of wine.
III. What is not necessarily an indicator of a corked wine?
Now that you know what causes corked wine, let’s debunk several factors which people often believe indicate a corked wine, but in fact do not.
1. An old, or crumbly cork. The physical appearance of a cork doesn’t indicate that a particular wine is or is not corked. I’ve opened plenty of older bottles with corks that look less than perfect, but have done a great job keeping a wine protected over time. On the other hand, I’ve opened expensive bottles of wine with beautiful corks that, you guessed it, were rife with TCA.
2. A pushed cork, or one that rises above the level of the bottle itself is not necessarily an indicator that a wine is suffering from TCA. A pushed cork could indicate that the wine was exposed to higher temperatures or that the bottle was overfilled, this happens more frequently with larger format bottles that are often bottled by hand.
3. Bottle seepage or capsule corrosion. Once again, these two conditions are unrelated to TCA contamination and do not indicate that a wine is corked.
4. Mold on the cork. Frequently bottles of wine, especially older bottles that have been stored in humid conditions may develop some sort of mold or funghi on or around the cork. Usually this is discovered when you cut off the foil capule on a bottle of wine. These fungi are not necessarily related to molds that cause TCA. Its best to open the bottle and let your nose and mouth be the final judge.
5. A musty smell from an older bottle of wine. This can get tricky, because older bottles can sometimes be confused with a wine suffering from TCA contamination, especially right after its been opened. My advice, let the bottle of wine areate and breath for a bit, either by pouring a glass or decanting the wine. With an older bottle of wine, the initial musty-ness should give way to very subtle and nuanced notes of things like earth, mineral, dried flowers, fruits and spice. If after 30 minutes your getting significant notes of wet dog and stale cardboard then you’ve probably got yourself a corked bottle. It does happen.
IV. What to do if you think you have a corked wine?
If, after careful evaluation you really think that you’ve purchased a bottle of TCA contaminated wine, here’s what you want to do.
First, don’t pour out the bottle of wine. If possible, pour your glass or glasses back into the bottle and simply re-insert the cork. Next, give the wine shop a call and let them know about your situation. Most reputable wine retailers will and should exchange a bottle of wine that is truly corked. But, they’ll most likely want to taste the wine and make a professional evaluation. So be prepared to bring in your opened bottle of wine as well as your receipt.