We’ve all heard it before: “This wine is corked.” “Well of course it is. How else would it stay in the bottle, right?” That, dear reader, is not what I’m talking about and you know it. In fact I think you’ve been waiting for me to make this post so you could crack out that gem, haven’t you? I’m not mad. I’m just disappointed.
Being “corked” or exhibiting “cork-taint,” is a wine fault that can make that delicious bottle of Barolo that you know and love, and utterly destroy everything good about it. Not unlike a Star Wars Prequel. The textbook symptoms are wet cardboard or newspaper and/or wet dog or animal smells. This is normally detected along with the absence of any of the nice fruity, fresh notes that the wine would have ordinarily brought along with it to your, now very sad, birthday party.
What does it mean when a wine is “corked?” Well first that requires a quick lesson in what cork actually is. Cork is made from the bark of the Cork Oak (I told you it’d be quick), and like anything produced out in nature, these trees are constantly bombarded with a microcosm of fungal, bacterial, chemical, and romantic advances. One of these naturally-occurring chemicals is none other than 2,4,6-Trichloroanisole, or more simply TCA. It’s in the air, on the ground, at your work functions and climbin in yo’ windows so getting acquainted with a cork tree whose bark is only harvested every 9-12 years is not a stretch.
So here’s the fun part: Humans can detect this compound in a wine at concentrations as small as 4-6 ppt. That’s a “t” for “trillion.” All you need is something as miniscule as four nanograms of TCA per liter of liquid and all of a sudden you’re on the wrong side of the tracks in flavor country.
Nowadays, modern advances in cork treatment techniques have driven occurrences of cork-taint down to a number that the cork industry quotes around 1% (although in 2005, Spectator ran a study that quoted something close to 7%. I’m not sticking my hand in this dogfight, folks), which is fantastic, but still enough to spur frighteningly dull conversations about alternative wine closures. It is because of these conversations and their serious effect on the neocortexes of young cork-dorks, that scientists are working around the clock to find better ways to combat TCA.
Now that I’ve established what being corked is. I’d just like to take this opportunity to state what it is not.
“Corked” should not be used as a synonym for “heat damaged.” These are two vastly different issues replete with their own symptoms and ramifications. A heat damaged wine can present itself as a tannic, acidity liquid devoid of fruit, or a murky, oxidized, vinegar-like concoction, either may or may not remind you of that one time your mother-in-law nicked herself while slicing apples.