Category Archives: Corked wine

The End of the Cork?

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CorksHow long before the practice of using a cork to seal a wine bottle is consigned to history? It may not happen in 5 years or even 10, but corks are on their way out. In a tasting I ran recently, 5 wines out of 6 were under screwcap. And it’s not only the cheapest bottles that no longer need a corkscrew – these 5 were all good quality wines around £8 – £10. Nor is the trend restricted to the New World; producers in some of the most traditional Appellations of France are also switching: I’ve opened a Chablis and a Crozes-Hermitage recently – both had screwcaps.

For more than 200 years, the cork has been the most commonly used method of sealing a wine bottle. Provided it’s kept moist (which is why bottles should be stored on their side), the cork swells to fill the neck of the bottle, keeping the wine in and the air out. Job done! Except that, occasionally, a cork will become tainted by a naturally occurring fungus, TCA, which affects the wine giving it that nasty, musty aroma and flavour that we call ‘corked’.

Numerous attempts have been made to deal with the problem – and with some success; I certainly find fewer corked bottles now than, say, 10 years ago, but it clearly hasn’t been eliminated altogether. So it’s not surprising that producers have turned to other ways of closing their bottles, the most common being the screwcap.

So, do screwcaps work? In practical terms, the answer is ‘yes’. Trials show that they generally perform well and can even keep wine fresh and in good condition for up to 30 years.

But, if corks do disappear from the wine scene, as I’m sure they will, I guess I won’t be alone in missing that feeling of expectation when I hear the sound of a cork being drawn from a bottle. The turn of a screwcap just isn’t the same!

 

Nasty, smelly wine!

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Ians mugshotYou open a bottle of wine and instead of the lovely, fresh appealing aromas you were hoping for, a nasty smell hits your nose. Something is obviously wrong, but what? – and what, if anything, can you do about it?

It depends on the smell. Perhaps the most likely is a musty, mouldy smell. This suggests a ‘corked’ wine. Corked wine is nothing to do with bits of cork floating about in the glass, which are harmless (take them out with a spoon or your finger and be more careful opening the bottle next time) – but is the result of a problem in the cork production process which has tainted the cork, which, in turn, has spoiled the wine. Nothing you can do except take the bottle back for a replacement or refund.

Another possibility is the wine might smell a bit like sherry or vinegar and a white wine might also be an unduly dark colour. This wine is oxidised – oxygen will, somehow, have got into the bottle and ruined the wine. This happens at times with plastic bottle stoppers that don’t fit properly or with poor corks or poor storage and, again, there’s no remedy – just take it back for a refund.

The opposite of oxidation – where too little oxygen is present can also be a fault. It is usually called ‘reduction’ (and that’s a useful shorthand, although I know that some scientists think the term is misleading). Reduction is most often – but not exclusively – found in screw-capped bottles and shows in a number of ways: smells of sewage, manure or rotten eggs are common. Happily, this problem is not always terminal; introducing some oxygen to the wine by, for example, decanting or simply leaving it in the glass for a few minutes, can revive the wine but, if it doesn’t, your remedy is as before.

There are other faults that are less common, but sometimes even wines in good condition can have unusual and unpleasant smells; one winemaker used to say that “good Burgundy smells like s**t!” So, how can you tell if there’s a problem? Perhaps, only by experience, and, in fact, even experts often argue whether certain smells represent a fault or are a characteristic of the style of wine.

I should say that none of the faults I have mentioned would actually harm you if you drank the wine. But you wouldn’t enjoy it, so my advice is, if you’re unhappy with how a wine smells, then reject it. Most wine waiters, wine merchants and supermarkets are keen to please their customers and will usually exchange or refund quite willingly. But you do need to ask – and sometimes be persistent!