Cork or screw cap?

1495193329586Let’s face it: screw caps are becoming more and more widely used these days but, for centuries, the cork was the only practical means of sealing a wine bottle.  And, in the main, it was very good at its job: corks are very slightly porous to air, but not to liquids so they allow tiny quantities of air into the bottle to allow the wine to develop at just the right rate.  And, if the bottle is stored on its side and so the cork is kept moist, it expands to fill the neck of the bottle and prevents too much air getting in to spoil the wine.2017-09-01 08.46.37

But it’s not perfect: it is estimated that up to 3% of corks (that’s roughly 1 in every 35) are faulty, generally because they are affected by compounds that cause a musty smell and taste – something we call ‘corked’ or ‘corkiness’.  At low levels, the problem is difficult to detect and may simply make the wine taste flat and lacking in fruit.  At its worst, however, it can be really unpleasant with a lingering taste for anyone unfortunate enough to miss the foul smell and put the wine in their mouth. 

If you want to avoid this risk, there are a number of alternatives:

1495193237528the new ‘technical’ corks, such as Diam (the two on the right) and Nomacorc (on the left including the black one), seem to offer all the advantages of traditional corks without the problems (except they are expensive) and glass stoppers are even pricier (and a friend of mine couldn’t work out how to open one – no, taking a hammer to it is not a good option!).  Possibly the worst choice is one of those plastic stoppers, which is almost guaranteed to break your corkscrew. 

And then there’s the screw cap.  1495193245858Easy to use, clean and convenient, no corkscrew needed, no cork taint problems – what could be better?  Except that some regions of Europe ban them on quality wines and I’ve met a number of wine lovers who ‘just don’t like them’.  I accept that you don’t get that wonderful ‘pop’ of the cork or the flourish that a good sommelier produces (and there can be the odd technical problem with screw caps, too) but I’m always happy to see one – especially when it’s removed and the wine is being poured!

Nasty, smelly wine!

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!