Off the Vine: A bad cork can spoil the bottle

May 29, 2013 

Several years ago while out to dinner with friends, the waitress opened the bottle of wine I had selected and handed me the cork. After I raised the cork to my nose but before I could say a word, she grabbed it out of my hand and stated that she would bring out another bottle.

Obviously the waitress could tell from the look on my face that this wine was "corked," which I quickly explained to my fellow diners. As she started to walk away, someone at the table asked her to leave the cork for everyone to smell. She obliged and the cork was passed around the table.

A bad cork smells musty and reminds me of the odor of moldy newspaper or wet decaying cardboard -- those of you who grew up in a house with a damp basement should be able to relate. Once you smell a bad cork, or for that matter taste a corked wine, it is not an aroma or flavor that you will easily forget.

So what exactly is a "corked" wine? Most commonly, it is wine that has been bottled using a cork contaminated by a chemical compound called 2,4,6-trichloroanisole, otherwise referred to as TCA. It can also be caused by wooden barrels or other wood found within the wineries cellar. There is much debate over the actual number of bottles affected by TCA, with the estimates ranging anywhere from 1 to 10 percent of total production.

The corks traditionally used by wineries to close a wine bottle come from the bark of the cork oak tree. This tree's bark thickens to a point where it can be harvested every

10 or so years. From an environmental standpoint, the harvesting does not have any adverse impact on the tree. More than 80 percent of all cork is produced in Portugal and Spain. Although this type of cork has been used as a closure for wine bottles for more than three centuries, TCA is one of the side effects from their usage.

Cork was initially chosen due to its' elasticity, which causes it to be easily compressed when inserted into a wine bottle and then it expands to seal the wine from the real enemy -- oxidation from exposure to too much air.

A fairly new hybrid cork on the market is called DIAM, which is a combination of small pieces of natural granulated cork that are combined with a synthetic material to produce a cork that appears to be of the same quality as high end natural corks, with one large exception -- no measurable levels of TCA.

While there are a number of other alternative wine closures on the market, the two most common are the screw cap and synthetic corks -- neither of which is capable of containing TCA.

Synthetic corks are made of a hard plastic material and they create a number of issues. They are extremely difficult to remove from the bottle and are not biodegradable.

The screw cap, also known as the Stelvin Closure, provides an excellent seal and, in my opinion, is wonderful for white wines that are meant to be consumed at a young age. You can open a bottle, pour a couple of glasses and screw the cap back on. The main problem with this type of closure is losing the ritual of opening a bottle with a corkscrew and hearing the sound that only a cork can make when it is removed from the bottle.

I have heard numerous discussions at wine tastings about the various closures, and each time I hear something negative about one of them,.I recall the words of a wise and old wine connoisseur -- "You can't judge a wine bottle by its' closure."

Jim Rawe, a family attorney in Bradenton, is an avid collector of fine wines. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at jimrawe@gmail.com.

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