Wine Questionary:

Cork taint: What is a 'corked' wine?

Corks have been the traditional wine-bottle closure for about 300 years, and when they work well, they make about as good a stopper as anyone has invented. The cork is so enshrined in tradition that most of us chuckle at the very idea of a quality wine closed with a beer cap or jug-wine cap.

But the wine industry isn't laughing. Here's why:

Natural cork is all too often afflicted by a fungus called 2,4,6-tricloroanisole (TCA), a chemical that imparts its flavor to wine and, basically, ruins it. If you've ever tasted a wine with a dank, moldy aroma that reminds you of wet cardboard, a damp basement or mushrooms, that's TCA, and the wine is said to be "corked." By some estimates, as many as one bottle of wine in 20 is tainted by the TCA fungus.

Some wineries have reduced the incidence of corkiness by using expensive corks that undergo intense inspection before use. Even then, however, some afflicted corks get through.

Crown caps and screw tops offer alternatives; another modern solution is the use of synthetic corks made from plastics and other non-cork materials. This is an interesting development, and it's coming into increasing use for less expensive wines, in which it seems to be a perfectly adequate alternative. There are several commercial brands, some of which use a cork-colored product as protective camouflage, while others use bright, bold colors in a sort of reverse-snobbery approach.

It's going to take a lot of experimentation before the wine industry can be certain that synthetics, crown caps and screw tops have the durability to protect wine during long-term storage; and it's going to take a lot of marketing before wine lovers give up our attachment to the traditional cork. But I wouldn't bet that the old-fashioned cork won't eventually go the way of the LP phonograph record.

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