Here's an all-too-familiar tasting note that I wish no one ever had to write: "Musty. The smell of a damp basement with a hint of dusty old attic; a mushroomy note, woody cork, a whiff of chlorine bleach. No fruit, no aroma identifiable as wine. Fruit tries to punch through in the flavor, but gives up the fight against mold, mushroom and must."
The wine, of course, is "corked," tainted by a cork-borne fungus that can't be detected in advance but that, upon exposure to wine in the bottle, creates a chemical called 2,4,6-tricloroanisole (TCA for short). This compound carries a characteristic dank, moldy aroma that reminds most people of mushrooms, damp cardboard or a wet basement, so persistent and strong that for all practical purposes it ruins the wine. (Even in very small proportions, moreover, TCA at levels below the threshold of perception may still render a wine flat, dull and muted.)
It's been a bad month for me in the cork-taint department. At dinner one evening during my trip to Friuli earlier this month, three of five otherwise fine wines served at one dinner were "corked" ("tappò" in Italian); and since returning home, I've had two prospective articles knocked offline when wine intended for "blind" comparative tasting proved to be tainted, making it useless for discussion.
Many wine lovers believe that the problem of cork taint can be eliminated entirely by replacing natural corks with a synthetic closure or screw cap, and a few producers have boldly moved to these alternatives. But natural cork is so strongly associated with quality wine in the mind of many consumers that the wine industry overall has been slow to consider shifting to cleaner closures.
Meanwhile, the cork industry has launched a major advertising and public-relations effort to defend cork's image. Industry flacks have even warned that a move away from wine corks might prompt Portuguese farmers to cut down their ancient cork-oak forests, destroying rare and threatened species of birds and animals that live there. Most experts consider this argument dubious at best; but in a major PR coup for the cork producers, the Prince of Wales himself was apparently persuaded, and has uttered public pronouncements in support of natural cork.
On a more pragmatic level, some experts still believe that high-end, ageworthy wines may not mature predictably under alternative closures; only time will answer this question for certain. Most producers continue risking natural cork, demanding high-quality corks and inspecting them carefully. But this option is expensive and, as my recent experiences demonstrate, it's still subject to failure, since the fungus that causes TCA cannot be reliably detected in advance and, in my personal experience, may afflict as many as 5 of every 100 bottles.
As long as consumers continue to demand that quality wines be stoppered with natural cork - a 17th century technology for 21st century wine - we must accept that a small but significant percentage of the wines we open will be afflicted with an unpleasant fault that seems to be inseparable from natural cork.
I don't know about you, but I'm ready for change.
Here's my report on one of the un-tainted wines that survived last week's tastings:
Masi 1999 "Serègo Alighieri" Valpolicella Classico Superiore ($12.99)
If you thought you recognized the family name of the Italian poet Dante on the label of this Northeastern Italian red, you weren't mistaken. According to the Masi Website, "Since 1353, when Dante's son purchased the property in Gargagnago, the family has farmed the same vineyards over an uninterrupted span of 20 generations." The label also notes that the wine is made with a special Alighieri clone of the Molinara grape and is put briefly in cherrywood barrels. Clear garnet in color, its aroma shows characteristic dried cherries with accents of vanilla, spice and a whiff of brown sugar. Full, juicy and bright in flavor, it offers fresh cherry fruit shaped by snappy acidity. Despite its unusual heritage, it comes across as benchmark Valpolicella, an excellent example of the fine, fresh reds from the Veneto hills above Verona, near Lake Garda. U.S. importer: Remy Amerique Inc., NYC. (March 22, 2003)
FOOD MATCH: Fruity but light and fresh, this is a red that can be put to work with lighter fare. It worked well with a quick, simple soup of chicken with carrots and celery.
VALUE: Very good value.
WHEN TO DRINK: Not a wine for keeping, best drunk up within a year or two while it's youthful and fresh.
WEB LINK: The Masi Website, with a link to its Serègo Alighieri line, is found (in English) at
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French Wine Explorers:
Join us in Bordeaux!
With just six weeks left before I take off for France to join our friends Lauriann Greene and Jean-Pierre Sollin of French Wine Explorers for our Best of Bordeaux wine tour, they're still adding more great properties to our already busy list of exclusive private tastings. Now I'm informed that we've found room in the schedule for a visit to the fabled Chateau Cheval Blanc.
We're already scheduled for VIP visits and wine tasting at an all-star list of top properties that includes Margaux, Latour, Mouton Rothschild, Haut Brion, La Mission Haut Brion, Lagrange, Cos d'Estournel, La Conseillante, Belair (St. Emilion) and Chateau l'Evangile (Pomerol) and quite a few more, including one or two top producers that permit visits so rarely that I'm not allowed to name them!
We'll be staying in a fine hotel in the historic heart of the city of Bordeaux during the May 11-17 tour, and already have dinner reservations at the region's most highly rated restaurants.
Perhaps surprisingly, at this late date and with this impressive a schedule, we still have room for two more participants. A few spots are also still available for another tour featuring the same itinerary that Lauriann and Jean-Pierre will lead in July.
The remaining spaces will go on a first-come, first-served basis, so don't delay! For full information or to make a reservation, send E-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org or call 1-877-261-1500 (toll-free in the U.S. and Canada). If you would like to discuss anything about the tour with me before making a commitment, please feel free to get in touch at email@example.com.
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Last Week's Wine Advisor Index
The Wine Advisor's daily edition is usually distributed on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays (and, for those who subscribe, the FoodLetter on Thursdays). Here's the index to last week's columns:
Ding Dão Bell (March 21, 2003)
Australian with finesse (March 19, 2003)
Why do we love wine? (March 17, 2003)
Complete 30 Second Wine Advisor archive:
Last week's Wine Advisor Foodletter: White asparagus salad (March 20, 2003)
Wine Advisor Foodletter archive:
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Monday, March 24, 2003