Sludge on the cork
This week, let's take a look at the ugly mess that you'll occasionally find on the other end of the cork. A 1988 Vouvray that I opened with considerable anticipation the other night provided about as unappetizing an example as I had seen for some time. When I peeled away the foil capsule covering the bottle neck, it revealed a dark-brown, gooey slime, a mass of muddy stuff so unpleasant that for a minute I thought about opening another bottle instead.
I was able to scrub most of the mess away with damp paper towels, though. And when I pulled the cork, I was happy to find that discoloration only affected the outer 1/4 inch. The part of the cork that touched the wine was good as new.
What's the story here? It's really not that unusual to find sludge in the wine-bottle capsule, especially with older wines. But the good news is that - despite its alarming appearance - it doesn't usually signal that the wine is damaged. Most often, it simply means that at some point in the wine's life, a tiny bit of wine seeped out, either because the wine was exposed to heat or perhaps because of minute imperfections in the cork. Trapped in the dark, enclosed environment of the capsule, the drop of wine became a natural host for mold.
It's really nothing to worry about, although if I ordered an entire case of new wine and found them all leaking, I might suspect the possibility that it was exposed to damaging heat, and seek a refund.
For a single bottle, though, or an older wine, I wouldn't worry about it. Simply wipe the bottle neck and cork with a damp cloth or paper towel before pulling out the cork, then wipe it again to ensure that the neck is clean before you pour.
What's your experience with leaky corks and sludgy capsules? If you'd like to talk about it, send me an E-mail note to firstname.lastname@example.org. I regret that the growing circulation of the "Wine Advisor" makes it difficult for me to reply individually to every note, but I'll answer as many as I can; and please be assured that all your input helps me do a better job of writing about wine.
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A bargain red from Southern Italy
This wine from Puglia in the "boot heel" of Southern Italy offers unusual complexity and flavor interest for an inexpensive wine. Made primarily from the local Uva di Troia grape with some Malbec and Montepulciano in the blend, it's a dark-garnet color, with perfumed red-fruit aromas and a whiff of fennel. Crisp and bright flavors, fresh fruit and tart acidity, with herbal and earthy notes, and a pleasant hint of bitterness in the finish. U.S. importer: Vintner Select, Cincinnati. (Sept. 17, 2000)
FOOD MATCH: Surprisingly good match with a non-traditional partner, Thai curry noodles with crab.
WEBSITE: (English version) www.vinisantalucia.com/defeng.htm.
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Vol. 2, No. 35, Sept. 18, 2000