This article was published in The 30 Second Wine Advisor on Friday, Oct. 6, 2006.


One of the more frustrating experiences in wine appreciation is the discovery that the wine you've been looking forward to enjoying was the victim of a random drive-by slaying perpetrated by a tainted natural cork.

The musty, moldy, mushroomy, chlorine-scented damp-basement and wet-cardboard stench that cork taint imparts, even in homeopathic amounts, is sufficient to spoil the enjoyment of your wine and prompt pouring it out, or if you're willing to make the effort and have a cooperative wine merchant, taking it back for a refund or exchange.

Even if we grant that the incidence of cork-tainted wine has diminished somewhat in recent years, thanks to increased quality control efforts by some cork producers and wine makers, there's no question that a significant percentage of wines stoppered with natural cork will be spoiled.

But here's a twist, and I don't mean the twist of a screw cap: The other night I opened a bottle of decent Alsatian wine from a respected producer - specifically, Trimbach 2002 Pinot Blanc - only to be greeted by the telltale aroma. Tasting confirmed the first impression: Musty wet-cardboard and fruit that was muted at best left me in absolutely no doubt. I'll stake my reputation, such as it is, on my judgement that this wine was corked.

But here's where the story goes off the rails: The bottle was not fitted with a natural cork. It was closed with a slick-skinned, foam-filled synthetic stopper, a modern invention explicitly designed as a taint-free replacement for natural cork.

What's up with that? We've been kicking this topic around on our WineLovers Discussion Group, and the consensus is that the chemical malefactors involved in taint - trichloroanisole (TCA) and the less-familiar tribromoanisole (TBA) and others - is not limited to natural cork. These compounds may turn up in barrels, in wood used in winery building and other organic materials that may come in contact with wine.

It's for just this reason that the folks at Amorim - the major Portuguese cork producer that I had the pleasure of visiting last autumn - object to the term "corked" to describe tainted wine. Cork defenders argue that taint comes from many sources and that it's not fair to associate it with the bark of the Portuguese oak tree.

While I don't buy it completely - most tainted wine is affected by the cork - this tasting certainly offers a compelling wake-up call and demonstrates that alternative stoppers can't guarantee that a wine won't pick up taint from other sources.

I've E-mailed Trimbach asking for comment but at this point have had no reply. If and when the company responds, I'll pass it on.