This article was published in The 30 Second Wine Advisor on Monday, Mar. 10, 2008 and can be found at http://www.wineloverspage.com/wineadvisor2/tswa20080310.php.
Cork taint or not?
I've often written about cork "taint," the nasty, chlorine-reeking, moldy stench of wet basement or damp newspaper that spoils any wine damaged by a fungus that randomly afflicts natural cork.
It's an unpleasant effect, one that's variously estimated to damage 2 percent to 10 percent of all wine sealed with natural cork, and it's the primary force behind the growing market share of wine under alternative closures that range from metal screwcaps to synthetic plugs to glass stoppers.
Maybe 90 times of out 100, cork taint is obvious. Open the wine, smell that musty, moldy stench - once learned, it's not easily forgotten - and pour the wine down the drain. Mutter a few bad words, open another bottle. The offending pollutant (most often "TCA," or tricloroanisole, to use its technical name) is so overwhelming that it renders even the best wine unpalatable.
Occasionally, though, cork taint is a tougher call, one you'll occasionally see debated at wine judging or wine-geek gatherings. A slightly afflicted wine may not show an obvious moldy or chlorine stink, but it's subliminal, and the wine's fruit seems muted or "scalped," as some wine tasters say. It can be hard to call a marginally "corked" wine, particularly since individual thresholds of TCA perception vary. Sometimes the only way to be sure is to try another bottle.
The other night's wine, however, presented an unusual challenge, one that I don't recall encountering before.
When I first opened Chateau de Lancyre 2005 "La Coste d'Aleyrac," a dusty whiff of dried wild mushrooms wafted out of the bottle, prompting an instinctive "uh oh." This scent bore an alarming resemblance to a cork-tainted wine, yet it was intriguing - like sniffing dried Italian porcini from the jar - and not unpleasant.
I can't stand TCA and consistently dump a corked wine as soon as I detect the telltale stench, but here it was different. The dried-mushroom character didn't dominate the flavor as TCA does, and there was none of the back note of chlorine that's particularly offensive in cork taint. The wine was delicious on the palate, fresh, tart red plums and mouth-watering acidity and no hint of corkiness.
Still, I spent half the evening sniffing and sipping and trying to make up my mind. I ultimately declared it an earth element in the wine - there's no damp basement here, no wet newspaper, no Clorox tang. The only way to tell for sure would have been to go back to the store for another bottle, and frankly, it wasn't worth that effort.
Philosophers used to ask, when a tree falls in the forest with no one there to hear it, does it make a sound? This wine left me with a question something like that, too. If you have an opinion or comment, I'd love to hear it on our WineLovers Discussion Group, where you can check in to read this post and any ensuing discussion at
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Chateau de Lancyre 2005 "La Coste d'Aleyrac" Pic Saint-Loup ($17.99)
Inky dark purple with a violet edge. Red fruit, a whiff of fresh herbs, and an odd, intriguing "dusty dried mushroom" scent that's reminiscent of "cork taint" but lacks the offputting stench of the all-too-familiar natural-cork fungus defect. I'm inclined to call it "earthy" and let it ride - it's delicious on the palate, fresh, tart red plums and mouth-watering acidity that confers a food-friendly snap in the finish. A typical Languedoc blend of 40% each Syrah and Grenache, 10% each Cinsault and Carignan. U.S. importer: Hand Picked Selections Inc., Warrenton, Va. (March 6, 2008)
FOOD MATCH: Sheerly by chance, the dried-mushroom element seemed to marry unusually well with a simple dish of chicken braised with onions, garlic and smoked paprika.
VALUE: As with so many idiosyncratic wines, its value at this upper-teens price depends on your tolerance for earthy character in European reds ... and, of course, a final determination as to whether my sample was typical or flawed.
WHEN TO DRINK: Based on fruit, acid and balance, it should hold well for a few years; its flavor evolution with the offbeat earthy aromas is harder to predict.
WEB LINK: Here's a fact sheet on Chateau de Lancyre from the U.S. importer, Hand Picked Selections:
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