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Take My Tears and That’s Not Nearly All

June 26, 2011

It’s not my love that’s tainted. It’s the wine.

Cork taint is a tricky beast. I’m not going to bore you with the technical mumbo jumbo. But let’s just say that sometimes there is a problem with a natural cork, and that problem results in the wine tasting bad. However, “bad” is a relative term, and some people are more sensitive to it than others. It’s not like it makes the wine putrid nor does it make the wine taste like vinegar. The wine still tastes like wine, just not very good wine

My hunch is that most people couldn’t identify cork taint in a bottle of wine. That’s not too surprising because most people don’t drink wine very often. You probably know how Coke is supposed to taste. And I’m guessing that you could tell if a soda fountain’s mix of syrup to seltzer was off. But that’s because you’ve had hundreds, if not thousands, of Cokes in your lifetime.

Even those who drink wine regularly can have problems identifying this vexing problem. I know because I experienced this first hand last week.

First, let me just say that cork taint happens. It’s unfortunate, but it’s true. And it has nothing to do with how you keep or store your wine at home. The problem is with the cork itself.

Wineries that use natural cork are aware of this and the risks. As a result, they expect a few tainted bottles to be returned. Invariably fewer are returned than expected meaning most people either drink or simply dispose of the tainted wine.

Unless you want to use it for one of the following experiments, I suggest you return it.

But finding a tainted bottle of wine can be a great thing. Hopefully you have another bottle of the same wine on hand. If you suspect taint to be present, you can open up the second bottle and try the wines side by side. Then everyone at the table will have a sensory memory of what cork taint smells and tastes like.

It’s widely described as wet newspaper. I can see that, but there is also a mustiness and a woodiness about it. More importantly, the taint suppresses the fruit and zestiness of a wine.

We drew a tainted bottle from the wine cabinet and Mrs. Fussy didn’t notice.

I wondered to myself if I should even mention anything to her, lest it ruin her enjoyment of the wine. But I’m no good with secrets. And once I told her, she totally noticed. However, she didn’t find it undrinkable. I’m still a little flabbergasted by that.

Drinking this wine brought me no pleasure, but I recalled reading about a trick for removing cork taint from an affected bottle. This would be a great opportunity to test it out.

Plastic wrap. Apparently the offending taint molecules stick to the plastic and leave the wine taint-free. I did a modified version of what I found online. I shoved a one square foot piece of Stretch-Tight into the half-empty bottle with the handle of a wooden spoon. Then I swirled it around for five minutes.

There was a warning that came with this method, and that was that in addition to removing the flavor of the taint it can remove other beneficial flavors too. I had my doubts. But it worked! Really it did. The taint was gone, but so was any kind of fruit or character that the wine might have once had.

Mrs. Fussy actually preferred her tainted wine to my doctored one.

So I did whatever any reasonable person would do when confronted with lifeless, tasteless, unflawed wine. I made sangria. Well, not really sangria. But I doctored up the wine to give it a bit more fruitiness and flavor. That meant some brandy that had dried sour cherries steeping in it, a touch of Cointreau and a dash of orange bitters for brightness, and a drop of whiskey barrel aged old-fashioned bitters for spice.

It wasn’t bad, although it’s not something I would seek out in the future. And regardless of what Mrs. Fussy has to say, my “wine” was totally better than the corked juice in her glass. [

Maybe you are better off not knowing the proper taste of a wine.

However, if you are interested in learning, I highly recommend finding a reasonably priced bottle of wine you like and buying a case of it. Drink it over several weeks or months. And towards the end of the case I guarantee you will know what that wine is supposed to taste like, just like you can experience the memory of a good hamburger that’s been charred on the grill by reading those words on a screen.

Once you have a taste memory for a wine, then you can easily identify variations, like cork taint, or oxidation, or a wine that is just past its prime.

If you are interested in taking the first step and need some handholding, just let me know. I’m here to help.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. June 26, 2011 11:33 am

    So I did whatever any reasonable person would do when confronted with lifeless, tasteless, unflawed wine. I made sangria.


    Because of cork taint, do you then think it is better for winieries to use synthetic or screw caps, or do you think the natural cork is worth the risk?

  2. June 26, 2011 11:59 am

    Working in a wine store, I’ve had an opportunity to experience cork taint more often than most (given that we open a lot of bottles for tastings). In reality, cork taint isn’t as common a flaw as poor cork seal and oxidation. Unfortunately, a lot of people use “corked” as a catchall for “off-bottle,” which can confuse the matter. But you are right that many people are unable to notice a mild degree of cork taint–even among our staff.

    For example, about half-hour into a tasting the other week, one staff member pointed out to the pourer that the bottle of Zinfandel was corked. The pourer tasted and wasn’t convinced; I tasted and was on the fence. Two other staff members had already tasted and didn’t notice. The store opened a second bottle and the difference between the two examples was night-and-day–the first was definitely corked. In other words, without a side-by-side comparison I probably would have drank the bad bottle without a second thought (although, to be fair, I didn’t find the wine particularly appealing, so my palate wasn’t completely wrong).

    Overall, I think the failure rate of natural cork isn’t something to lose sleep over. Will the casual wine drinker experience noticeable cork taint at some point? Maybe. Poor cork seal and oxidation? Probably. Will he/she notice? Tough call.

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