A majority of wineries and consumers prefer their wines capped with traditional cork, but a growing number of drinkers are becoming comfortable with alternatives such as the screw cap. The 2012 Wine Intelligence USA Closure Report indicates that 22 percent were comfortable with the screw cap, with 66 percent still preferring cork.
Cork’s major disadvantage is “cork taint,” characterized by a host of unpleasant aromas and tastes that become noticeable after a bottle is opened. The taint smells of moldy newspaper or wet dog, and it’s often carried over into the flavor of the wine, which tastes flat, and has little fruit expression. Cork taint is due primarily to the chemicals TCA (2,4,6-trichloroanisole) or TBA (2,4,6-tribromoanisole).
Improvements in the manufacturing of cork closures have reduced but not eliminated the problem. Noted wine writer, Steve Heimoff, who considers himself of “average” sensitivity to cork taint, estimates the incidence to be one in 30 bottles. Individuals vary in their sensitivity to TCA, so the figure may be even higher for very sensitive wine drinkers.
So, what do you do in a restaurant when the server opens a bottle of wine, pours an ounce in your glass, and waits for your approval? First of all, ignore the cork. It is true that a tainted cork may smell moldy, but you must sniff the wine. I love the quote from Russell Baker in The New Joys of Wine who recommends this tongue-in-cheek response when presented with a cork at a restaurant: “When the waiter hands you the cork, pass it to your dinner partner and ask him, or her, to squeeze it, then return it to the waiter and ask him to have it chopped very fine and put in the salad.”
Now gently swirl the glass to release the wine’s smells, put your nose in the glass, and take one sniff (the smell of TCA will become less obvious with each subsequent sniff). If the wine smells like your dog after a dip in your pool, you have a tainted wine.
At this point, you may begin to squirm in your seat and feel sweat dripping down the small of your back. The last thing you want to do is confront the server. If you are with wine-knowledgeable friends or a spouse, have them confirm your impression. If you are still not certain, you can choose to drink the wine anyway. Cork taint will not harm you or cause you digestive upset, but this is not a recommended option.
My preference is to politely ask the server’s advice. This is non-confrontational and flattering and almost always works. Usually the server or someone trained in wine will smell it and agree that the wine is “off” and replace it with a new bottle.
When bringing your own wine to a restaurant to enjoy, always include a second “back-up” bottle of the same or different wine, in case the first is tainted.
What about a wine you purchased from a local retailer? Re-insert the cork and return the bottle. The retailer will almost always gladly offer a replacement.
Bought the bottle from a winery? If the wine is still in stock, the winery will usually send you a replacement. Unfortunately, with older vintages that you’ve cellared for a few years, you are out of luck. The winery may offer a more recent vintage of the same wine.