How to tell if a wine is corked?

What does it mean for a wine to be corked and how can one tell when it is? CellarVie Wines spoke exclusively to Dorian Guillon, the Assistant Head Sommelier at Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester, to find out the tell-tale signs of corked wine and what the industry is doing to combat this age old problem. Dorian recently won the Court of Master Sommeliers Advanced Sommelier Riedel Trophy. The Riedel Trophy is awarded to the candidate that scores the highest aggregate mark of all the examinations held in the calendar year.  
How does a wine become corked?

A cork taint is a reaction between a penicillium mould in the tiny fissure of the cork and the chlorine chemical used during the sterilising process. This reaction produces TCA (2,4,6-Trichloroanisole), a substance with a strong fungal aroma.
What are the tell-tale signs a wine is corked?

The most important sign to recognise a corked wine is the smell: it will smell musty and mouldy and will have little fruit aromas left.

Can a wine be fine on the nose but taste decidedly ‘corked’?

As there are different levels of TCA sometimes it is harder to point out the cork taint just by smelling it. If you have no fruit and very little flavour, I recommend you have a taste and swirl the wine around your mouth, as with oxygen the TCA will become more perceptible. Remember that you don't need to swallow - even though corked wine is not bad for you, it is not necessary to torture yourself - just spit it out!

If there are bits of cork floating in the wine is the wine "corked"?

A wine containing small pieces of cork as a result of a crumbly cork is not corked, neither faulty. The cork was probably too old or very dry. You can simply remove the pieces of cork and keep drinking your wine.

Is corked wine the result of a contaminated cork or can this occur in the barrel or other cooperage elements during the winemaking process?

Most of the time, corked wine is the result of a contaminated cork. Every time I have found a corked wine, the cork smelt of TCA as well, and not just the wine. This is why Sommeliers smell corks when opening a bottle of wine.

But TCA can be transmitted to wine stored in bulk in wineries from many sources other than corks, particularly from wood used in the construction of wineries and tainted shipping pallets. This explains why traces of TCA can also be found in wines bottled with screw-caps.
Can only cheap wines get corked?

There used to be a relation between cheap wines and corked bottles, when large producers were cutting costs by using corks of a lower grade and shorter length. The consequence was the development of alternative closures, although having said that very expensive bottles of wines can still be corked. But don't worry, if you go in a restaurant and order an expensive bottle of wine, Sommeliers are trained to smell corked wine and will change the bottle before it even gets to your table.
Dorian Guillon [centre] with The Court of Master Sommeliers Advanced Sommelier Riedel Trophy 
Is there a noticeable difference in colour if a wine is corked?


Can you send back a corked wine?

Absolutely. If you purchase your wine in a retailer, take back the bottle and most will be helpful and will agree to exchange it.
Can a screw cap wine be ‘corked’?

It is one of the many advantages of screw caps, as they do not cause cork taint.

Is cork taint decreasing and how is the industry trying to limit the number of corked bottles?

Corked wine only represents approximately 2-3% of all wines. The industry has already found alternative to natural corks for cheaper wines with a short shelf-life, such as agglomerated and colmated corks.

For the more expensive wines, scientist are busy looking for solutions to eliminate TCA from natural corks, without success yet. The special cork Diam seems to offer a solution; it uses super-critical Carbon Dioxide to remove TCA. It is an alternative that is nonetheless more expensive than natural cork, but seems to guarantee no cork taint. I remember Hugel et Fils telling me that since they began using the Diam corks, they had no corked taint on any bottles. Research is still ongoing to see if this system can be used for natural corks.

For reservations at Alain Ducasse at the Dorchester
Call: +44 (0)20 7629 8866
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Written by: Ben Moss

Ben Moss 


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