An example of why smelling a wine cork matters

Recently I wrote about the importance of smelling the cork when opening a bottle of wine. The argument goes that it gives another opportunity to pick up cork taint – a contaminant, such as trichloroanisole (TCA), that ruins wines and can alternately make them smell or taste muted or, at higher levels, like a moldy basement.

I have historically found that between 3.5 to 6% of wines I have opened for review appeared to be contaminated by TCA or a contaminant with a similar presentation. This is consistent with what other groups have found, such as the Cork Quality Council (3% in the most recent report, Q3 2019) and Wine Spectator (2.63 to 4.76% this decade).

A number of people, including presumably many who read the title but not the article, noted that there is no point in smelling the cork. Just evaluate the wine. Here is a recent example of why I disagree.

Earlier this month I was opening bottles for evaluation in my position as a contributing editor at Wine Enthusiast, smelling the corks as I went as I always do. I came across one cork where I thought, “That seems very lightly cork tainted.” I put the cork aside in such a way that I could link it back to the associated bottle once I unblinded the wines (at Wine Enthusiastall wines are tasted and reviewed in a blind, standardized setting).

While tasting through the wines, I came across one bottle where the aromas were quite reserved, not completely muted, as can sometimes be the case when wines are cork tainted, but not fully expressive either. This was not necessarily a surprising finding. Many young wines, which is what I am typically tasting for review, initially can present this way.

Later, I matched the cork that seemed lightly contaminated by cork taint up with the wine that seemed a bit muted. I was surprised. The wine had seemed slightly muted, but not obviously corked. However, given the two pieces of information, I made a note to open the second bottle that had been sent in to be on the safe side.

That evening, I poured the flight of wines from that day for my wife, who I taught about cork taint nearly a decade ago and who is more sensitive to it than I am. When we got to the wine in question she said, “It’s corked.” Note that I had not given her any indication that there had been an issue with the bottle. To me, the bottle still appeared simply slightly muted. I tried to smell the cork taint but could not (Note that there are very large individual differences in sensitivity to cork taint; if you think just because you know what cork taint smells like you will always be able to pick it up, even if you are a wine professional, you are gravely mistaken).

Coming back to the bottle 24 hours later, it was now, to my palate, very obviously cork tainted. As I have written before, TCA taint remains fairly static over time while other aroma and flavor compounds diminish. This can make the presentation of TCA on a wine more obvious with time open (I will write more about this in a future post).

It is for this very reason that I retaste every bottle I open for review 24 hours later looking for latent cork taint – because I find it, and I don’t want to be sending in scores for corked bottles of wine if I can avoid it. That said, given the incidence of cork taint I have found over the years, I have surely reviewed corked bottles that have been below my threshold.

So here is an example where just smelling the wine did not work. The wine wasn’t entirely off but was very much not what it should have been. I identified the bottle as lightly cork tainted on the cork. I did not initially on the wine, but given its reserved seeming aromas and the appearance of cork taint on the cork, I decided to open another bottle. When I opened that second bottle, it was dramatically different aromatically and on the palate and subsequently scored higher than the original bottle. Had I not smelled the original cork, I would not have opened that second bottle.

Now some have noted that there is only value in smelling the cork if you know what you are looking for. Yes, it takes practice to get proficient at picking up TCA on corks. But like anything, you start by finding the more obvious examples and then work your way down to picking up more subtle examples as you get better at it.

Additionally, other people have said there is no value in smelling the cork because, “Cork just smells like cork.” I would say that those people obviously aren’t smelling a lot of corks because there are actually often differences, sometimes subtle and sometimes large, in what different corks smells like. And certainly when you come across a cork that is contaminated by cork taint, it stands out in part for this very reason: it smells notably different.

Besides, it’s not like there’s any harm smelling the cork when you open a bottle of wine. It's a tool in the toolkit. It gives you an additional piece of data, and you just might learn something important about the wine.

Sean P. Sullivan

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