One of the most often asked question in introductory wine classes and wine tastings is: "How do I know when a wine is bad?" Your waiter has you taste the wine before serving it. What are you looking for? What should you do, or not do? Here is one of the most common problems that you should get acquainted with.
A wine is "corked" technically speaking, when the bottle has been the recipient of an extremely tiny amount of a chemical compound called 2-4-6 Trichloroanisole. This compound results from contact between cleaning agents and mold spores that grow everywhere, especially in damp places. This means winery cellars and inside ship's hulls are ideal places for this to happen, not to mention cardboard and fiberboard storage. Humans can detect the presence of this chemical in just a few parts per TRILLION. That's how detectable it is. Rest assured, though, that it is totally safe to drink. It just smells and tastes weird.
Estimates are that 3-8% of all bottles of wine are corked (estimates vary a lot). That's nearly one bottle out of each case. So how do you know if a bottle of wine is corked? Give your glass a swirl, and take a deep sniff. Do you smell something like wet cardboard? Wet newspaper? A damp cellar? All of these have been used to describe the aroma of cork taint in a wine. The smell should dominate the other aromas of the wine, seeming to blanket over them. Clear your head, swirl the wine again, and take another deep sniff. Smell it again? Does the fruitiness seem to hide in the background? I would mention it to the server, and have them or someone else check it. You are paying good money to be served a quality wine, and a corked wine is not quality anymore.
Your sense of smell will gradually get more used to this smell and taste the more you're exposed to it, but that doesn't mean it's going away. The problem with drinking a corked bottle of wine is that your impression of the wine is going to be skewed against it. The distraction and weird flavor will probably leave you with the impression that the wine is simply not very good wine...not that it is technically flawed somehow. Even worse, you might possibly overreach and decide that the wines of a certain producer--or worse, an entire region--are not for you. This would only serve to cut you off from many pleasant wine experiences in the future. Understanding how to identify a corked bottle of wine will help you avoid this common mistake.
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Until Next Time...
-- Marc Soucy, FWS
FWS: Certification by the French Wine Society, Washington D.C. & Paris France