Troubles with Cork

I don’t understand the continuing use of cork closures. In the first place, TCA or cork taint is certainly an ongoing problem. For while proponents of cork closures claim that the incidence of TCA has fallen significantly, it still occurs far too frequently. For example, twice in the last three weeks I’ve tasted wines with winemakers where one of their bottles was badly tainted. And when I taste with my colleagues at the bi-weekly LCBO/Vintages media preview tastings, it’s still quite usual to find at least one tainted bottle, and sometimes more.

But in the second place, I’m also very concerned about bottle variation, which I think I find fairly frequently, and which is particularly hard for consumers to identify. Several evenings ago I opened what I thought would be a decent (but modest) 2010 Burgundy 1er Cru. Disappointment! I really didn’t think that the bottle was corked, although I’m not particularly sensitive to low levels of TCA. While there was still some fruit, it was dull and lacked any freshness, and a kind of rank and weedy undertone dispelled any potential for pleasure — certainly nothing like the wine I was expecting.

Ten years ago I might have drunk the wine, with disappointment but without much other thought. Five years ago I would have put the wine aside and opened something else, dumping the contents down the sink at the end of the evening and forgetting about it. But nowadays if I think that the wine is substandard and I have a second bottle, I’ll almost certainly open it to compare. If it turns out that they are both the same, perhaps it’s better to find out right away!

So that’s what I did. Sure enough, the second was bright, fresher, with expressive fruit and just the beginnings of evolution. By no means a profound Burgundy, but very good and what I would have expected.

I also tracked the original bottle. By the end of the evening the fruit had brightened a little, and the wine was more drinkable although not up to standard. To me this confirmed that the problem wasn’t cork taint, because in my experience the TCA builds after the bottle has been open for a while. By the second evening the wine had regressed again, while the taste I’d left in the second bottle still had lots of life.

So producers who use cork closures are knowingly delivering a percentage of sub-standard (and sometimes undrinkable) products to their clients. I don’t believe that many other purveyors of consumer goods would do this, especially if they have alternatives. Why are wines an exception?

Many producers use the excuse that they prefer the aging regime with bottles under cork (bottle variation presumably included), although I wonder whether they have explored the nuances of other closure types. But the other universal reason is to blame the consumer: they prefer corks! By implication, this is to say that it’s really all the fault of the consumer.

But proponents of alternative enclosures such as screwcaps understand that consumer attitudes can be changed with education. They also want their products to have the best chance of reaching the consumer in a condition that best represents their product. Moreover when I open a bottle that I’ve been storing for two or three years, and find a problem (whether explicit TCA or some other form of bottle variation), I feel disappointed and ripped off. I also think badly of the product, not of the unknown cork producer. At some point, will wiser heads prevail?