food & drink

Corked or just bad

When we use the term 'corked' in reference to a bottle of wine, it does not mean that a bad cork has contaminated the wine. In Spanish the term is more exact, and even though there is no direct translation, the nearest, 'sabe a corcho' (tastes of cork) is more accurate. A tainted cork can make a bottle of what may have been a great wine worth little more than fodder.

Cork 'sickness' is TCA, signifying a cork that was probably infected when originally cut from the oak tree, and whereas the incidence of corked wine was usually quoted as between five and ten per cent, these days the figure is allegedly nearer one percent. The trouble is that restaurant customers being served wine from a newly-opened bottle often believe that if they do not like what they requested, they can get away with not paying for the bottle by claiming it was corked. Sommeliers and savvy wine waiters no longer accept this verdict unquestioningly, and although they may lose a customer, current tactics involve standing their ground. There is certainly no way a customer can drink a third of the bottle and then complain it was corked.

The picturesque little ceremony involving the waiter smelling the cork and then handing it to the customer to do the same, is pointless. If it's a bad bottle it should never get near the table in the first place.

In Spain they say a wine is 'picado' or just plain 'malo'. In fact I have never heard a wine referred to as tasting of cork. The commonest reasons for an unacceptable wine are oxidisation in the bottle and having been subject to high temperatures. While the battle between the cork lobby and the alternative closure lobby is at its height, and while countries like New Zealand and Australia do not use corks at all except for expensive reservas, Spain does not look like renouncing them any time soon.

One of the only in-depth studies on record is a Robert Parker tasting at Spain's Wine Future in 2009 for 600 tasters. A subsequent analysis showed only one percent of the wines to have been affected by cork taint.