A critic sounds off on corked wines
The subject of corked wine never seems to go away, and never will, as long as wine bottles are stoppered with natural cork.
Fred Swan asserts that the rate of flawed corks is 2%-8%. That’s a big range. I would shy away from the upper estimate, which in my experience is too high. But then again, people have different thresholds of perception for TCA. I think I’m pretty sensitive to it, but I’ve been at tastings where others (usually Dan Berger) detected (or claimed they detected) TCA and I didn’t. So.
Then there’s the Cork Quality Council. For as long as I’ve been aware of their activities (a long time), I haven’t had a particularly high opinion of them. Hard to say why, even after all these years. I don’t blame them, obviously, for being the vocal defender of the cork industry, but there’s always been something heavy-handed concerning the way they go about it.
Fred’s list of “things we don’t agree on” is too interesting to pass by. Here’s my take on his bullet points.
1. The percentage of wines in the market or consumers’ cellars suffering from cork-derived TCA contamination. I’d put it around 2%. It used to be higher, but I do believe the cork industry has made inroads in solving the problem. However, a single flawed cork is one too many.
2. How to measure that. There’s probably no reliable way to measure it. We’ll have to make do with anecdotal information, such as my estimate of 2%. That’s based on about 4,500 wines I taste a year.
3. How to define “wines in the market”. What’s so puzzling about this? Wines in the market means wines in the market.
4. The quality/validity of the cork industry’s supporting data, my data or just about anyone else’s. See #2, above.
5. The interpretation of their data or mine. What?
6. How bad the effects of TCA contamination really are on a wine as compared to other contaminations such as brettanomyces or dimethyl sulfide (obviously this would also depend on the level of contamination). TCA contamination is always bad. Sometimes it’s unbearable. We don’t have to get into the game of “which form of contamination is worse, TCA or brett?” It’s like someone dying of brain cancer who comes down with a case of anthrax. “Which do you prefer, darling, the cancer or the anthrax?”
7. Whether or not there’s any relevance to the fact that “corking” occurs after a winemaker has relinquished control of the wine, as compared to issues with fermentations, sulfides, brett, etc. There’s no relevance. I mean, if you get a horrid bottle of wine, who cares when it turned horrid? It’s just horrid, that’s all.
8. The significance of consumer preference in determining whether or not cork is the best closure for wine. Obviously, marketers have to take consumer preference into account. I don’t think there’s any question that screwtops are cleaner than corks. But it’s also true that consumers misunderstand screwtops and have for years. Why? It’s not the writers’ fault. We writers routinely tell consumers not to panic over screwtops, but they don’t listen to us. Put the blame on sellers, I say, especially merchants and on-premise wine servers. That’s where I think you get the attitude.
9. The pros and cons of alternate closures. I hate most of the artificial closures, especially those rubbery things, often luridly colored, that expand once you get them out, so you’re unable to restop the bottle. I’ll take a screwtop anyday.
10. The type of closure we would prefer to have on wine that we bought for our own consumption, whether immediate or after 15 years in the cellar. Here’s where we get into arcane discussions worthy of Talmudic scholars. Does wine age in a screwtop? I don’t know. Do you? I’m sure that studies will be brought to my attention proving every which way. All I can tell you is that there’s nothing romantic about opening a very old bottle and finding the cork a slimy mass of blackened, filthy goo.