The term or phrase ‘corked wine’, though misconstrued over the years, doesn’t mean ‘wine with small pieces of the cork floating around in the glass’. Rather it refers to when wine has become contaminated with cork taint caused by the presence of a chemical compound called TCA or 2,4,6-trichloroanisole to be precise. It’s this compound that will give the wine that very off-putting smell. Which to some the smell will resemble that of a wet-dog or carpet, general mustiness or indeed the smell of a beach bathroom. Interestingly each person will have their own sensitivity to the smell – and two people may smell something completely different.
But what is TCA and how does it get into the cork or bottle?
As cork is a natural product obtained from the Quercus suber (cork oak), and with all-natural flora come little microorganisms that like to eat it. This occurs either while it is still part of a tree or after the bark has been turned into a wine cork. It is these tiny microorganisms that will join with others causing a chemical reaction that creates the TCA compound. When these tiny organisms have joined forces with each other (and the ‘TCA society’ is formed), if wine encounters the society, it becomes corked. Once the TCA society is let loose it can contaminate a single cork, or it can infect the entire cellar or winery!
Though it has also been suggested the TCA doesn’t just come from the microorganisms originating with the trees, it can also come from the barrels in which the wine ages, or from the beams and any other wood in production facilities.
So, what does the ‘taint’ do to the wine?
The TCA or cork taint will diminish the fruit in a wine, leaving it dull whilst also cutting its finish. To some the taste may be astringent or bitter.
Will corked wine be harmful to drink?
Though corked wine is not harmful to drink, it will be unpleasant. The taste and smell will largely depend on the magnitude of the taint, and also the drinker’s sensitivity to the taint.
Determining if a wine is corked is not always that easy. If the taint is of a low concentration, generally the aroma won’t change, only the taste will be slightly altered and on the flat side. On the other hand, a heavily tainted wine will give-off a rather nasty musty smell that will disguise any other natural aromas of the wine.
Before serving wine to your guests always remember to smell (the wine and cork) and taste. If in any doubt, don’t serve it!