Wherein the folks at Paul Marcus Wines get to the bottom of our most FAQs in the shop.

Is my bottle of wine corked?

You show up to a friend’s party with two bottles of your favorite Côtes du Rhone. The first bottle tastes great! Fresh, vibrant and juicy…just as you remembered it. However, the second bottle smells a bit like wet cardboard, and doesn’t have nearly the same fruit nuances and charm as your first bottle. Is your bottle of wine corked?

I. What exactly is a corked wine?

Cork taint is a wine fault that is caused by certain molds sometimes present in the bark of cork trees. These molds can and do live in cork after it’s been harvested, processed and shipped out in the form of finished corks. For most people these molds are undetectable, until they co-mingle with chlorine or chlorophenol compounds at any time during the winemaking process.

When these cork bark molds and chlorine interact, an aromatically unpleasant compound derivative 2,4,6-Trichloroanisole can develop. This compound is more commonly known as TCA.

As you can imagine, the possibilities for the formation of TCA are numerous. For instance, cork bark undergoes sterilization in the production of corks, and bottles need to be sanitized before being used.

Of course, chlorine is found in our water supply, and many cleaning agents. For this reason, wineries are vigilant when it comes to their water source and how they sanitize not only bottles but all winery equipment, and often eschew such chlorine detergents in favor of peroxide based cleaners.

II. What does a corked wine smell like?

While small amounts of TCA a wine can result in a very subtle loss of aromatic fruit and vibrancy, higher levels of TCA can impart distinctive and downright unpleasant aromas.

Descriptions of a corked wine include: moldy cardboard, old sofa, swamp, wet dog or stale fruit flavors.

(Note: older bottles of wine will often display earthy and dank nuances when opened. This is not an indicator of TCA. Aged bottles of wine will often shed primary fruit notes and develop more secondary nuances. As such, special attention should be given when evaluating older wines)

III. What is not an indicator of a corked wine?

  1. An old, or crumbly cork. The physical appearance of a cork doesn’t indicate that a bottle wine is contaminated with TCA. Older bottles with corks that look less than pristine, often do a fantastic job protecting wine over the years, and with no evidence of cork taint.
  2. A pushed cork, or one that rises above the level of the bottle most often indicates that the wine was exposed to higher temperatures at some time in the past, or that the bottle was overfilled. This condition is not necessarily an indicator that a wine is corked.
  3. Bottle seepage or capsule corrosion. Wine seepage or a corroded capsule are unrelated to TCA contamination and do not indicate that a wine is corked.
  4. Mold on the cork. Frequently bottles of wine, especially older bottles that have been stored in humid conditions may develop some sort of mold or fungi around the wine capsule or cork. These fungi are not necessarily related to molds that cause TCA.

IV. What should I do if I think that I have a bottle of corked wine?

If, after careful evaluation you’ve concluded that TCA might be the culprit, here’s what you’ll want to do.

Don’t pour out the bottle of wine. Re-insert the cork and save as much of the wine as possible. A reputable wine shop will exchange a bottle of wine that is contaminated with TCA. However, they will want evaluate the bottle in person before making a definitive judgement.

What Is A Guided Tasting?

In the interest of sharing my passion for the broader world of wine with the people close to me, I decided to have a group of friends over for a guided wine tasting – that is, one in which one person (me in this case) guides the discussion and helps draw out responses from everyone. My goal was to share a bit of my knowledge and to help my friends understand better what exactly they’re getting when they order a bottle of wine in a restaurant or bring one home from a store. And as Mark said in our previous newsletter, “the goal, as in other kinds of parties, is good conversation and good times spent with good friends.” I wanted my tasting to be fun and not to get bogged down in formalities.

Choosing Your Theme

I had come up with several ideas for tastings, including one that focused on the formal techniques of wine tasting. One evening over dinner, I bounced my ideas off my partner. He’s a valuable resource in this discussion, since he has a good knowledge of wine but doesn’t take it too seriously. His suggestion seemed like the best: a comparison of common California wines and their French counterparts. The idea was to analyze how differences in climate, wine making, and culture can affect what’s in the glass – a conversation that sounded fun to me. This kind of tasting also would give me a chance to clear up the mysteries of French wine labels and help folks get an idea of just what expect from a particular bottle of French wine.

To Blind Taste or Not?

With this theme in mind, I decided to make it a formal, blind tasting of four reds and four whites. I chose Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon for the reds and Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay for the whites, with a California and French example of each of the four types. I chose to do the tasting blind (i.e., with the bottles in paper bags to cover up the labels) so that no one would be tempted to jump to conclusions based on any preconceived opinions in favor or against either California or French wines.

Having chosen a theme and format, I invited four couples over for an after-dinner wine tasting party. That made the total ten people, an ideal number, and with various prior engagements, the group whittled itself down to eight. I offered to supply all eight wines and to host the party at my house, asking others to bring some snacks to munch on while tasting. (Bread, cheese, and pâté are great to have on the table with a tasting – they help clear the palate and put something in your stomach besides wine.) I also borrowed some glasses from a co-worker. The idea was to do two flights of four wines – first the whites and then the reds.

I had the luxury of 64 small wine glasses (8 per person), but it would be possible to do this kind of tasting with 32 (4 per person) or even 16 (2 per person). In the latter case, you’d simply taste the wines in flights of two rather than four.

Keeping Conversations Going

I put a lot of thought into how to facilitate the conversation. I wanted to avoid my tendency to get too pedantic, knowing that no one wanted a lecture. But I also wanted to make sure that there was at least some serious discussion about the wines. I figured the best way to facilitate discussion was to minimize my spiels and ask everyone else questions. There are a few basic questions to ask when tasting wine that can help you start to make distinctions:

  1. How are these wines similar?
  2. How are these wines different?
  3. What do I like about each wine?
  4. What do I dislike about each wine?
  5. Which wine do I prefer, and why?

Providing Common Ground

I’ve experienced firsthand that dazed expression in other people when I start using language to describe wines that is routine to me. I wanted to avoid the pressure that people feel to come up with “good” descriptors and instead ask everyone to say in their own words what they thought of the wines. These basic questions provide a framework for discussion while allowing each person to respond to and talk about the wines in an individual way.

As my guests arrived, I assembled the wines in the kitchen, opened them, and smelled them to make sure that none of the bottles was corked. I put each of the bottles in a brown bag and wrote a letter on the bag (A through H) so that we’d have a way to refer to the wines as we talked about them.

Starting With Whites

Starting with whites, I poured two Sauvignon Blancs, 2001 Honig from Napa ($12.99) and 1998 Château Reynon Blanc from Bordeaux ($11.99), followed by two Chardonnays, 2000 Handley Anderson Valley from Mendocino ($15) and 2001 Trénel St.-Véran from Burgundy ($12.99). We tasted the wines first in pairs and then together as a group of four. After a few minutes of quietly sampling the wines, we had a short discussion and then ranked each pair according to personal preference.

In a tasting where all of the wines are a single varietal or style, it is common to taste all the wines and rank them from 1 to 8, according to preference or perceived quality. Since the different styles of whites and reds in this tasting are hard to compare with one another, I asked each person to pick a favorite from each pair.

It’s no surprise that opinions differed wildly from person to person. I was expecting the more familiar California wines to be favored, but that was not universally the case. The Honig Sauvignon Blanc was preferred over the Château Reynon Bordeaux Blanc, but both the Handley Chardonnay and Trénel white Burgundy had its share of admirers.

Follow with Reds

For the reds, we first tasted two Pinot Noirs: 2001 Elk Cove Willamette Valley from Oregon ($18) and Heresztyn Bourgogne Rouge from Burgundy ($16). (I could’ve substituted a California Pinot Noir for the Oregon one, but the Elk Cove seemed like the best West Coast Pinot from the store in the price range.) Then we finished with two Bordeaux style blends (wines based on Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot): 2000 Surh Luchtel Mosaique ($24) and 2000 Château Teynac St. Julien from Bordeaux ($19). The Oregon Pinot Noir was definitely the favorite, but the Bordeaux stood its own against its California counterpart.

Tasting a group of wines like this is a great opportunity for friends (new and old) to get together, with a built-in topic of conversation. Of course, after a few glasses of wine, people’s spirits are lifted and the conversation can go many directions. I selected a special bottle of wine from my cellar to enjoy after the main tasting – something a bit more complex than the relatively simple, inexpensive wines we’d tasted formally. It was a nice reminder that wine offers us all the opportunity to get together and enjoy our friends.

Editor’s note: This article is the second in a series on how to organize and host wine parties. The first article, in our March 2003 newsletter, discussed the types of wine parties and the basic procedures and considerations for any type. If you’d like to host a wine tasting similar to the one that Paul C. did – or something completely different – come talk to us. We’re eager to help you select the wines and provide pointers to help ensure that the party goes off well.

List of Wines Tasted

Here is a simple list of the wines we tasted:

Sauvignon Blancs

  • 2001 Honig from Napa ($12.99) and
  • 1998 Château Reynon Blanc from Bordeaux ($11.99)

Chardonnays

  • 2000 Handley Anderson Valley from Mendocino ($15)
  • 2001 Trénel St.-Véran from Burgundy ($12.99)

Pinot Noirs

  • 2001 Elk Cove Willamette Valley from Oregon ($18)
  • Heresztyn Bourgogne Rouge from Burgundy ($16)

Bordeaux Blends (Cabernet Sauvignon / Merlot)

  • 2000 Surh Luchtel Mosaique ($24)
  • 2000 Château Teynac St. Julien from Bordeaux ($19)