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Identifying Wine Flaws Part 1: Cork Taint

By Nick James

Have you ever found it uncomfortable to taste the bottle before it is poured for the table? This custom exists to give us the opportunity to examine a wine for flaws. It’s a daunting task for the uninitiated, this series will help you understand what to look for.

There’s a short list of common flaws that you’re likely to encounter when opening a bottle, so don’t let them intimidate you. They are just part of the wine experience, and today, we start with the most notorious one - cork taint. It can be difficult to identify at first, but once you’re familiar with it, it’s hard to miss.

I remember when I first learned about cork taint. I was paranoid for weeks that every wine I tasted was corked. Imagine you've just popped open a bottle of a new wine you're eager to try. But, instead of inviting fruity, spicy, or earthy aromas, you're met with a smell resembling a damp basement, soggy cardboard, or even a wet dog. That's a corked wine, and while it's perfectly safe to drink, the sensory journey is much less enjoyable than you were hoping it would be.

The culprit behind this unfortunate event is a sneaky compound named TCA (trichloroanisole), which can infect cork trees, and in turn, our wines. This reaction leaves your wine with a musty demeanor instead of its vibrant personality. The wine's lively flavors might seem muted or dull, like a color-rich photo suddenly turned to sepia.

It’s important to know that cork taint is a spectrum. Sometimes it’s not a black and white issue. Some wines may be slightly affected, while others may be heavily corked. Everyone’s sensitivity to cork taint is different. Some may barely notice, while others can spot it a mile away. That’s one job of the sommelier- sparing you a flawed bottle. That’s why you’ll often see them taste the wine before serving it in a restaurant. Many struggle to work up the gumption to engage with a sommelier, but when you begin to see this person as your guardian, the experience becomes much more inviting.

Cork taint is so ubiquitous that many in the industry are trying to eliminate it before it ever comes into contact with the wine. Some producers have every individual cork tested for TCA. Some people are even employed for their sharp sense of smell to test corks at the factory. There are cork alternatives that avoid the issue altogether.

Synthetic corks, DIAM corks, and even screw tops are all solutions to this problem. Some people associate screw tops with low quality wines, but many top wineries in regions all over the world are embracing screw tops because they ensure their wine will never be corked. Not having to think about potential flaws makes opening an expensive bottle of wine less stressful!

If you miss a corked wine or find it not entirely unpleasant, that’s perfectly fine. The biggest downside of not recognizing a corked wine? You might miss out on a great wine experience. A flawed bottle could give you the wrong impression of a wine you might have otherwise loved. We're here to help you identify these flaws and ensure you don't miss out on a wine you might genuinely love under perfect conditions. At the end of the day, wine tasting is about your personal experience and enjoyment, not a flawless scorecard.

And, if you ever encounter a corked bottle, don’t feel obligated to drink it. Wine shops and restaurants understand this natural, unavoidable occurrence and will usually replace the bottle free of charge. Local Somm Demand customers can bring the bottle back and we’ll replace it. If you had your order shipped, the law does not allow us to accept returned bottles, but we will always try to make things right.

Cork taint is just one of many wine flaws we'll break down for you. By understanding these, you're not only enhancing your knowledge and tasting skills but also ensuring you get the best wine experience possible.We’re here to coach you every step of the way.

Cheers, and happy flaw-spotting!

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