Monday, August 15, 2005

"Corked wine" A must read (PB)

My wine guy in Freeport Maine at the Freeport Wine and Cheese shop syas it all re: "bad wine" and what to do about it. So, I have included his entire sentiments on this important subject. It is worth reading! Raise and glass and enjoy!

I've been getting a lot more questions about corks, synthetic corks, screw-caps, etc. from customers...so, I thought I'd dig into this and send out an e-mail with my recent findings.

Corks, Screw-caps, Synthetic Corks, even the rare beer cap closure...what's going on???

Just what is the wine business up to with all these different bottle closures?

First, the wine industry is dealing with a problem that has troubled it for years..."off," tainted and/or corked bottles (industry numbers estimate it as being 3-10% of all bottles - WHOA...that last number is more than 1 bottle per case!!!).

What is a tainted or corked bottle? It's wine that has gone bad for a variety of reasons. What do I do with a "corked" bottle? We'll get to that in a few paragraphs (and it will save you money!).

You'll run into 2 primary types of "corked" bottles:

1 - Sometimes, natural cork has a fungus called 2,4,6-tricloroanisole (TCA) in it. It imparts its flavor to wine and ruins it. If you've ever tasted a wine with a dank, moldy aroma that reminds you of wet cardboard, a damp basement or mushrooms, that's TCA, and the wine is "corked." A badly "corked" wine will just smell nasty (bear in mind, some wines don't smell good the instant you open them, but they smell nice a few minutes after opening; I once had a wonderful Cabernet Sauvignon that smelled of cat's pee and rotting vegetables the second you opened it - in 5 minutes it was good; in 10 minutes it was marvelous - that's one reason to "swirl" the wine in the glass - the swirling, spinning action puts more oxygen into the wine, helping it "open" up its aromas and flavors; give the wine a few minutes to see if it opens up). A badly "corked" bottle will never smell nice...it will always smell "skunked."

2 - Now, here's the hard part - most wines are not so "corked" that they are as nasty as the above description. They are just blah, lifeless, little or no fruit...nowhere near the wine the person in the store or restaurant described...you're drinking it and thinking either, "That wine guy doesn't know diddley..." or "Maybe wine isn't for me...or I should just stick to X." Well, the odds are you're drinking a wine that has gone bad. They are what wine geeks call, "Off."

Ah, what's "off" mean, you wine geek? Here are the basics for how you tell when a wine is "off:"

A - you get little or no fruit (leaning toward none) from the aromas (focus on aromas - smell is much more sensitive than taste) from the wine after its been in the glass for 10-15 minutes. For most wines, you should smell fruit within seconds of pouring it (certainly within a few minutes) and it should evolve over time - even a short time.

B - the wine is flat and lifeless....no fruit or floral aromas, few flavors....completely blah, boring and mostly you taste some alcohol heat as you swallow it (a slightly burning or pepperiness at the back of your tongue).

C - 15 minutes after opening, the wine is still lifeless and blah. It hasn't changed....the aromas haven't opened up. Remember, you need to pour the wine into a glass, swirl it, even decant it (decanting is just pouring from the bottle into a pitcher or container and then pouring into the the glass...this "opens up" the wine).

Corked bottles are why winemakers are looking at new closures. So, what is the difference between the closures?

Screw-caps - First, in the "premium" wine market ($8 and up bottles, give or take a buck), we're not talking about cheap screw-caps found on Mad Dog 20-20 or Boone's Farm. Stelvin Closures are the dominant screw-caps in the market. Winemakers are NOT using them because they are cheap - in most cases they are significantly more expensive than natural corks. Winemakers are using them because they are a sterile, clean, neutral seal - the wine tastes like the winemaker wants it to taste...and the bottle is perfectly sealed.

Synthetic Corks - These were going to revolutionize the industry. They still have the romantic ritual of opening a bottle with a corkscrew and that lovely "POP" as you vigorously pull the cork from the bottle. They are cheap. They are plentiful. Alas, winemakers are finding that they don't seal the bottle as well as natural corks or screw-caps...especially in terms of aging wines for years - have you ever noticed how the synthetic corks are often wet on the sides when you pull them out? Well, that means wine is slipping between the cork and the bottle and interacting with oxygen in the air and that's a bad thing. If a wine is consumed within a year of bottling, a synthetic cork isn't that big of a deal, but it's still not as good as a screw-cap or natural cork. Several winemakers are finding premature oxidation of wine sealed with synthetic corks (I'm talking about wines that have been in the bottle for 18+ months).

Natural cork - it's been the standard for 300 years. It seals a bottle well...it even allows the proper, small amount of air exchange between the wine and the world (although it's possible to dial up that with the good screw-caps). It's renewable - cork can be harvested every 7-12 years from trees and then it grows back. Too bad it sometimes has TCA - otherwise it would be the perfect closure.

Today, even boutique wineries are using Stelvin Closures. France is slowly moving toward screw-caps (I recently tasted a wonderful Verget Macon-Villages from Burgundy with a screw-cap; if a Burgundy producer is using the Stelvin Closure, times are a changin'). Europe will the last hold-out for natural cork (part of that is tradition; part is Portugal produces most of the cork in the world). New Zealand and Australia are leading the charge for using screw-caps....in part this is because you should drink the overwhelming majority of their wines young and screw-caps help keep wines fresh longer; another part is that Down-Under is less beholden to Old World traditions.

From my reading and asking questions, my guess is that by 2010, screw-caps will rule the roost....with the possible exception of natural cork for long-term aging (but that's a tiny percentage of bottles)....and even with those, the wine program at UC-Davis has research showing screw-caps are the best choice. Time will tell...and tomorrow, some hard-working scientist or entrepreneur may create the perfect synthetic cork....or a way to eradicate TCA.

As for screwcaps and aging, the evidence increasingly shows oxidation is not a problem. Oddly, the lack of oxygen is a minor, but reversible problem. It's called "Reduction." It's a chemical process that occurs in wine aging in the absence of oxygen. The result are unpleasant, quirky, bizarre aromas in wine. Fortunately, "reductive" aromas are temporary, not permanent, and a funky "reductive" wine will go back to its "happy state" with plenty of air after opening. I've also read about an old wine-maker's trick of dropping a clean copper penny into a glass to eliminate the stinky sulfur compounds caused by reduction - but, decanting and air will solve the problem on its own.

So, what do I do with a "corked" bottle? One that I've wasted my hard-earned money buying?

RETURN IT!!! First, put the cork in it and quit drinking that nasty stuff.

We'll happily replace a corked or "off" bottle of wine. Any reputable wine store will (if they won't - they aren't reputable). We won't smell it. We won't taste it. We're taking your word for it. It's bad...the distributor will give us a new bottle...the winery will credit the distributor...so, don't feel bad or awkward if you need to return a bottle. Open a bunch of wine bottles and one of them will be bad...it's the nature of drinking a "living" beverage.

Restaurants will do the same...if you're in a restaurant and you think the wine is just not right, ask your waiter to taste it. If your waiter is inexperienced, ask for someone with more experience. If you are convinced it it "off" and no one agrees...remind him/her that the distributor will take the bottle back, so it is no skin off the restaurant's back to open another bottle.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Excellent, thank you for sharing that information.