So, who’s right? Wine Spectator, in its issue back on March 31, 2005 issue, held “The Great Cork Debate,” in which two of its senior editors James Suckling and James Laube debated the pros and cons of natural cork and screw caps. Why did they even consider debating the merits of age-old cork? Because natural cork can contain a chemical called TCA (2,4,6-trichloroanisole), which in a few parts per trillion (yeah, trillion) can impart a musty, moldy odor and taste to wine that makes your $400 bottle of Latour taste like, well, Latrash. And “corked” wine is everywhere, from the cheap stuff to the really good stuff. There are estimates that somewhere between 1% and 10% of wines are tainted by a bad cork. If you’ve ever had a wine that tasted musty and like a damp basement, chances are that it was corked. I wish that I could tell you that I am a master sommelier, able to taste blind and pick out the 2001 Peby Faugères from the 2004 Lynsolence, but alas, that is not my skill. And yes, I did throw out two lesser known Bordeaux to sound snooty, because if you can’t tell the difference then you should memorize it. My true wine tasting expertise is in detecting TCA, and if there is any of it in a bottle, it jumps right out at me and ruins the wine to the point where it is absolutely undrinkable. My superpower is in sniffing out the bad stuff.
How bad can TCA taint be? Cayuse Vineyards, an Oregon winery, pulled almost all of their 2015 vintage due to cork taint, and now the winery’s insurance company is suing the cork manufacturer for damages. $3.5m in damages according to Wine Spectator. This begs the question—is the value of having some wooden bark keeping a bottle stopped up worth risking the wine itself?
For the much smaller group of cellar-worthy wines, the equation is more complex. As wines change, they go through a series of chemical changes that alters their character. With red wines, the tannin compounds first become more complex, linking themselves together to form ever longer chains, after which they begin to bind with the pigment of the wine and sediment out (which is why old wines have more sediment and less color than young wines, and why really, really old reds have little to no color). And this is just one of the myriad things that goes on in the bottle as the wine ages. For this long, complicated process, natural cork allows the bottle to “breathe”, slowly exchanging air with the outside world to aid the ageing process. We know that natural cork has worked extremely well in this regard, which is why the 1959 Chateau Margaux is so good, and why people will kill for ’47 Cheval Blanc. Who would want to tamper with this? Sure, screw caps may be better for this, but who’s willing to bet their wines and a big hunk of their life to find out? What happens if you open up your 2000 Chateau Lafite Rothschild that was closed with a screw cap thirty years from now to find out that it hasn’t really matured because the screw cap interfered with the ageing process by not allowing the wine to breathe?
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Chateaux Margaux have been experimenting with alternative closures since before the year 2000. It’ll be interesting to see the results in 2050.
Cayuse Vineyards is in Washington State, not Oregon.