I once heard a statistic that 10% of every wine bottle produced with a natural cork closure is “corked”.  1 out of every 10 bottles is destroyed by TCA (trichloroanisole), a harmless, but truly unpalatable chemical compound.

On one hand, that seems unreasonably high.  And as somebody who regularly opens 10 or more bottles at a time, I can tell you this certainly isn’t my experience.

However on the other hand, when you do get a bad bottle, TCA can be seriously disappointing.

Even worse though, is a travesty like this. A beautiful bottle of Conterno Barolo from 1996. I was so excited when I found this bottle, alone and dusty on a retailer’s shelf- all but forgotten and obscured by expensive Napa Cabernets and Australian Shiraz.  The bottle cradled its contents; pregnant and waiting patiently, silently evolving for over a decade.

I love the anticipation and the overwhelming curiosity before opening a bottle like this.  The ultimate question: What will it taste like?

However when I took my first, excited sniff, I realized immediately that TCA had struck again- rendering my beautiful Barolo completely useless. Smelling of wet cardboard, moldy vinyl camping tent, and a also a bit like nail polish, this wine was ruined.

Aromas fit only to be described by my favorite lost and lonely poet, Pablo Neruda:

“And the word scarcely begun on the lips.
This was my destiny and in it was my voyage of my longing,
and in it my longing fell, in you everything sank!”

(Pablo Neruda, a Song of Despair)

This again, is part of the fleeting mystery of wine- it is alive, and it is human.  Wine is a reflection of us: at once completely flawed, and excruciatingly beautiful.

About The Author

I love all things Italian: the beautiful country of Italia, the Italians themselves, the language, the food… and above all, I love Italian wine. The people I meet in my charmed life are fascinating, the wines are extraordinary. I needed a special place like this to write about them, and to remember them.

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18 Responses

  1. Sally

    Taking the second Neruda quote in as many posts as a shout out. Did you try the saran wrap trick? I never have but do know people who swear by it with corked bottles

    Reply
    • Joanie Karapetian, Italian Wine Geek

      Sally, all my posts are a shout-out to you!

      Yes, I have tried the Saran-Wrap trick- a very awesome wine guy once showed me how that works. Honestly it was a complete success! It’s a little weird to shove a bunch of plastic wrap into the wine though- kind of freaked me out and made me think of all the chemicals that would have to be in the wine for the whole experiment to work. I’ve also heard of using pennies for the copper content… don’t know about that one…

      Reply
      • noblewines

        Glad someone brought this up. While not perfect in its absorption of TCA Saran Wrap does pull it out and brings much of the wine back to something worth tasting rather than pouring down the drain. As for the 10%, my experience tells me that was the case in the past but has lowered due to better quality control in Portugal and other cork producing places. Amazing what a touch of competition can do! Best place to check out the TCA incidence is opening and tasting all the bottles for a German wine tasting. Very little oak to mask those TCA infected bottles that are close to the threshold of human detection.

      • Joanie Karapetian, Italian Wine Geek

        Agreed- when we tried to saran wrap trick I wasn’t convinced it hadn’t actually altered the wine somehow. However, it was corrected enough that we could taste without the TCA getting in the way. Don’t think it’s a perfect fix, but it certainly did help remove the TCA odors.

  2. The Blissful Adventurer

    Joanie, sadly for me I believe that TCA is becoming much more rampant. Juliet and I would venture to guess that 25 out of our last 60 or so bottles have been “corked”. In addition the TCA compound is now showing up in Apples, Carrots, and other produce that are washed in the same method as wine corks. Some people have very little sensitivity to TCA but sadly most humans can detect it at less than 100 parts per trillion so we are as a species damn sensitive to the dreaded TCA. It has gotten to the point that I try and buy Stelvin enclosures at all costs on my under $20 wines and I tend to frequent restaurants that have stelvin bottles on their list or use the wonderful steel keg tap systems.

    I am so sad your likely amazing bottle of barolo was decimated by this preventable entity. There have been enough studies to show now that stelvin and glass enclosures (like many of the VDP producers in Germany use) will allow a wine to age on a nice curve. A 10% or greater fail rate is not acceptable in any other consumer product and the time for change is now.

    In addition there is now a rash of retailers and restaurants that I have experienced that will not allow me to return or send back a corked wine; so much so that I I am inclined to no longer shop or dine with them. I have a very badly corked bottle of Barolo here from 2004 that a retailer recently would not accept as a return even completely full and obviously flawed.
    This makes it very tough on a consumer spending upwards of $60-90 a bottle to know there is no recourse if the wine is flawed.

    While the shifting sands of the wine world are by and large encouraging based on consumer trends and interest in wine, there is a real issue with TCA and I am hoping that more awareness like your fine post today will aid a speedy switch to better curation of wine in general.
    Great stuff as always!
    M

    Reply
    • Joanie Karapetian, Italian Wine Geek

      Thanks for your input, Michael-
      I am shocked to hear you’ve had trouble returning corked wine- in restaurants or in retailers! Although despicable, and highly preventable, corked wine has always been a recognized fact in the industry. It disturbs me to think I might encounter a restaurant that would be unwilling to replace an offending bottle! You must have been really upset!

      Thanks for the comments and the insight…
      J

      Reply
      • The Blissful Adventurer

        It was equally shocking to me. I spent 15+ years in the biz and it is only recently I am finding resistance to the return of faulty products. What a sad situation. I have 2 corked wines on my kitchen counter that I stare at each day knowing my money is in them but my pleasure is not. At some point I will move on but for now I just like to look at them 🙁

  3. talkavino

    Corked wine is always a very sad experience and it always strike when you least expect it… So were you able to salvage this wine with that saran-wrap trick ( I never heard of that), or did you put the wine down the drain?

    I have to admit that my personal count with the corked wines is better that the average (may be 2%-3%), and I was lucky with the restaurants as I was able to send corked wine back – but this is definitely a problem.

    Hope you can find a good bottle of the same wine to try. Nicely aged Barolo is delicious!

    Reply
  4. Molly @paprikapinot

    Such a sad story that illustrates one of the things that makes wine so exciting. You never know what you are going to get even when you have tried wines made from the same producer in the same vintage.

    Reply
  5. Ben

    When I worked at a restaurant and saw a number of wines go out I would guess that we had 5% come back for any issue much less TCA, but people can be sheepish. I would venture that when a customer did a “Thanks I really like it” face but I could tell they didn’t, most of the time it was a baked white. When TCA came into play, my staff was well trained and could catch it before it hit the customer. That said, how many flawed bottles get filed away by consumers as poorly made?
    I have a gift for flaws. Some people can pick out raspberry or graphite or tell you how a wine will age or whatever. I’m Cassandra. I can nail a flaw without fail. I wish I was like this on the high notes, but alas. I think the worst thing about TCA and other flaws are that the average consumer doesn’t know it’s well within their rights to say “This is awful.” If the numbers are right, 10 – 5 % of people are trying wines for the first time and they are getting flawed juice. It’s shocking that 16th century technology isn’t keeping wine fresh. Who knew.

    Reply
  6. Lance Ignon

    Anecdotal evidence about TCA makes for a good story, but, like most anecdotal evidence, it is misleading. The following comes from http://www.corktaint.com/

    “TCA is no longer a major problem for the U.S. wine industry.”
    Christian Butzke, Ph.D.
    Associate Professor Food Science, Purdue University

    Taint is the most misunderstood and misreported issue in the wine world. Often based on anecdotes, the incidence of wine taint has been blamed almost exclusively on cork closures. But the hard evidence firmly demonstrates that cork taint is no longer a widespread problem.

    First, let’s define taint. The taint typically associated with wine corks is TCA (2,4,6-trichloroanisole). It’s is a harmless but ubiquitous environmental compound that gives wine a musty flavor at very low concentrations (parts per trillion).

    While TCA does come from cork, it also comes from sources such as contaminated winery or bottling equipment, airborne molds or chlorine-based compounds in wineries and cellars. A 2010 study scheduled for publication in the peer-reviewed American Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry, for example, looks at how wine barrels may introduce TCA.

    Wine can be spoiled for many reasons unrelated to cork or TCA. Oxidation, a common problem with plastic stoppers, can make wine smell like candy banana flavoring. Numerous bacteria and molds can also spoil wine by making it taste like everything from rancid butter to sauerkraut.

    But when wine fails to meet expectations, the cork gets blamed. Indeed, a recent study of 3,000 wine drinkers found that one in 20 complained that their wine was “corked” when in fact it had come from a bottle with a screw-cap.

    The habit of blaming cork may explain why estimates of TCA contamination based on anecdotal evidence range from 2 percent to 10 percent and above. But a large and growing amount of hard evidence concludes that the incidence of TCA has dropped precipitously in recent years and is commonly measured at less than 1 percent of wines sealed with real cork.
    ■In 1999, before the introduction of numerous improvements to cork processing, wine chemist John Casey estimated the likely incidence of TCA at below 2 percent of all wines made in Australia. Casey based his analysis of the results of 19 studies involving over 35,000 wine samples.

    ■In 2002, a survey of 5,735 bottled wines conducted by the UK Wine and Spirit Association verified that only 0.6 percent had TCA contamination.

    ■In a trial by Southcorp in Australia involving 150,000 corks over nine years, the overall incidence of different types of cork taint was just 1.84 percent. Of this, 1.5 percent was due to TCA. (Simpson, RF, DL Capone, BC Duncan and MA Sefton, ‘Incidence and nature of “fungal must” taint in winecorks’, Aust. & NZ Wine Industry Journal, Jan-Feb 2005)

    ■Christian Butzke, Ph.D., one of the leading wine experts in the U.S. and a vocal critic of cork taint, stated: “TCA is no longer a major problem for the U.S. wine industry.” His findings at the Indy Wine Competition found cork taint to occur at levels at or below 1%.

    ■In a test of 500 bottles of wine, some of which included older vintages that would presumably have a higher incidence of TCA contamination, the French Wine Society found that four bottles – or 0.8 percent – were affected by TCA. The Society declared TCA a “non-issue.”

    ■Internationally renowned wine critic Robert Parker conducted a grenache tasting in late 2009 for almost 600 guests at Spain’s WineFuture. Less than 1 percent of the wine was affected by TCA.

    ■TCA levels are now 81% lower compared to levels found in 2001, according to the testing of more than 10 million corks by the Cork Quality Council.

    The decrease in the incidence of TCA is largely due to improvements implemented by the cork industry. The industry has two complementary approaches used simultaneously for dealing with TCA. The first is to use quality control measures to prevent contaminated cork from being processed into closures. The second, which is the “curative approach,” is to assume that TCA will be present and then to remove it.

    Reply
    • Joanie Karapetian, Italian Wine Geek

      Wow, thanks for the extensive and informative response, Lance! I appreciate the fact that we have come a long way, and that there is probably less cork taint than ever before. However when you get a corked bottle, especially if it’s something old, or rare, it’s just about the worst thing that can happen to you. Anecdotally speaking, of course. Thanks again for following along and respdonding!

      Reply

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