Saturday, June 22, 2013
Today at the winery I was pouring wine alongside one of the owners when he opened a new bottle of 2009 Syrah, smelled the cork and grimaced. "It's corked," he said sadly, pouring a glass and inhaling a large whiff to make sure. "Not too badly corked, but still not what we want to serve," he said, setting the bottle aside and going into the wine library for another.
Good wine going bad via the cork is something new that I'm learning about in my days working at the winery, but I do have first hand experience with it from last year. We sampled a delightful bottle of wine at another winery last fall and decided that was the wine we had to serve at Thanksgiving dinner. It was an expensive bottle, but we figured it was worth it.
About a half-hour before Thanksgiving dinner was served, we opened the bottle to let it breathe, and then filled everyone's glass as we started carving up the turkey. When we toasted and took our first drink, my husband and I exchanged glances at each other. What we tasted was not vinegar by any stretch, but definitely nothing close to the delicious wine we'd sampled at the winery we'd bought it from. It was so disappointing. I didn't know it then, but we must have gotten a corked bottle of wine.
Putting corks into filled wine bottles is historically successful way to preserve and store it, but it's not foolproof. Approximately one percent of corks have minute amounts of bacteria on them, and this bacteria eventually multiplies, getting into the wine and causing the wine to go "off," sometimes in a big way, sometimes in a subtle one.
The best way to save yourself the disappointment of pouring a corked wine is to smell the cork carefully when it's first pulled. It should be fruity and sharp. If it smells musty, or like wet cardboard or an aluminum can, the cork is contaminated and the wine will probably not be good. Usually if you've bought from a reputable winery or wine dealer, you can return the corked bottle for a good one. And wines that are bottled using screw tops never have this problem, which is probably the main reason many wineries would love to use them instead of cork stoppers. But there's a public image that expensive, good wines must have corks, not screw-tops, so there is some resistance to moving over entirely to screw tops.
So another lesson learned....I always figured the types of people who smelled a wine cork in a restaurant were poseurs, who knew nothing about wine but wanted to make it look like they did. And while I'm certain it was probably true for some, there is actually a very good reason for smelling a cork if you know what a bad one smells like.
Mold. Wet cardboard. Aluminum can. If your cork smells like any of these things, send the wine back. I don't know if life's too short to drink cheap wine, but it's definitely too short to drink a "corked" bottle.