Friday, April 11, 2008

Wine Word of the Day: Corked!


Woe the clarion cry of "CORKED!" Inevitably, a fine wine-centered dinner will be partially marred by that cry made as if at a bingo parlor. A few things happen subsequent to the first call, including discussion, confirmation or disagreement and the rueful dumping of the wine. With a $30 bottle of wine, one can emotionally move along very quickly. Unfortunately though, cork taint is blind to the value of a wine and kills indiscriminately and without mercy. God bless you if you've never had your stomach drop as your lone bottle of 1990 Cos d'Estournal is hopelessly corked. It is the functional equivalent of burning $100 bills.

One of the common misconceptions for newcomers to the wine world is that the term "corked" has anything to do with the structural integrity of the cork itself or with the flavors of cork. Indeed, I've had epiphany bottles of wine that had crumbly, soaked stoppers that hinted at something less than an impermeable barrier between the air and juice. What "corked" or "cork-taint" really is is contamination of the cork and, consequently, the wine with a chemical called TCA, which stands for Tri-ChlorasomethingorAnother (trust me, just remember TCA). High levels of TCA will impart dominating wet cardboard aromas to the wine or, on some occasions, can make the wine seem chlorinated. Low levels of TCA will mute the flavors of a wine both on the nose and on the palate. TCA-taint will become more prominent with air and irredeemably ruins the wine. There are tales of Saran wrap being a savior for corked wines (I kid you not) and have fun experimenting with that while I dump my bottle. The conventional wisdom is that 7% of all wines suffer from some levels of TCA, although I would suspect (completely unscientifically) that much of that is not apparent to the taster, so that the incidents of corked wine will appear to be fewer. Further, sensitivity to TCA varies from taster to taster. My friend Michel finds it more quickly than I, while unnamed friends will happily slurp down a corked wine unaware of the flaw.

The muffling of the qualities of a wine can be attributable to other things other than TCA (see, for example, the WWOTD: Backward) and, therefore, can be the subject of spirited debated, not just among wine geeks, but with a server. The fact is, most waiters and a surprising number of sommeliers have no idea what corked wine tastes like and will often just tell you "that is just how the wine tastes." Now, they may be correct that the wine is not technically flawed or they may be wrong, but that is a little beside the point. Their correct reaction should always be to take the wine back and give you another bottle. There are numerous stories of wine professionals being bullied by restaurant staff to accept a flawed wine. Dorothy Gaiter and John Brecher, a husband and wife team that write for The Wall Street Journal, recently described in an article about their treatment at Le Bernadin with respect to a flawed bottle. They got a call from the head sommelier apologizing. I assure you that you will receive no such call. So, you have to look out for yourself and stand firm; do not accept the insurance company treatment where first answer is always no. Make sure that you call over the head sommelier or the manager and have them taste it for themselves. As a matter of courtesy, you should ask for another bottle of the same wine showing commitment to your selection. In addition to sending the bottle back, make sure that the server replaces the glass as cork-tainted wine can effect the next glass as well. Cork taint is disappointing verging on depressing, but take heart, there is always another bottle to open and, hopefully, that is not corked too!

1 comment:

Erin said...

Ben - Fully agree and unfortunately have a Le Bernandin story as well. Still think it's a fabulous place, but we were disappointed when served a very corked wine, after the sommelier had tasted it (isn't the idea that he's supposed to catch!). He'd insisted it was perfectly fine and only caved when we were quite firm abt the situation. If the upper echelon of restaurants in NY treat responses to corked wine this way, def a problem