What does ‘corked’ mean? How and why does it happen?
Firstly, a corked wine does not refer to the little pieces of cork floating in the wine, this just happens if the cork is unscrewed badly, or it has disintegrated. A corked wine, or ‘cork taint’, means that the wine has been contaminated by a compound called TCA which is naturally occurring and can sometimes be found in cork as well as other wood, soil, vegetables etc. TCA forms when natural airborne fungi (that can live in the cork itself, or in the tree or barrels) come in contact with certain chlorophenol compounds (found in winery sanitation products as well as herbicides and pesticides) causing a reaction with pretty funky results! A wine affected by cork taint smells musty, like wet cardboard, wet dog, or a just a general, dank, stinkiness! The taste of the wine will be rather dull and flat, and the fruit characteristics will be lost. It is completely harmless to your health to drink a corked wine, but it won’t be much fun.
The statistics vary, as do the levels of detectable infection, but it is said that cork taint occurs in about 5% of wine that is sealed with a real cork, so you will, most likely, come across a few over the years of your imbibing career. As such, it is important to be able to spot it. It isn’t always detectable in the cork itself, it will be most noticeable in the smell and taste of the wine.
Sometimes a wine can be misconstrued as corked, when it is just the style it has been made in. Richer, oaked (white) wines may be misinterpreted as corked due to the buttery, toasty notes from the oak ageing process. The main way to differentiate between the two is that a corked wine has a really unpleasant smell, there is no doubt about that; if a wine is rich, toasty and oaky, it won’t smell foul, it might just be not your style. And that’s ok, discovering what you like and don’t like in the world of wine is fun.
But if you have been unfortunate enough to end up with a corked bottle of wine, the bad news is that there isn’t much you can do about it. If you’re lucky enough to have a second bottle on stand-by, crack it open and enjoy it – chances of it also being corked are very low. Do keep the wine though, and return it to your wine merchant who will be happy to replace it.
Hope this helps!