Wine Wednesday: Why Corked Wine Stinks

It's Friday night, and a few friends have stopped by to wind down the week and start-up the weekend. You're opening up a bottle of wine to get the party started. Pop! You pour, and as soon as your guests draw the glass close to their noses, they cringe and gag. "What is that smell?"

Is it a smelly, wet dog? Whatever it is, it isn't right. Actually, it's the wine you just poured tainted by mold. You've just experienced what is called "corked" wine.

Corked wines have been tainted by a chemical carried in the cork called 2,4,6-trichloroanisole or TCA. This is a fungus that occurs naturally in cork. So you're thinking, "Aha! TCA is the bad smell." Unfortunately, your "Aha!" moment is also incorrect. A study done by researchers at Osaka University in Japan and posted by Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences finds that TCA doesn't cause the bad odor. It does, however, suppress your ability to smell. Why you smell "wet dog" or other foul odors is yet to be determined, but somehow the inability to smell makes your brain think that no smell must mean a bad smell.

Mind you, not every wine that has an "off" smell is bad; many wines have good, overpowering smells. The idea is to differentiate between those good, overpowering smells and the tainted ones. Here are some tips on how to figure out if your bottle of wine's wet forest floor smell is a good thing or a bad one:

  • A cork that is cracked or falls apart when you open the wine does not necessarily mean the wine will be corked.

  • Assess the wine after pouring by holding the glass up to the light. The wine should be clean. A few particles of cork or sediment are OK, but it should not have specks of oak barrel, bugs or other alien bits in it; the wine should also have a bright color.

  • Put the rim of the glass up to your nose and take a couple of tiny, puppy-like sniffs. Long, suck-it-in sniffs will only tire your nose, inhibiting the ability to smell. Does the wine smell pleasant? Is it overpowering? See chart for reference:
    • The final step is tasting the wine. Is it pleasing in the mouth? When you finish swallowing, can you take another sip? Or did it make you flinch?

      If you purchased your wine from a retailer, don't pitch the bottle. Take the wine back and explain to the store sommelier or manager what you experienced. A reputable retailer, including grocery stores, will replace the bottle.

      If you experience a corked bottle in a restaurant, ask the sommelier to take the bottle back and bring a new one to the table. Make sure the new bottle is opened at the table and offer the server to have a taste with you. This way you can both concur on the suitability of the wine.

      Cecelia Messina is a certified sommelier. Her travels have allowed her to experience the wonders of wine, beer, spirits, and food. She first learned about wine in Argentina, fueling her desire to open a small, neighborhood wine boutique in 2001 and to share the world of wine with others.

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