With the holidays officially upon us, we are in prime entertaining/dining out/party hopping mode. That means we’re also at the height of wine giving and receiving, a time of no small anxiety for many of us. I’m not going to go into how to pick the perfect bottle of wine for your host because a)I don’t believe there’s any such thing as the “perfect” bottle and 2)it’s a topic that’s been written about ad nauseam. (For the latest installment, check out this kind of heartbreaking article from Food & Wine. Something else to be thankful for, on this day after Thanksgiving: my friends and colleagues are too nice to pull any of these shenanigans.) One thing that legitimately stresses me out though is the fear of giving someone a bottle of corked wine.
Corked wine, for those lucky few who have never experienced it firsthand, gives off a moldy, stale wet cardboard smell. It comes from a compound called TCA, which is naturally found in some cork. At low concentrations, it makes the wine taste a bit off and mutes the taste of the fruit; at higher concentrations, it renders the wine undrinkable, and fills your nose with aromas of wet basement and drenched dog. I’ve read estimates that up to 5% of all wines on the market are corked, and this affliction doesn’t discriminate: you’re just as likely to find a corked expensive wine as a cheap one. Plus there’s no way to tell from looking at the outside of the bottle — or even from looking at the cork itself — if the wine is contaminated with TCA. So in order to protect yourself from what be an embarrassing, and expensive, wine bummer, follow these tips:
1. Eschew the cork. The easiest way to protect yourself is to opt for a wine with a screwcap closure. New Zealand and Australia were the pioneers in using screwcaps for their wines, and many countries from Austria to Argentina have followed suit. You should be able to find screwcap wines in a range of styles and prices. However, because the jury’s still out on how well screwcap wines age, you won’t find this kind of closure on wines that are meant for years in the cellar.
2. Try two. Not the most economical solution, but you can always buy two bottles of the same wine and have one in reserve in case the first one is corked. (If you’re feeling, um, thrifty, keep the second one in your bag and unveil it only if the first one is a dud.) And if the unthinkable does happen, treat this as a learning experience. Take a sip of the corked wine next to the healthy one, and note the differences.
3. Yes backsies. If you buy a corked wine at a wine store, they should refund you. Leave the remaining wine in the bottle though so the salesperson can try it, OK? Similarly, if you suspect the wine you ordered at a restaurant is corked, tell the waiter or sommelier, and they should bring you another bottle — and, of course, not charge you for the corked one.
4. Saran solution? While I’ve never tried it, there are credible accounts out there of people using Saran wrap to remove the corked taste. Sounds like the plastic somehow gets rid of the eau de mold, but doesn’t necessarily restore the wine to its intended glory. If anyone’s tried it, I’d love to hear about it!
One final fact about cork taint: physiologically speaking, each of us has different sensitivities to different chemicals, so that at very low concentrations of TCA, some of us may not even notice that a wine is corked. But if you’re the super-sensitive type and are alone in detecting that the wine you brought is corked, it’s your duty to speak up. Even if the others can’t detect the TCA, the wine still won’t taste as lively and as fresh as it should.