What does ‘corked’ really mean?

Hope you’ve enjoyed some good bottles recently. Last time, I explored that strange ritual in restaurants where you, the guest, are asked to taste the wine – NOT to see if you like it, but so that you can check whether or not it’s faulty. I promised I’d talk more about what this means.

There’s a range of faults that can be present in wine. If you want to get really nerdy about it and find out what they all smell like you can check out and even order this kit which I use in my wine tutorials.

When it comes to wine in restaurants though, the fault you are most likely to encounter is ‘cork taint’, or wine that would be described as ‘corked’. Recent research by the Wine & Spirit Education Trust established that many consumers believe this means there are pieces of cork floating in the wine – so if this is what you think, then you’re not alone.

It doesn’t mean this – so what does it actually mean and how do you spot it?

It actually means that the wine has been tainted by a specific chemical compound that has developed within the cork and has been transferred into the wine. It only happens with wine sealed under a natural (as opposed to a synthetic) cork. For all that the bark of the cork tree is a wonderful closure for wine, letting in just the right amount of air whilst providing a tight seal for liquid and being fully biodegradable, any natural substance also comes with its potential risks. Microbes dwelling in the cork bark can react with the chlorine used in the sterilisation process to form a compound called TCA (2,4,6-trichloroanisole for the geeks amongst you).

This compound, which can be detected at minute concentrations, causes the wine to smell mouldy and damp. It takes a bit of practice to learn to spot it, but if you do find it when the restaurant server gives you the wine to taste, you must ask for a replacement bottle. My parents tell the legendary story of their very first date (!), when my father, who was a bit of a wine nerd (it runs in the family), sent a corked wine back and my mother was mortified. You shouldn’t be embarrassed, though – you have the right to drink a wine free from taint and the winemaker certainly would not want you drinking a faulty bottle of their wine.

I hope that was helpful if you had any misunderstandings about the term ‘corked’! Next time I’ll be teaching you how to taste wine, and how to use this technique in a ‘trimmed-down’ version to perform the restaurant ritual so that you look slick and suave…stay tuned.