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The Cork Problem

Robert Whitley on

You may recall the issue of so-called cork taint that ravaged the wine industry not so long ago.

Many natural corks were infected with a compound called TCA (short for trichloroanisole, which forms through interactions between plant phenols, chlorine and mold). TCA was a huge problem until recently, spoiling many bottles of wine, including some of the most expensive, with an unpleasant, musty aroma.

The TCA issue prompted many wineries to switch to screwcap closures despite initial resistance from the distribution chain, which feared a consumer backlash because screwcaps had previously been used mostly for cheap wines or jug wines.

Some producers of fine wine resisted the transition and moved away from natural corks to what are described as "composite" corks made up of various materials. Now we have a different problem.

Many of the composite corks are difficult to work with and, in some cases, dangerous because of the sheer force required to extract them from the bottle. Be careful when you encounter one of these monstrosities. I've had the lever on the corkscrew slip off the top of the bottle and stab my hand because of the force required to simply get the cork to move a fraction of an inch. I've bent several of my less sturdy corkscrews.

Extracting a cork from a bottle of wine shouldn't be that difficult, and it definitely shouldn't be dangerous. There are composite corks that work, permitting soft entry with the corkscrew and easy extraction, but they are few and far between.


My solution is a return to natural corks for wineries that insist on having a cork in the bottle. The cork industry has cleaned up its act and solved most of the problems that promoted the spread of TCA. At the wine competitions I oversee, we open thousands of bottles over the course of a weekend. We have seen a dramatic drop in the number of wines rejected because of TCA, from double digits at the peak of the problem to less than 1% today.

It's high time to return to natural cork as the primary wine closure, especially for age-worthy red wines.

Best Value

Wines are rated on a 100-point scale. Wines are chosen for review because they represent outstanding quality or value, and the scores are simply a measure of this reviewer's enthusiasm for the recommended wine.


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