The Great Cork Debate - Are You Truly Sensitive, or Just Think You Are?

I believe I am very sensitive to cork taint. It sometimes smells like the classic moldy newspaper to me, but more often it smells like swimming pool chlorine. It is sharp and uncomfortable in my nose. Almost always, I will also sense that, in the mouth, the fruit is flattened and stripped when I find a wine to be corked on the nose, which reinforces my diagnosis.

I realize that, because I am so sensitive, there will be times when I think a wine is corked, and others will not. Usually they come around to agreeing eventually, but not always. There are even, I admit, times when I think it’s there that it might not be – particularly with Bordeaux, for some reason. In those cases, with a little time, I will generally agree that it was a miscall on my part and the wine is not corked after all.

There are some times, though, when I am absolutely mystified by how others don’t smell the cork. The other night, for instance, I was drinking wine with a longtime collector and friend. He opened a bottle of old Rioja (our second of the evening), which was hideously corked. “No,” he said, “that’s just how old Rioja smells when it’s first opened. Watch and wait – it will blow off and unfurl!” The cork smell got worse and worse, but he insisted it was opening up and displaying “beautiful old tempranillo flavors.” I’ve had quite a bit of old Rioja, some from marvelous old cellars in Spain. All this smelled like was cork.

I scratched my head. Here were two experienced wine drinkers. Both of us claim to be cork sensitive. I had no doubt this wine was terribly corked, and my friend insisted just as adamantly that I simply don’t understand old wine. There could definitely have been a defensiveness involved on his part – some people just don’t want to believe their own wine is corked – but he happily drank it himself, while claiming that in itself as proof it couldn’t be corked because “he can’t stand to drink a corked wine.”

Lots of people claim to be sensitive to cork. I wonder how many of us really are, and how many just like to think so…

I don’t believe I am particularly cork sensitive but have picked up flawed wines both before and after other experienced wine drinkers.

There are companies here in California that offer services that will determine how sensitive you are to TCA in general.

That said, I wonder how truly accurate this is when taken out of the lab and put into real-world situations.

And in the case that wine is only slightly corked, and the Aromas are subdued or absent, I wonder how many people will pick this out as a corked wine if they are not familiar with that specific bottling.

So many variables at play here.

With varying levels of sensitivity, though, it is quite possible that you can be sitting at a table where half the people think a wine is corked and half do not and, those half who think it is not enjoy a wine that the other half cannot handle at all.

It is truly one of the strange phenomenons that makes wine as interesting and intriguing as it is.

I am very sensitive to TCA.

[rofl.gif] [rofl.gif] Sure you are…you voted for WOTN for one of the worst corked wines ever.

My understanding of the mechanism of TCA is that it acts somewhat like an anesthetic for a person’s aroma receptors, thus “masking” the flavors rather than actually removing them, and obviously at concentrations that are very low but vary widely by person (and possibly circumstances.). Because of this, it seems that tasters’ experience of any particular wine might reasonably vary all the way from “totally undrinkable” for the very sensitive (strong wet-newspaper scent and no apparent fruit), to perfectly fine for someone with zero sensitivity (since the appropriate flavors are not actually absent, just obliterated for the sensitive).

It might be worth observing that there are probably many other substances in wines for which drinkers’ sensitivity varies widely; some of these may also degrade the experience, while others may be actually desirable.

Because nobody finds that TCA presence enhances a wine (as sometimes is the case with Brett, for example), it is clearly never intended, and always considered a flaw.

While I am personally apparently relatively insensitive to TCA (based upon comparisons of experience with other tasters who are also familiar with and able to detect it), I have found that in (apparently) high enough concentration it will indeed ruin a wine for me, in lower doses just mute the experience, and I have learned that sometimes when a wine seems less lively than I expect, or otherwise compromised, I may refer to a friend whose sensitivity is known to be higher than mine to find out if the flavors I taste and smell might be affected by TCA, rather than inherent in the wine.

I think the noodle-slinger meant to say “I am very sensitive” and added the last part by mistake [grin.gif]

Larry, I think you said everything I would be thinking about. Sarah, glad you brought it up—similar experiences have happened to me over the past year and I’ve also questioned whether I’ve fooled myself into thinking I’m particularly sensitive to it when I might not be…

I worked for a wine maker how had almost no capability to detect sulfur. So yes, sensitivities to other compounds exists as well.

Related to the OP, do you tell people who don’t notice the TCA that the wine is corked? I came home last night and my wife was really enjoying a wine, so I poured a tasted. Its not horrible corked but I can notice it and once I notice it I can’t drink the wine. I didn’t want to ruin her enjoyment so I just said that it doesn’t taste as good to me as I remembered and left it at that.

I’ll usually tell my wife but won’t tell a group if everyone seems to be enjoying a bottle I think is corked. I will however spirit the bottle away and replace it if I am hosting and can do so surreptitiously.

Sarah, interesting thought. In terms of potentially perceiving TCA when it isn’t there, I too have had that happen with not just Bordeaux but old (and old school) Napa Cabs.

If the wine is opened and poured for me for evaluation - at a restaurant, a dinner, or just with a companion - I will always say if I think it is corked. I did so at a Commanderie de Bordeaux event once where I was along as an inductee’s guest. No one else at the table was saying anything about what was clearly (to me) a corked '83 Margaux, and everyone seemed uncomfortable that I brought it up. I took the bottle over to the organizer, politely pointed out the cork taint, and quickly received a replacement bottle upon his instant recognition of the flaw. I know some people won’t mention it, thinking that’s more polite, but I would rather have the discussion.

If I join a group that is enjoying a wine, I probably wouldn’t unless they were close friends that I drink with regularly.

I think I tend to be at least fairy sensitive to TCA, based on when I tend to pick it up compared to others I drink with, but if someone else calls a bottle as being corked and I don’t pick it up, in most cases I’m going to take their word for it and assume that they are more sensitive than I am.

I’m also frequently the first person to point out that a wine I’ve brought is corked, and I get frustrated with people who are willfully blind to the flaws in the wines they bring, particularly if it is a special wine. I once had to tell a friend that his magnum of 1945 Latour was corked, a bottle of perfect provenance that he obtained at great time and expense so he could share it with good friends at a special dinner. I’ll never forget the heartbroken look on his face, nor that he then accepted it with grace and didn’t try to deny it or put a positive spin on it. If he could deal with it, then others should be to suck it up when their special but considerably less special bottle is flawed. Don’t deny it, just put the blame where it belongs: on the Portuguese cork trade and to a lesser degree, on the producer.

A friend in the trade has a fantastic palate, but has an absurdly high threshold for TCA . It took me years to convince him that it is a question of biology, not a criticism of his palate.

As I very, very seldom have the opportunity to taste with experienced tasters I’ve never found myself in a situation where others believe a wine to be corked and I don’t; I have detected corked wines that others (casual drinkers) did not. Nonetheless, I assume that I am not particularly sensitive based on the fact that I’ve found a very small % of the thousands of wines that I’ve tasted to be corked.

I also drink a very diverse selection of wines and neither take good notes nor have a great memory for their characteristics. I thus miss the clues that “this wine is more muted than when I last tasted it” would provide.

Swimming pool chlorine is interesting as a descriptor. I’ve only experienced wet newspaper and wet dog, though I wonder if I wouldn’t assume the chlorine was VA rather than TCA.

I am +/- on sensitivity to TCA but even then, I can tell when a wine is TCA affected by the lack of aroma and taste that TCA causes. Rarely, to me is it so TCA-ridden that it bothers me.

A great winemaker I know has very little sensitivity to TCA and has to have his wife try a wine when he opens it before serving it to others. So, I think sensitivity to TCA is more an inherent trait and not a learned one.

I was sensitive to TCA before my head injury in 2010. I am more sensitive to it now. Since things got totally back to normal (2014 or so) there are certain aromas I am much more sensitive to than before. TCA is one. Cilantro and celery are two others. I do not perceive oak as much as I used to (lucky me!). It’s been an interesting re-learning experience.

some great tasters are TCA or Brett insensitive.

While I’ve certainly had examples that are pretty obvious, I don’t think I am that sensitive at all.
Sometimes, I’ll come across a wine where I don’t think it is good as it should be based on other bottles but I can’t really discern the actual fault.

I do have a general sensitivity to Antipodean Sauvignon Blanc where, aside from a few exceptions it all tastes rather metallic. It isn’t a problem I have come across with the French stuff or other white wines in general. That’s a little off track I know, but the point is we are all more or less sensitive to a bunch of different compounds and the trick is working out what.

I find it hard to tell just how sensitive I am compared to others but based on my experiences I’d say I am at least not less sensitive than average. For a while I kept track of how large a percentage of the wines under cork we (my wife and I) opened that we found corktainted and usually discarded for that reason. The figure was some seven or eight percent, and I am sure it was higher than that for wines that were more than a few years old.

My latest encounter with a corktainted wine was a Domini Veneti, Valpolicella Classico Superiore, Verjago 2010 about a week ago. It wasn’t a really bad case but the problem was still clearly perceptible, by smelling the cork (which I routinely do first), then the wine, and finally by opening another bottle of the same wine for comparison. With this bottle I tried for the first time the trick of putting some plastic food wrapping in the corked wine to attract the TCA molecules. And yes, it did work. I double-checked by having my wife blind-taste a glass of the treated versus untreated wine and she could tell them apart without any hesitation or difficulty whatsoever. According to some people here, the treatment tends to have the negative side-effect of stripping the wine of scents that shouldn’t be stripped, but we could not really perceive any problem in that regard. The treated wine was just fine. Regrettably, we no longer had the uncorked wine around for comparison at this point. Next time …

Concerning what a corked wine smells like, I’d say “moldy newspaper”, “potato cellar” or something like that is the most common case in my experience. But I have sometimes encountered the “swimmingpool” scent as well.