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’Taint always obvious

Would you feel confident enough to pick a corked wine? The difficulty in identifying corked wines was recently illustrated in London during a seminar organised by a wine and spirits magazine called Harpers on 16 March.

Participants were asked to sample five wines, three of which had some form of fault – for example, volatile acidity (giving a bitter taste) or oxidisation (wine discolouration and/or vinegar flavour to differing degrees). One wine had cork taint or TCA and one wine was normal.

The test was sat by an international panel from all areas of the wine and associated industries, including Jim Clendenen, winemaker at Au Bon Climat winery in California, Angela Muir MW, Mike Paul of Southcorp and Geoff Taylor, specialist chemist of Corkwise, to name a few.

At the end of the test, only two of the ninety-one tasters correctly identified the TCA fault and not one participant was able to pick all five of the faults. These results show how difficult it is to identify wine faults, even when attempted by experts.

The problem with corked wines is that 99 percent of the time it is almost untasteable. Patrons at dinner parties and restaurants tell the people concerned that their wine didn’t taste like it normally does, or that the wine seems a bit flat.

In fact, this is the real problem with wines that have been TCA affected. TCA can give the wine a slightly reduced fruit intensity, lack of acidity or a woody or earthy slant and all of these characters can be exhibited in a wine that has been aged in wood.

The only person that can correctly identify a fault on small scale is the winemaker and you can’t always have him/her by your side on the occasion.

As I see it, this is the main problem winemakers are having with cork. Prospective buyers try wines that have a slight taint. Because the wine doesn’t live up to its expectation and price tag they don’t buy the product again and don’t support or endorse the product.

How many times have you reached to pick a bottle of $20 wine off the shelf only to have a friend whose opinion you value say: “Don’t get that, I tried it on Friday, or at dinner last night, and it was average”.

The wine may have received a brilliant write-up only yesterday by a writer you trust, but if your friend who has a good palate doesn’t rate the wine you won’t buy it.

If the winemaker has received a bad batch of corks which affects thirty percent of his/her premium Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardon-nay, his reputation and wines will be seriously affected.

There is a huge selection of premium wines in the market and it would be a long time before I had another Chardonnay or Cabernet Sauvignon from that producer after paying $20 for a flat woody wine.

Don’t forget, if you think you could pick a faulty wine only two out of ninety-one experts picked a TCA affected wine.

What is the answer? Plastic corks are good for the short term but have serious problems when needed to last more than two years.

Remarks from winemakers who have conducted tests have included:

Pam Dunsford (Chapel Hill): “Synthetic corks strip the wine of flavour.”

Bailey Carrodus (Yarra Yering): “Synthetic corks left a flat synthetic flavour rather like the effect of putting vaseline in your mouth.”

Karen Ernsberger (Benziger Family Winery): “They seem to hold great for a couple of years, then oxidise. The wines were brown and weird. They had a marked plastic character”.

The truth is, there are seven different grades of cork and there is a huge variation in the quality of the corks depending on the raw materials used and the production processes, both mechanical and physical.

Cork manufacturers produce a wide range of corks and it is up to the winemaker to specify the quality, dimensions and finish of the corks required.

However, often the corks that the ABC Winery in Margaret River wants they can’t get because the huge multinational conglomerates take all the first, second and third grade corks, leaving ABC Winery to pay top dollar for mediocre merchandise.

In my opinion, there is a problem with cork taint in wines.

Cork manufacturers need to spend money developing the cork plantations and using technology to create a faster growing, thicker barking higher quality tree as well as developing quality control systems and a better processing system for the bark that would eliminate sub-standard material.

It would certainly be an improvement on the tens of millions of dollars currently spent on advertising and telling us how good cork is and that there really isn’t a problem.

The winemakers also need to realise that consumers need to know what grade of cork they are using so we can buy either with confidence or at our own peril.

Labels inform us of everything from sugar level to growing region, so why not include something about the cork that will tell us whether we can cellar the bottle for the next ten years or not.

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