Getting to the Bottom of Cork Taint


You’ve just painstakingly picked out a bottle of wine to take to Christmas dinner, but when you finally open it…you find that it smells like your basement did that one time when it flooded while you were on vacation for a week and destroyed everything.

Thanks to either 2,4,6-trichloroanisole (TCA) or 2,4,6-tribromoanisole (TBA), your wine is trash and you’re sad and sober at a holiday dinner—or stuck drinking what your family brought (sorry, Mom and Dad). Less than 5% of wines are affected by it, and as a consumer there is no way for you to prevent the dreaded cork taint, but it is possible to avoid it.

What is it?

Cork taint is generally caused by the two above-mentioned chemical compounds, TCA or TBA, and can come from the barrels that wine is aged in, or the way that the wine was stored, but it most commonly comes from the cork itself—but only natural cork, not synthetic.

What does it smell like?

The three most common ways to describe a corked wine are:

  • moldy basement/attic smell;

  • wet newspaper; and,

  • wet dog

What does it taste like?

Corked wines are flat, dull, and have almost no fruit flavour to them. Some people will describe it as tasting "astringent”, although this descriptor can also be applied to wines with unruly tannins so it takes an experienced palate to distinguish between the two.

How can I avoid it?

The easiest way to avoid cork taint is to buy wines with synthetic corks or screw caps, which can be easier said than done if you’re looking for uncommon or more expensive wines as these tend to use natural corks in their bottles.

How can I get rid of it?

Let me preface this with: I’ve never tried this, and honestly I don’t suggest it unless you’re down to your very last bottle of wine and cannot obtain an untainted bottle because let’s face it—life is too short for bad wine. But I digress.

Scientists at UC Davis—a well respected university with an outstanding Viticulture & Enology program—have apparently discovered a way to remove the TCA from a wine, virtually eliminating cork taint. I haven’t been able to find any actual research papers on the subject, but apparently you soak the wine in a pitcher with a wadded up ball of plastic wrap for about 15-20 minutes. Then, pour the wine out of the pitcher into a clean glass vessel (not the bottle it came from!), leaving the plastic behind. Apparently, the scientists who discovered this claim that the TCA bonds to the plastic and will remove virtually all of it—but, again, life is too short for bad wine, and there have been no follow-up studies to confirm whether this works, or how much of the TCA remains after the wine is treated.

The bottom line

At the end of the day, roughly 5% of wines throughout the world are estimated to be affected by cork taint, so it isn’t the biggest issue in the wine world—but it is rather irritating to deal with. Screw caps and synthetic corks have made a dramatic impact in the wine world, but they have their own flaws as well.

If you discover a corked bottle for the first time, treat it as a learning experience and teach yourself how to properly identify cork taint by smell and taste. And then throw it out and open a bottle of good, untainted wine because you’ve earned it.