Have you ever ordered wine in a restaurant ….noticed it didn’t smell quite right (kinda like a wet newspaper?) … but didn’t send it back? Or, perhaps you mentioned something wasn’t right to the waiter and he/she convinced you that a bit of decanting would solve the problem rather than returning the bottle? Or, you just don’t trust yourself to determine whether a wine is “off” or not so you’re a bit intimidated to send it back (or return it to a retail location for a new bottle)? If you answered “yes” to any or all of the above questions, ask yourself “did I enjoy the wine that I did not send back” or “did I turn off to a brand, variety, or region” because of it?
When I hear comments such as “I don’t like …….” (add a variety such as Merlot or Aglianico, etc.), or “I don’t like wines from ……” (add South Africa or Chile, etc.), I always wonder whether the decision was due to a poorly made wine or perhaps the result of drinking a tainted bottle.
My advice: if you suspect TCA…have them take it away!
Cork taint is a broad term referring to a wine fault characterized by a set of undesirable smells or tastes found in a bottle of wine, especially spoilage that can only be detected after bottling, aging and opening. Though modern studies have shown that other factors can also be responsible for taint – including wooden barrels, storage conditions and the transport of corks and wine – the cork stopper is normally considered to be responsible, and a wine found to be tainted on opening is said to be “corked” or “corky”. Cork taint can affect wines irrespective of price and quality level.
The chief cause of cork taint is the presence of 2,4,6-trichloroanisole (TCA), and/or 2,4,6-tribromoanisole (TBA), in the wine, which in many cases will have been transferred from the cork, but which also can have been transferred through the cork rather than from it. Corked wine containing TCA has a characteristic odor, variously described as resembling a moldy newspaper, wet dog, damp cloth, or damp basement. In almost all cases of corked wine the wine’s native aromas are reduced significantly, and a very tainted wine is quite unpalatable, although harmless. While the human threshold for detecting TCA is measured in the single-digit parts per trillion, this can vary by several orders of magnitude depending on an individual’s sensitivity. Detection is also complicated by the olfactory system’s particularly quick habituation to TCA, making the smell less obvious on each subsequent sniff.
After many personal encounters over the years I can say with confidence that if you suspect TCA then have them take it away and provide a fresh bottle, or if you bought the bottle at retail pour the wine back in, replace the cork and bring it back for a new one. I say this because it is the best decision for you, for the restaurant or retail store, and for the winery. How so?
- From your standpoint, if you drink a corked bottle you will not enjoy the wine… that’s an understatement. The nose will have lost all of its nuance being replaced instead by a smell of wet newspapers. If there was any fruit in the bottle, you won’t taste it in the glass.
- From the view point of the restaurant, the fact that you have paid good money for a bottle of wine that tastes and smells off my mean you don’t return to the restaurant .. and you may even tell your friends to stay away as well. If you bought the wine at a retailer, you will surely feel you didn’t get your money’s worth…. maybe time to find another retailer.
- From the viewpoint of the brand / winery, you now have a very negative impression of their wine. It is very unlikely you will buy or recommend any wine from this producer.
- From the viewpoint of the region / variety, you may now think you “don’t like Spanish wines or French or Greek wines” or you don’t like Merlot, Pinot, or Lemberger, etc.
Again, I am speaking from personal experience. I have in the past made the mistake of saying to myself “oh, I think I smell TCA but not sure … it’s only a little corked”, so I continue to drink the wine. Most often, as the bottle opens, the smell and the taste of the wine gets worse. I no longer worry about being embarrased if someone else can’t easily smell the TCA – I automatically return it. Here’s why:
- At an upscale restaurant in Sonoma (the girl & the fig) I ordered a bottle that I was not familiar with but that sounded like something I would like to try (Tullulah Syrah). When brought to the table I smelled the wine… oh oh … TCA. I called the waiter back and suggested it was corked. She at first said she would have to check with the Wine Manager, but promptly returned with a new bottle having confirmed it was corked. The difference in the wine was like night and day. Had I accepted the bottle I would have never known how good the wine really was, AND … I recently found this wine on the net and bought a few bottles as a result of tasting it while in Sonoma.
- Recently I bought a bottle of 2008 Ferrari-Carano Merlot. The bottle was on special and I wanted to try the wine since I have enjoyed several other bottlings from this producer. Uncorked the bottle, took a sniff …ugh.. TCA. Keep in mind that approximately 3% – 5% of all bottles are corked (although the incidence has been reduced greatly by new processes put in place by the Portuguese Cork producers), so this is not an issue of the winery typically (although TCA can sometimes result in the facilities themselves – see above). What did I do? I returned the wine from my glass into the bottle, recorked the bottle, returned it to the retailer for a fresh one. A WORLD OF DIFFERENCE! Very pleasant bottle of Merlot at a good price…. an excellent value (see tasting note below). I went back to buy more!
2008 Ferrari-Carano Merlot
Ferrari-Carano Merlot 2008
winemaker’s notes: Select lots of grapes are chosen from our vineyards in Sonoma County to create this beautifully-balanced and full-bodied Ferrari-Carano Merlot. This is a velvety wine with a complex nose of cherry cobbler, blackberry caramel and vanilla intricately woven with lingering flavors of baked berry pie, cinnamon and spice. This wine has a viscous and full mouthfeel, impressive length and velvety tannins. The fruit forward, easy drinking qualities of our Merlot make it the perfect wine to pair with any red meat course, Italian entrée, and roasted or grilled fragrantly-spiced poultry dishes. alcohol by volume: 14.3%
So my advice one more time … if you suspect TCA …. have them take it away! Don’t be afraid to speak up. Keeping a corked bottle makes no sense for you, the restaurant or retail shop, or the winery. You are doing everyone a favor by sending it back:
- Your evaluation is based on untainted wine. You can now judge whether you like it or not.
- The restaurant or retailer are made aware of the issue. They can inform the distributor (who will inform the winery), while keeping you as a customer.
- The winery can make appropriate changes to decrease the likelihood of corked bottles.