The ultimate mixed blessing for a wine educator is having a well laid out tasting plan and then discovering one of your bottles is “corked.” It’s disastrous if a backup bottle isn’t readily at hand because it means that one example you were planning to show is no longer representative of what you wanted to illustrate - in a recent class of mine, it meant I couldn’t illustrate how a sauvignon blanc from Sancerre in France differed from a sauvignon blanc from Marlborough in New Zealand. In my WSET classes, this juxtaposition of the same grape from two (or even three) regions is crucial to differentiating between varietal characteristics and terroir and winemaking style.
I was able to get fresh bottles and make the illustration in the next class session, and while it was a bit disruptive, this was also a golden opportunity because many wine drinkers aren’t confident being able to tell wine faults from wine qualities they just don’t like. Getting a corked bottle, a recognizably corked bottle is really handy in this instance because it moves “fault” from a theoretical concept to harsh reality.
That reality is important because the one practical application of a wine education is being increased confidence in the marketplace. Knowing what a corked wine is and smells like (no discussion of “must, damp newspaper” really prepares one for the cringing shock of actually smelling it) gives depth and texture to one’s sense of a wine’s quality. And while I can’t get everyone to taste the wine after smelling a corked sample, it is illustrative to see that cork taint often affects the nose much more than the palate of a wine. Sniffing past the initial corked aroma, you also find there isn’t much else there – almost no fruit aromas come through, no aromas other than the mustiness.
The other blessing of getting a corked bottle is the opportunity to point out that cork taint affects wine to varying degrees. There is the full on, blatant moldiness of a serious case of TCA (the compound that leads to cork taint), but often it is present in a much less strident form. Winemaker friends of mine confess this is what they fear more than the worst case of corkiness – a wine where it is present in a small enough amount to reduce the fruitness of the wine without giving much sign of mustiness. In these wines, it can very easily appear the wine is fine, just low quality and without a second bottle untainted by TCA at hand, how is the consumer to know?
The Takeaway: Communicate
Here is where a good retailer or sommelier can be a huge help. If you are in a restaurant and you get a bottle that isn’t what you expect, that doesn’t live up what you’ve heard about it or, ask your sommelier to taste it and tell you if it measures up. It’s a bit more difficult if you bought the wine for consumption at home – you can’t very well take it back to the store in the middle of dinner – but don’t hesitate to mention it next time you are at your favorite wine shop and see if others reported anything similar. Maybe the wine just isn’t your style, but it may be something more serious as well, and talking about it will help you decide which it is.