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"This wine is too good for toast-drinking, my dear. You don’t want to mix emotions up with a wine like that. You lose the taste."
Ernest Hemmingway, American author, in "The Sun Also Rises"


The Mystique of the Cork

        Do you sniff the cork?

        I do -- sometimes.  It is something I saw other people doing when I was young and wondering what all this wine stuff was about.  There was always some scene from a movie in the back of my mind, a man in a restaurant nodding sagely as he sniffed the cork and swirled his glass before tasting, the sommelier waiting for approval.  I had no idea what he was sniffing or why he was swirling, but obviously that was what you did.  So I kept it in my mind, preparing to be suave when my moment came.

        Over the years, I found an occasion or two to act that out, but I always felt a little foolish, a bit of a fraud.  Was there supposed to be something here that I was just missing?  Wasn't there some great inside secret about the cork that I didn't know?  How did the people who did know find out?

        More years went by, and we started visiting wineries and going to wine-tastings.  Forty or fifty different people told me this or told me that.  Some said it was all an act.  Some said they could tell good wine from bad by sniffing the cork.  Some said they didn't really know why they were doing it, but it sure seemed like the thing to do and it looked cool.


        Why is all this important?  Because they might finally do away with corks, and I still won't know.


        These days, the use of the cork is under attack.  Corks tainted with Trichloroanisole (TCA) are blamed for spoiling 2-5% of all wine in the bottle, depending who is speaking.  TCA can introduce a smell or taste into the wine that is unpleasant and musty; there is no health hazzard in the tiny amounts found in wine, but a small amount can destroy all that makes a wine worth drinking.  Different people have different sensitivities, but most can detect it at about 5 parts per million, and very sensitive palates can detect it at less.  The taint can come from other sources (such as the wood of the barrel or even the wood in the storage rooms), but the cork is the usual source.  That is where the real meaning of the sniff came in: the host is supposed to determine if this wine is worthy to be served to his party.


        What businessman would want to produce a product where 2-5% of his production would go bad, if he could avoid it?  Particularly if they are selling you that $50 to $100 Cabernet you will find tainted 6 or 8 years down the road, they do not want unhappy customers -- and customers pouring tainted wine out are very unhappy!  So what can a winemaker do? 


        Enter the alternatives.  Synthetic corks.  "Technical" corks.  Just recently, I saw that a new glass cork was being introduced. The cork industry, challenger for the first time, is struggling for a solution.  And, of course, we have the screwcap.  The screwcap in particular seems to be gaining favor at the moment, with some boutique wineries and certain segments (like New Zealand) starting to switch heavily. 


        The problem is that people, particularly in this country, have come to consider wine with a screwcap inferior, associating it with inexpensive jug wine.  The romance and mystique of the bottle-opening ceremony is firmly established.  The pulling of the cork and presenting the bottle, the sniffing of the cork, just won't translate into a quick twist of the wrist and a metal cap tossed away.


        It might be better, but it will not be the same.  In general, current feeling seems to be that such alternatives to cork are fine for wines meant to be drunk in a short time, but the debate is still unresolved on how a screwcap or other closure will do on wines aged for ten years or more.  What goes on inside a wine bottle over those years is as murky as the dregs in the bottom of an old red, and even talented winemakers are not in agreement over it.  Some of those bottles are lying in cellars now, waiting for the fullness of time to tell us how the first wave fares.  Check back in ten years or so for the verdict on wines such as Plumpjack, which actually charged less per bottle for the corked lot of a vintage than for the screwcap closure bottles.


        That is the future.  There will still be many, many bottles sealed with corks over the next few years.  And I intend to enjoy pulling and sniffing corks as long as I can.

 Last modified: August 07, 2007