Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Color of Corked

Is it just me or has anyone else noticed that the business end of a TCA-infected or otherwise corky stopper sometimes not only smells off but also looks off?

The above picture might not do it clear justice, but when I pulled that little plug of tree bark from a bottle of 2004 Pernand-Vergelesses 1er Cru En Caradeux "Clos de la Croix de Pierre" from Domaine des Héritiers Louis Jadot last night, I was greeted not just by an unmistakable stench but also by a very muddy looking scene, as if the biz end of the cork had been dipped in a slurry of wine and gray modeling clay.

I've no hard science to back up my observation, just many years of first-hand experience. While there have been plenty of corked wines where the stopper looked normal, I don't think I can remember an instance where the cork had this particular muddy appearance and wasn't also tainted.

Your thoughts on the matter would be most welcome.


Marcus said...

Hmmm. I have not noticed this though I wonder if part of it is that I don't think I've ever opened a corked wine that is older than a few years... *Knock on wood* - I realize how much harder it is to replace older vintages that are corked than younger ones.

That’s my limited experience so my impression is cheaper (not-necessarily-for-ageing) wines are more likely affected by TCA. Has this already been proven, like “More TCA is congruent to less winery QA” or something? Is your 6 yr-old Burg the oldest corked wine you’ve had the misfortune of having?

But really I want to know how you recovered from this incident… did you have to produce ID to the state agency to get your money back for defective wine?

TWG said...

Did you try the Saran wrap technique?

cgomezmoreno said...

Hm! Interesting observation!

The only few times I've seen that kind of muddy substance has been with some 90's bottles of Dehlinger from Russian River, but they were NOT corked. The last of them we opened last Friday, a 1995 Syrah from the Goldridge vineyard. It had that slurry mud attached to the end of the cork and spread over the inside of the neck. But once I cleaned and decanted the wine itself was beautiful, like previous bottles. So I'm not sure we can conclude that slurry equals corked...

I've had my fair share of corked bottles lately (is it just me?). Very dissapointed at a 2000 Tardieu-Laurent Cornas, a 2001 Julian Chivite Colección 125 Navarra, a 2004 Luna Beberide Tierras de Luna Bierzo... And some corks looked ugly mostly with what looked like a lightish film on them and others looked perfectly fine.

So if we are looking to find some visual clues to corked we'll have to keep looking. But thankfully the corked smell is still really distinctive.

What's been your experience with bottles that you've aged in your cellars for some time? Can you go back to the retailer and ask for a refund then? What's the accepted limit of time?

David McDuff said...


In my experience with this phenomenon, the age of the wine doesn't seem to be a factor; I've seen it with brand new releases as well as with wines with a few years under cork. And no, this isn't the oldest corked wine I've been cursed with, not by a long shot, though I can't tell you from memory exactly what the oldest was.

Your impression that "cheaper" wines are more likely to be affected by TCA is, I think, dead-on. However, I don't think it's due to a lack of QA so much as it's due to correspondingly cheaper (in the lower price and lower quality sense) corks being used for cheaper wines. High quality corks (see my recent post on Ridge) tend to show a much lower incidence of TCA but they can be quite expensive, $1 or more per/cork. That's easy to justify with a $20+ wine (though not nearly enough producers do) but tough to justify from a cost-of-materials perspective with wines in the under-$10-12 market segment.

In the short term, I recovered from the incident by holding my nose, cursing Jadot and the nasty cork, getting a fresh glass, and opening something else ('01 DeForville Barbaresco) to go with my veal rib chop. When I get the chance, I'll return it, along with a couple of other corked and heat damaged bottles, to the PLCB store where I bought it. They may ask for a receipt but I've never been asked to produce ID (as you have, if I'm not mistaken, in Quebec).

TomHudson said...

I've never personally been able to tell a corked wine simply by looking at the appearance of the cork.

Obviously, it's easier to tell the provenance of the wine, re tempurature control by looking at the cork for streaking, leaking, etc.

I think it's too hard to draw a conclusion from one bottle/one cork. I'd recommend to try others from the same vintage to draw a conclusion.

David McDuff said...


I've tried the Saran wrap test in a pseudo-experimental setting just to see if it really works but I'd never use it on a wine that I actually wanted to drink. While it did absorb some of the TCA-struck flavors and aromas from the wine, some traces of TCA still remained, along with the addition of plastic-y flavors. It's an interesting lab trick but I don't recommend it for home use.


Welcome. And I'm glad that someone has brought up the phenomenon you're describing. Based on my own experiences, I think we're talking about two different things. The muddy character I'm describing relates only to the color of the wine-stained portion of the cork; there's no actual slurry or muddy substance attached to the bottom of the cork or clinging to the bottle neck.

I'm guessing that what you found in/on those Dehlinger bottles was actually residual fining agent, most likely bentonite (a clay-based compound commonly used for fining) that wasn't allowed to settle completely out of solution before the wine was bottled. I've seen the same phenomenon with a few other wines, most recently with some (but not all) bottles of G.D. Vajra's Langhe Nebbiolo -- the 2006 vintage if my memory is good.

That "lightish film" you mention on some of your recent corked bottles may just be what I'm talking about in this post.

In my experience, a good, quality conscious and customer service oriented retailer will take back corked bottles no matter how old they are. Some may ask for proof of purchase, though, so unless you're really meticulous with keeping your receipts.... There's no hard and fast rule when it comes to time limits; that's something that will vary from retailer to retailer as well as from distributor to distributor.

David McDuff said...

Tom H.,

"I think it's too hard to draw a conclusion from one bottle/one cork. I'd recommend to try others from the same vintage to draw a conclusion."

Very good point. In this case, I had just a single bottle of the wine in question. If there's more available when I return the corked bottle, I'll exchange for another. Given the vintage, though, that's unlikely at this point.

My observation, however, actually applies not to this one wine but to many wines from diverse producers and areas, spread out over the course of several years. In many of those cases, I have had the opportunity to open a second bottle right away, and in all of those cases the cork from the good bottle did not show the same gray, muddy discoloration as that of its corked counterpart.

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