When does the enjoyment of a glass of wine begin? When you sip it? When you swirl it round in the glass to coax out its aromas? For me, it begins when you hear the cork being pulled from the bottle. The gentle squeaking as the cork is eased out followed by the satisfying pop when the aromas are first released. All this is part of the ceremony of serving and savouring a good bottle of wine.
Of course, not every bottle closure is made of cork. There are screw tops and plastic closures, which struggle to be in any way part of the ceremony or experience of enjoying a wine. I was once presented with the screw cap, which a sombre sommelier had slowly unscrewed from my chosen bottle. What was he expecting me to do? Smell it?
Of course, there are also Stelvin closures, which use a synthetic material to imitate natural cork. They adapt themselves perfectly to the shape of the aperture in a bottle’s neck; and of course they are removed with a corkscrew. But just try to get them back in the neck if you want to reseal the bottle.
The use of these alternatives to cork arose because of the hazard of contaminating the wine by a faulty cork. Cork taint, or TCA (2,4,6 trichloroanisole), is the highly volatile compound that dulls a wine’s aromas and lends it the smell of wet cardboard. The mere whiff of TCA and the wine is ruined for the drinker. This usually leads to a chain of compensation claims from a restaurant to a wine merchant to a winery, with all the fuss of sending back a faulty bottle or case. So why haven’t cork manufacturers eliminated it?
The answer is that it is extremely hard to detect and wine faults brought about by TCA may come from materials in the winery and not the cork. Cork manufacturers put a lot of work into detection. Specially trained noses are deployed to sample corks at random in a large batch and to put aside any that cause suspicion. Guaranteeing the health of each and every cork is possible but it costs much more to pass each cork under the nose of highly trained and sensitive sniffers. Technology is also being mustered…