What is it about the cork anyway? Perhaps it is the satisfying “pop”, the ink-stained end, the symbolism?
I think it is all about the romance and ritual of removing the natural barrier that separates you from the wonderful beverage you are about to experience.
The goal here is to discuss if cork is worth all the fuss and risks of contamination and spoilage. As many of us have found, sometimes our favorite wines just don’t taste “right”. You may wonder why, but can’t place your finger, or in this case, taste buds on it.
There is a good chance your favorite “house” or go-to wine was CORKED! Yes, of course it had a cork in it. In this case, “Corked” refers to a wine that has cork taint. Cork taint if often caused by TCA (don’t worry about what it stands for). A corked wine will often give itself away before you take the first sip. It is kind of like going on a first date and noticing the person has on too much cologne or perfume.
In the case of a corked wine, the odors are often moldy & mildewy. It kind of smells like wet newspaper or even wet dog. Of course, you will probably still taste it in hopes the odor was nothing major. So, a corked wine will usually lack many of the flavors you are expecting in that wine you are so familiar with. It will seem like a bad flavor is blanketing and restraining the usual tastes of the wine. How much the flavor is hindered is mostly related to the level of taint in the wine.
Getting back to the original question, “is cork worth the possible downsides”? I would argue in some cases it is. The main reason is because cork still has many properties that other alternatives (screw caps, glass closures, crown caps, and synthetics) do not. The one cork characteristic that I see as most important is the ability to breathe ever so slightly. This characteristic may allow wines to age more properly by allowing a minute amount of oxygen to soften the wine without causing it to oxidize too fast.
Otherwise, some of the alternative closures that I mentioned make fine candidates. My personal favorite is the screw top. Screw tops are easy to open, seal well, and do not change the overall look of the bottle too much. Many wineries have responded to this issue by bottling with traditional corks as well as screw caps. I believe Plumpjack was the first to offer this option back in the mid-1990’s.
Glass closures that are shaped and act like corks are an emerging area I will be exploring further in the near future. I will let you know what I learn.
Until then, pop the cork or unscrew the top. Then, sit back and enjoy the flavors. Make sure to take the time to taste properly and learn to appreciate the amazing sensory experience wine offers.