The next time you hear the unmistakeable "pop" of a cork coming out of a bottle, savour it and commit it to memory. A decade from now the sound of corks popping may be as foreign to wine drinkers as the sound of a scratchy phonograph needle cranking out a tune is to owners of MP3 players.
For the unaware, corks are no longer what they used to be. They still work effectively as a stopper but their propensity to taint or completely spoil the flavour of wine is driving winemakers and more and more consumers crazy.
Noticeably defective corks, or worse, cork taint mistaken for bad juice, is the modern day wine industry's dirty little secret. According to many prominent producers, they simply arent going to put up with it any more.
The principle compound responsible for cork taint in bottled wine is 2, 4, 6-trichloranisole, or TCA. Cork taint ranges from the obvious dank, mouldy, cardboard, fruitless aromas to the barely noticeable bottle that suffers from knocked down fruit characters that consumers mistakenly associate with the winemaking, not a faulty cork. Worldwide, it is estimated that TCA contamination costs wine producers an astounding US $1 billion per annum in spoiled bottles.
At New Zealands Felton Road, an ultra-hip pinot noir producer in Central Otago, they claim all serious wine industry research is coming up with about the same figure: 5 per cent of wine closed in cork suffers from noticeable cork taint. The winery describes TCA as an unbelievably flavourful, albeit foul, compound so much so that you can detect a single drop dissolved in 50,000 litres of water.
That unimaginably low ratio means that to eliminate TCA in wine, the cork industry needs to get taint under 2 parts per trillion (or a thousand million) before the problem is solved. Many others think the level needs to be below 1 part per trillion.
Its the subtle tainting of otherwise excellent wine that really rubs winemakers the wrong way because it takes an expert to identify it as corked; the rest of the public simply dismisses the wine as tasting off, or worse, poorly made.
At wineries like Penfolds, where everyone involved in the making and blending of wine is a highly experienced taster, chief winemaker Peter Gago says the failure rate for outright "corked" wines plus those that are simply faulty and/or tainted can be as high as 10 per cent.
Bonny Doons Randall Graham states that number doesnt really address the bottles that are affected ever so slightly, making the wine slightly different than the wine next to it. "In that case, the number has to be much higher. You could even argue that 100 per cent of the bottles are corked, because they all taste different by virtue of having been sealed with a cork," he says.