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Cork Taint: Something to Wine About

Drinking wine is a pleasurable experience. It leaves us relaxed, at ease, cheerful, and packed full of antioxidants. But, it doesn’t come without its risks. While there is the risk of overindulgence, a hangover, or a Merlot stain on the groundbreaking new white carpet, there is also another risk that many of us don’t reckon about. This is the risk of cork taint. With the ability to stand between our wine and our enjoyment, cork taint can really contaminate the drinking experience.

What is Cork Taint?

Cork taint is a term that refers to an undesirable taste or odor found in certain bottles of wine. While no one knows for sure what cork tastes like, with cork not being a hot item listed on the menus of fancy restaurants, a wine is labeled to have cork taint when it tastes a bit off. Some people describe wine with cork taint as tasting of must or of mildew while others describe it as tasting like damp newspapers (why these people know what must, mildew, or damp newspaper even taste like is a whole different issue altogether).

Not everyone who drinks wine tainted with cork may realize it; some wines hide it better than others, attempting to cover the taint with flavor and body. Some people may also find that they are less or more sensitive to it: one person may not even notice that their wine is tainted while another person may take one sip, spit, and – in soap opera fashion – throw their wine glass against the wall, pour their bottle down the drain, and go and shoot JR.

What Causes Cork Taint?

While cork taint ruins the entire bottle of wine, the consumers can’t honestly blame the cork, causing tiny tear drops to drip from its pores. The cork alone is not at fault. Instead, the main cause of cork taint is TCA, or 2,4,6-trichloroanisole for those of you who majored in chemistry. When a wine contains TCA, it adopts the odor and taste for which TCA is well-known: damp and moldy. TCA is harmless to humans – ingesting it won’t cause a person to widen their eyes and grab their throat like someone who has just been poisoned – but it is fatal to wine. Because TCA covers the wine’s natural aromas and flavors with the aromas and flavors of a foreign chemical, any wine with TCA is destined for a life in the drain of the kitchen sink.

Cork can often become tainted with TCA when fungus couples with the chlorphenol compound and becomes chloranisole. For any of you not wearing a pocket protector, this basically means that TCA can get on a cork when the cork is tainted with industrial pollutants present in things such as wood preservatives and pesticides. The role that industrial pollutants play has made cork taint more prevalent in the modern wine making world.

While TCA is the most common cause of cork taint, this is not always the case: sometimes TCA may be framed by other less common, lesser known, and more elusive compounds. Because these compounds have their own aroma and flavor, they can taint a cork as much as TCA. Cork taint can also occur, in a page out of wine irony, through the chlorine bleaching process used for sterilization.

How often does Cork Taint Occur?

Luckily, cork taint isn’t running rampant among the wine bottles of the world; bottles aren’t living in dread of perpetually becoming a victim. But, the rate of incidence is a bit up in the air. While some people predict that up to 5 percent of bottles are tainted, others predict that the number may be as high as 15 percent. As long as this number is above zero, research will be made to try and find a way to rid cork taint from the wine world.

While this research is conducted, a controversy between cork and other forms of stoppage (such as plastic closures or screwcaps) has arisen. The media attention given to cork taint has caused many consumers to seek other non-cork related products. This, but, could prove detrimental to the economy in places that rely on the production of cork, such as Portugal. It could also hinder the environment: many species of birds and animals build their habitats in the trees that produce cork.

What Are People Doing About Cork Taint?

With cork producers refusing to sit back and watch their product become replaced by synthetic manufacturing, a resolution to cork taint continues to be sought. Some producers of cork have found that harvesting the bark from the higher areas of cork oak trees and doing away with using chlorine for sterilization has helped lower the rate of cork tainted with TCA. There are even purification and filtration systems in development that may potentially remove the cork taint from wine and make the bottle consumable once more.

While this plague continues to affect the wine community, most major cork producing companies spend millions of dollars per year hoping to find a cure for cork taint. Through research and perseverance, it’s possible that cork taint may not be a factor in wines of the future. In the meantime, those of you who are affected by cork taint – those of you who have lost some bottles of your loved ones to this disease – can only wait and see and remember that potentially tainted wine is better than no wine at all.

Jennifer Jordan is the senior editor at

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