Over the years of doing blind tastings I have learned that people have different thresholds for off aromas in wine. In a flight of wines with one noticeably flawed wine, I can almost count on at least one person from the group choosing it as their favorite. We all bring different palates and olfactory sensitivities to the table with wine. I even read about one study which doctored wine with 10 times the amount of TCA(trichloroanisole the chemical responsible for that musty smell we know as cork taint) that is normally perceived. You would think people would have run out of the room and I am sure some did but, nearly 10% of the studies participants picked the tainted wine as their favorite.
Maybe the reason is they found something distinct in the wine they could pick out as different. Perhaps that is why I identify with my own wine so much, the mocha aromatic derived from the soil is always distinct. But we can all agree we don’t want the distinction in wines to come from flaws whether they be cork taint or other noticeable flaws including oxidation and brettanomyces.
Brettanomyces is a yeast responsible for that horsey smell in wine is less common than ever. Improved technology in winemaking and sterilization have cleaned up wines considerably in the last decade. I think you might be able to argue the same is true for cork taint. Cork producers are using a variety of techniques to catch tainted cork before it reaches the bottle and their work is paying off according to recent studies.
The level of cork taint even if below 1% as the industry claims is still too high. This is especially true if you are sensitive. Most people don’t pick up TCA at levels below 300 parts per trillion. Yet some people do. I was reminded of this recently with customers who correctly identified a tainted wine when my staff and I smelled no problems. While is is possible the taint may come from other sources such as barrels it is generally recognized that corks are the primary source. The alternative closures are screw caps or synthetic closures utilizing cork particles and food grade adhesives.
So what am I to do as a producer of fine Pinot Noir meant to be aged? It is an interesting problem and one I am thinking more about. For a white wine I would have not problem going to an alternative closure. For age able red wines I still prefer cork but just by a hair. The other closures aren’t proven yet and I have had an oxidized wine from a screw cap. But that is the problem, it is just anecdotal and we need more long term data on alternative closures. Meanwhile I hope the cork industry continues to improve. I could accept a taint rate of <.05% and perhaps with some more science behind them, cork producers will get there. But I am open to new closures, I just want to know that wine will continue to evolve in the same measured way that corks do.
Most of all, I don’t want to have to apologize to my customers who are rightly upset when they get a corked bottle.