Corks: For or Against?

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Cork, the traditional closing method for wine bottles, is harvested from the cork oak tree (Quercus suber) and is elastic and watertight. It allows a tiny amount of air exchange, which is thought to prevent the development of reductive odours as the wine matures. Problems with cork hygiene from the 1960s when the wine industry was booming led to an increase in the frequency of cork taint.

True cork taint is due to 2,4,6-trichloroanisole (TCA), formed when certain phenolic compounds react with chlorine-containing compounds used as disinfectants. This need not result from the cork, as TCA is also found in barrels and other winery equipment.

If there is a high degree of cork taint, the wine smells musty (‘like wet cardboard’) and falls flat on the palate, without fruit or vibrancy. Some people are very sensitive to cork taint, others less so.

The increased frequency of cork taint prompted the development of alternative closures such as stoppers made from reconstituted cork, synthetic ‘corks’, aluminium screw caps, and glass stoppers with a plastic washer seal.

There continues to be a lot of debate and research into the ‘best’ closure. Some of the world’s most prestigious producers are carrying out longitudinal studies with a single wine under multiple closures. As the finest wines can take decades to mature, a definitive answer may have to wait a bit longer.

Meanwhile, the quality of cork is improving and instances of cork taint are less common than in the past. For many purists, the aesthetics of the customs, movements, and sounds associated with uncorking a bottle, and the quasi-Pavlovian association with care and quality, easily outweigh the small risk of cork taint.

Today more than ever, the presence of a true cork is an indication of a quality wine intended to improve with age.

Wine Tasting Tutorials

If you would like to learn wine tasting, I’ve made a series of kitchen table videos to take you through the steps. Enjoy!

Why Blind Taste Wine?

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Wine is a complex combination of acids, alcohols, sugars, phenolics, and other biochemicals suspended in an aqueous solution. These biochemicals may be experienced as colour, aromas and flavours, structure or mouthfeel, and by their effects—either pleasant or unpleasant, depending on the amount consumed—on the mind and body. Parameters such as grape variety, soil, climate, winemaking, and ageing express themselves through the ever-changing makeup of the liquid in the glass, and can be analysed and interpreted (or, depending on your style, divined) by the attentive or inspired taster.

Unfortunately, unconscious bias and suggestion are all too easily introduced into this process of identification and appreciation. Ideally, a wine ought to be evaluated objectively, with only an afterthought for such factors as price or prestige, the reputation of the region or producer, the shape of the bottle, the type of closure used, and the design on the label.

The only way to control for these factors is for the evaluator to be blinded to everything but the liquid itself, which is served naked in a standard wine glass. The wine may be tasted either on its own or in a flight, in which case it may also be compared with the other wines in the flight. The wines within a flight may or may not have certain things in common, for example, grape variety, country or region of origin, and/or vintage. If these commonalities are revealed prior to tasting, the wines are presented ‘semi-blind’. The precise identity of a wine is only revealed once it has been thoroughly assessed and, for more advanced tasters, an attempt at identification has been made.

Aside from setting a standard of objectivity, there is much pleasure to be taken from this process, in
• Testing, stretching, and developing our senses
• Applying our judgement
• Relying upon and recalling old memories
• Comparing our analysis with that of our peers
• Getting it more or less right (or ‘wrong for the right reasons’)
• Discussing the wine and learning about it, and about wine in general
• Imbibing the wine with the respect and consideration that it deserves.

In refining their senses and aesthetic judgement, blind tasters become much more conscious of the richness not only of wine but also of other potentially complex beverages such as tea, coffee, and spirits, and, by extension, the flavours in food, the scents in the air, and the play of light in the world. For life is consciousness, and consciousness is life.

The less romantic, more rational among you may rest assured that blind tasting also has some more practical purposes: winemakers need to taste their wine as they are making it; wine buyers before adding it to their lists; journalists, critics, and sommeliers before recommending it to their readers or customers; and you, the drinker, before deciding to buy it. Especially as a student, you can enter into a growing number of national and international blind tasting competitions. You can also pursue more formal qualifications and give yourself the option of entering the wine trade, which is perhaps more life affirming than many other trades.

Adapted from the newly published Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting

The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting

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