The Cork and Wine – A Friend or a Foe

Cork has been the traditional closure for wine bottles. While cloth, leather and clay closures preceded cork, it became the closure of choice in the 1700 after glass blowers were able to manufacture wine bottles of uniform size, shape and design.

Some winemakers and other wine aficionados think that the choice of using cork as a closure for wine bottles brought fine wine into modern age, since it provided the ability of wine to age and evolve in the bottle …….. at least winemakers from the past and some that have strong traditional convictions think this way. Four centuries later, the majority of winemakers that claim to be creating quality wines are still using the cork, even after there is a clear and scientific understanding of the pitfalls of cork.

The proponents of cork list a number of important advantages for using cork. The most important advantage cited is that it allows the wine to be selectively oxidized on a micro level to aid the wine age and develop qualities that are not present when it is young. Other advantages cited are, that it is natural, originating from the bark of a tree, biodegradable, recyclable and created in nature from plants promoting biodiversity.

Some traditionalists say that “cork is a remarkable closure … having elastic and compressible qualities ideally suited for wine.” My response is that cork is the most “ununiform” among closures. There is a significant variation in the hardness of corks. Some are soft and allow more air to penetrate through and after prolonged aging these corks will be soaking in wine. Others will become fragile and break in the bottle while you try to pull them out. This results in an inconsistency in the quality of the wine from one bottle to the next.

The major flaw of cork is that during production it gets contaminated with a chemical known as TCA (Tri-chloro-anisole). TCA is created when the wood is treated with chlorinated phenolic compounds to inhibit the growth of fungi. TCA is responsible for the so called “wine taint,” which gives a very potent, repulsive flavor and aroma to the wine. The smell of wine taint can be detected in parts per billion. Statistically, it has been proven that 7 – 10% of wine is contaminated with TCA, equivalent to a bottle per case. Is there any other industry in the world that will accept a 7% failure rate?

There are many viable options to the cork. I have been using one since my 2007 vintage wines. Called Diam, this is a composite cork, made from cork matter that has been ground and pressed using a natural binding compound. It has uniform density so that it doesn’t allow the wine to penetrate through and soak the cork. The wine does not become tainted since all the TCA has been removed during the process.

While I was doing my reading for this newsletter, I ran across an article describing regulations that were enacted in 2006 in some of Spain’s top wine growing regions outlawing the use of alternative wine closures for wines produced in those regions. Quoting them: “Spanish lawmakers and wine producers are responding for what wine drinkers the world over have been telling us for a long time – cork is a sign of quality for wine.”

I say they got it all wrong! Whoever accepts a bottle per case of tainted wine is not thinking about quality!

Cheers, Chaim