Last August, the public relations firm whose job it is to talk up cork, on behalf of the leading Portuguese cork producer Amorim, issued an astonishing press release. “TCA NO LONGER A MAJOR PROBLEM IN USA, SAYS INDUSTRY LEADER”. Essentially, the report said that Dr Christian Butzke, an American professor of oenology and wine judge, said in an article in a wine industry magazine that TCA, the main cork-derived taint that results in ‘corked’ or ‘corky’ wines, was no longer a major problem in the US for either producers or consumers.

My immediate reaction, and that of many other wine professionals I know, was: “What planet is this person living on?”

I had just been to a dinner with some winemakers at which the first three wines served were corked, not just any old wines but two bottles of 1990 Dom Perignon and one of a 2005 Raveneau Premier Cru Chablis. There followed the usual wailing and gnashing of teeth over the evils of cork. Nearly a grand’s worth of should-have-been great wine down the drain, and this news from the cork industry added insult to injury.

I taste thousands of wines a year and while most of them are Australian – of which most are under alternative seals these days – I still taste a lot of cork-sealed wine and I haven’t noticed any decrease in TCA cork taint. So I decided to run an analysis on the first 1800 wines I’d sampled in my tasting room this year. The result? Only 15.7% of those wines were under natural cork (I included sparkling and fortified wines) but of those, I was confident identifying 8.9% of them as having cork-derived taints. Admittedly few were American wines, but nearly all of those were cork-sealed and well over 8.9% of them were ‘corked’!

The 8.9% statistic roughly tallies with the Australian Wine Research Institute’s findings at its regular Advanced Wine Assessment courses, according to the AWRI’s Peter Godden.

“We don’t see a significant fall in the incidence of TCA, but we don’t see the humdingers we used to either, and you’d suspect that with the TCA removal methods they are using now, more corks are around the low levels. But the incidence hasn’t dropped. Even if, hypothetically speaking, it had dropped from 8% down to 6%, 6% is still far too high,” says Godden.

“The incidence of TCA has been 6 to 8% consistently in our Advanced Wine Assessment courses for years.” He added that the old theory that Australia saw more TCA in imported wines because of shipping across the equator, could now be revealed as a nonsense. “We see no significant difference between wines from Australia, France and Italy.”

Dr Tony Jordan, who founded Domaine Chandon Australia and is now winemaking adviser to the Moet Hennessy Wine Division, and who’s had a lot to do with cork and its alternatives, also has not noticed any decrease in TCA cork taint. He says the reason Australia’s Domaine Chandon moved to crown seals and Diam corks for its sparkling wines was that “We were so desperate with the cork problem. I’d like to move all our sparkling wines to crown seals, they are the best, but you can’t be a shag on a rock. Unless a big brand supports (crown seals) you won’t see the mass acceptance that happened with screwcaps.”

Today, Chandon uses screwcaps on all still wines, crown seals on its Zero Dosage sparklings and Diam (a composite cork specially treated to eradicate TCA) on all other sparkling. Moet & Chandon in France still uses natural cork.

His response to the report in the Amorim newsletter? “It’s insulting to any technician in the industry, and also to the consumers, who are being lied to.” But he does acknowledge that Amorim and other cork producers have been working on the problem and are ‘getting their act together’. “They have probably dropped cork taint, but it is still a big issue. We still see significant levels of TCA. I’m not saying they’re as high as they used to be. But why should we have it at all?”

* Dr Butzke is a professor of enology at Indiana’s Purdue University and president-elect of the American Society of Enology and Viticulture. He was quoted in the May-June 2009 edition of “Vineyard & Winery Management”, saying that after reviewing the thousands of international and US wines submitted to the Indy International Wine Competition, he believed cork had achieved a performance rate exceeding 99 per cent (whatever that means!).

First published in Gourmet Traveller Wine – Oct-Nov 2009.

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