Extreme natural cork failings

The failings of natural cork as a wine closure were starkly revealed at the 32nd annual Cullen International Chardonnay Tasting in Margaret River a fortnight ago.

Yes, I am a confirmed screw-cap advocate, simply because the evidence is overwhelming from the thousands of wines I taste every year that screw-caps are reliable and consistent, while cork is not. And frequently, the result is a very expensive loss.

At the Cullen event, 22 wines from the 2013 vintage were served. All cork-sealed wines are vetted for taints before being poured. Tainted bottles are discarded. Before we started tasting, Vanya Cullen announced that 41% of the bottles under cork were rejected because of cork related taints. Notwithstanding this terrible statistic, the wine in one of my glasses was musty and terminally damaged. It turned out to be a Corton-Charlemagne – one of the most expensive wines on the table. Multiple bottles of each wine were poured, so I borrowed a glass from another table and found it was not tainted, just forward, flat and not what it ought to be. So the real statistic was, in fact, greater than 41% tainted.

Vanya Cullen also commented that random oxidation was noted even in cork-sealed bottles which had been wax-dipped – a technique that some winemaker employ as extra insurance against premature oxidation.

The quantity of potentially great French wine that is ruined by its cork closure is scandalous. The retail price of these wines is in the hundreds of dollars per bottle. For the producers to expect the customer to accept such a failure rate is arrogant in the extreme.

10 thoughts on “Extreme natural cork failings”

  1. Gillman Ken says:

    Well Ian & Huon, yes in a sense they did and do ‘force wineries’. They have always been the major producers and suppliers of wine corks, I don’t have the exact figures to hand, and I’m sure are responsible for at least some of the advertising and opinion-forming that leads so many consumers to believe that Cork is ‘the bees knees’. Ask any small wine producer, like the Australian ones who ventured into screw caps early, and you will find they took commercial risks, because wholesalers would return wines because they didn’t want screw capsules. That was because the public wouldn’t buy them, and that was at least partly because of the advertising and commercial influence wielded over dozens of decades.

    In the 1990s I used to write to winemakers and say to them what a tragedy it was that all their hard work and fine produce had been ruined by the Portuguese cork. At an early tasting comparing Pikes riesling with cork seals vs Stelvin I asked Neil why they’d only gone half & half, and of course the reply was that so much of the (O/S) market insisted on cork (and still do?) — Australians can take the credit for seeing sense sooner. Perhaps Huon knows how many Australian wineries still use cork for export batches?

    Then add in the fact the cork producers have been intransigent and illogical about improving their poor handling practices, which would help to reduce fungal spread and taint. Consider all those factors and I think it is fair to place a fair proportion of the ‘blame’ at the door of Portuguese cork-producers, many of whom seem to have put on a pretty poor show over the years. I’ll be very surprised if there aren’t wineries who will tell you that over the last 10 years they have been reassured about how cork taint has been reduced, only to find that is partially true, or not true at all. Obviously, those in a position to taste large quantities of cork-sealed wines produced recently can speak to this issue. As far as I’m concerned, they had their turn, they have shot their bolt, and I don’t want to know them or their product, except for putting on floors.

    As a slightly interesting and relevant aside, I opened a seven-year-old bottle of Muscadet (de Sevre & Maine) ‘sur lie’ at lunchtime today, why on earth do that, I hear you thinking! Well, it had been hiding in a corner of the cellar, unbeknownst to me. I expect it to be flat, oxidised and dead, but was astonished to find it was quite drinkable, if a little faded. Having taken no notice of the cork as I extracted it, I went back to look, and behold, it was a Diam. Does anyone know if the Diam cork has been demonstrated to be less oxygen permeable than standard cork? This particular one obviously was.

  2. Rolf says:

    It’s great to see such great Australian scientific research. My grandma had a corked Australian wine while under the screwcap therefore all Australian screwcap are corked. If you want to slam corks please go to a lab and actually measure TCA instead of trusting your biased nose.

  3. Gillman Ken says:

    “Vanya Cullen announced that 41% of the bottles under cork were rejected because of cork related taints”.

    Do they still use corks? If not, when did then stop?

    1. Huon Hooke
      Huon Hooke says:

      Cullen stopped using corks in all their wines about 15 years ago. The cork sealed wines in this tasting were mostly French, and some American.

  4. Gillman Ken says:

    It is almost two decades now since I resolved to eschew cork-sealed wines. I, too, admit to many imprecations and politically incorrect comments about the perspicacity of the Portuguese.

    As corks yet abound, and the world warms, and the chances of serious consequences resulting from this become ever more likely, I am reminded of the comments of the famous Nobel prize-winner, Sir Peter Medawar. When commenting on the many aspects of irrational views of reality, he stated the following, which illustrates why the ‘less able’ are furthering the likelihood of adverse outcomes in just about every sphere of human endeavour.

    Medawar said, concerning how was it that people come to be taken in by poor thinking and misinformed opinions: “Just as compulsory primary education created a market catered for by cheap dailies and weeklies, so the spread of secondary, and latterly tertiary, education has created a large population of people, often with well-developed literary and scholarly tastes, who have been educated far beyond their capacity to undertake analytical thought. …”.

    Disastrously, such people (the least able) seem to find their way into political life all too frequently — why on earth is Politics the only job for which there are no standards or qualifications?

    On the bright side, at least I don’t have many bottles left in my cellar that have corks.

    1. Huon Hooke
      Huon Hooke says:

      I read recently that there are still a lot of supposedly intelligent people who think the world is flat. I checked the date, and it wasn’t April 1st.

  5. Lex Howard says:

    A failure rate of almost 50% is uncommonly high, surely. Nevertheless, add this alarming incident to the mountain of evidence against cork: evidence which is now overwhelming. Sadly, however, like climate-change deniers, natural cork advocates are rusted on to their prejudices. It’s infuriating for we consumers who empty hundreds of dollars worth of wine – unfit for purpose – down the sink each year. Oh, the special occasions ruined, the patience gone unrewarded, the expectations flattened, the triumphs trumped…

  6. Michele Round says:

    Tragic indeed, but horribly real. The figures you quote do not surprise me, I have often thought that the 10-12% quoted was understating things, given the high number of tainted wines that kept coming my way in restaurants and at home. The most recent tragedy was this very week – a Jeroboam of Felton Road Block 5 Pinot kept specially to mark Pinot Shop’s 10th birthday at a gathering of friends, customers, suppliers and the professional support team. ‘I suppose we’d better try it’, I said after the cork was extracted and we had marvelled as to how well it had expanded to fit the bottle. My joy was short lived as I took in the unmistakable whiff of TCA. Not a lot… but it was there nonetheless. $500 worth of rare wine, ruined. The Portuguese have a lot to answer for.

    1. Iain Fleet says:

      “The Portuguese have a lot to answer for”

      Really, are the Portuguese somehow forcing wineries to make bad choices with their closure ?

      1. Huon Hooke
        Huon Hooke says:

        Agree. Portugal isn’t the only country that produces wine corks. And it’s not their fault if winemakers choose to put this dodgy substance in direct contact with their wine.

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