Many wine punters'll claim it, but ask them to nail down a definition and you might find yourself more confused (and twice as bored) as when you accidentally asked about wine taxes. Here, Ben Canaider tells you all you need to know about corked wine, plus a little extra.
Cork taint is something all winebores secretly love. There's no joy quite like the joy when, surrounded by a few dozen wine plonkers, you can be the first to yell out, "By gosh, this wine's corked!"
It's the paradoxical nature of the cork: on one hand it seals in the wine and prevents it from being too quickly modified and destroyed by oxygen, but on the other hand it's an organic product (apparently it is cut out of cork trees - how inhumane) containing microbiowhatsit things. Along with the chemicals used to treat corks before cutting and inserting, these little bugs have the evil power to infect the very wine the cork is supposed to be protecting. The result is a wine smelling of wet cardboard, wet dog and hessian. It also seems stripped of much of its fruit intensity, so it tastes a bit dull and flat in your mouth. Certain wines accentuate the effect more so than others: riesling highlights even the most insignificant level of taint, for instance, and this is why so many riesling makers have been keen to find alternative means of closure.
Levels of cork taint vary. Some sources say it's as much as 10% of all wine, others more like 2%. Two or 10, the interesting thing is that some people never seem to come across a corked bottle, whereas others seem to drink nothing else.
What annoys producers about cork taint is the negative associated publicity their wines will attract if corked: consumer A might be able to recognize the fault and therefore accept it not as a problem with the wine, but rather as a problem with the cork; consumer B on the other hand, just thinks that the wine is not very nice because it smells a bit off and old and musty, they never buy it again and shitcan it in front of their friends. It's no wonder wine producers have looked long and hard at other stoppers, such as twist tops (or stelvins, as wine bores so nonchalantly say) and plastic corks (otherwise called lumps of robot shit and pulling one out of a bottle's neck is an unnatural act.).
This, of course, is the problem with closures other than cork: consumers (ie, people who actually buy wine) prefer corks: twist caps make them think of fizzy drinks, plastic stoppers make them think they're being cheated. There's no doubt that stelvins are the surest way to seal wine - less can be confidently said about plastic stoppers, because the longterm jury is still out on that one, but this counts for nothing in the face of what is termed consumer sentiment.
But what do we want? I rather like the Russian roulette approach to wine drinking that cork taint offers. Sure, it can severely piss you off if you've only one bottle of wine on hand, and it's corked, but if you're down to your last bottle then you've got a few other issues to deal with rather than worry over more reliable forms of wine closure.