In the last two decades, cork producers have been researching ways to combat TCA and salvage the tainted reputation of corks. Carla Capalbo reports on the latest developments

Pop! The celebratory sound of a cork being drawn from a bottle is thrilling to wine lovers. Cork stoppers are associated with prestigious, long-aged reds and first-class Champagnes, and with the promise of pleasurable drinking. They’re kept in jewellery boxes as mementos of special meals and moments.

Yet, for all the good vibes that natural corks can evoke, there’s occasionally another, less positive association too. Corks often signal that a wine may have been tainted in the bottle. ‘The smell of a corked wine, once learned, is unforgettable: mouldy and dank, taint masks the fruit on the wine’s nose and palate to varying degrees,’ says Julie Peterson, a consultant to US wine importers.

While only a small proportion of faulty wines can be attributed to cork taint, or TCA (2,4,6-trichloroanisole), the apprehension about corked wines caused the closures industry to undergo major changes. The late 1990s saw the advent of both screwcaps and synthetic solutions as the market share of natural corks dropped dramatically.

The total wine bottle market is currently around 19 billion bottles, of which about 12bn use cork stoppers, either whole or in agglomerates. Screwcaps are around 4.7bn, and the remaining 1.8bn plastic closures.

Investing in research

Far from ignoring the problem of taint, the cork industry has been working hard to eliminate TCA contamination in cork stoppers and now has significant, tangible results to show for its investments in new safeguards.

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  • Carla Capalbo is an award-winning food, wine and travel writer. Her books include The Food and Wine Lover’s Companion to Tuscany