Can a screw-cap wine be “corked”? Corkiness isn’t just cork taint.

Francesco Cirelli’s entry-tier Trebbiano d’Abruzzo is one of our all-time favorite wines. Whenever the Texas allocation lands, the rep always jokes with our wine merchant: “Please let Jeremy and Tracie know. They’re thirsty!”

We buy it by the case and we serve and drink it as both an everyday wine and our Saturday night wine. That’s how much we love it. It’s varietally expressive and classic in style. And it’s one of the most wholesome wines you can drink in the under-$20 category.

But the other night we opened a bottle that was corked. We know this wine so well and drink it so often, that it’s easy for us to discern when it’s not right.

But how can a screw-cap wine like this be corked, when there is no cork involved?

Many years ago, one of my wine mentors and friends, Nicola Marzovilla, taught me that corkiness isn’t only about cork taint, in other words, the presence of the nefarious chemical compound TCA.

As Nicola put, corkiness can be about cork taint. But the more important telltale sign of a corked wine is the absence of fruit — even when there is no cork taint.

To borrow a line from another wine mentor and friend, Darrell Corti, wine is made from fruit and it should smell and taste of fruit. When it doesn’t, it’s likely that the wine is off.

The fruit aromas and flavors of a wine can be muted or even eclipsed entirely by cork taint. But there many other factors that can kill the fruit in a wine.

When I was first working in the wine trade in the early 2000s in New York, it was rare to see a bottled sealed with screw cap. Today, it’s commonplace. In some ways, you could say that it’s anachronistic to call a wine like this “corked.” But what would the contemporary wine lexicon be if not a metachronistic compendium of bygones?

One of the early problems facing winemakers who bottled their wines with screw-caps was that the seal would often break when the cases were stacked on top of one another. The weight and pressure of the bottles on top would compromise the seals on the bottles below. A lot of progress has been made in ensuring the sturdiness and integrity of screw-cap seals. But just a slight fissure, even invisible to the eye, can allow oxygen to be introduced into the bottle.

The same thing holds with cork because the tree bark used to make corks is a porous material that can allow small amounts of oxygen to be introduced into the bottle. And different types of taint — even TCA — can come into contact with the wine without affecting the cork itself. That’s why a cork-sealed bottle can be corked even when the cork doesn’t smell tainted.

Screw-caps have undeniably helped to deliver more robust fitness in wine today. But as I see it, opening a bottle of wine is always a gamble. It’s a wager that can reward the drinker with ineffable joy or disappoint with a broken and unfulfilled promise.

You win some and you lose some: this bottle is destined to donate its sugar for the sake of a salsa al pomodoro for pasta and to deglaze more than one sauté pan for chicken breasts and pork chops al vino bianco.

13 thoughts on “Can a screw-cap wine be “corked”? Corkiness isn’t just cork taint.

  1. Thank you! Last night I was with a wine blind tasting club going over 11 bottles. Sure enough we came across a corked bottle. It’s my weakest area and most embarrassing as a sales distributor because I cannot discern a corked bottle from atom. I read and have been told smell the cardboard, but I can’t for the life of me catch it on the spot and my customers usually do. Last night after our tasting while everyone else was taking seconds on the revealed wines, I went back to that corked bottle and poured and sniffed. I could barely make out cardboard and it could have been in my mind because I was looking for it. Your explanation makes senses. I definitely did not smell the fruit. The leader of the group, a well known wine person in LA suggested that some people lose their senses at the smell of a corked bottle, but yours is more plausible. I’ll keep this in mind down the road.

  2. Jeff, I love that! And I’m going to start saying that: “waiter, waiter! my wine is screwed!”

    Tony, it can be so hard to discern cork taint. But you can always tell if a wine smells and tastes of fruit.

    Thanks for the comments!

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  4. This is a lot of blah, blah, blah. A corked wine is tainted by cork taint, not some other nefarious process. hope your editor paid you in advance for this wholly misinformed writing.

    • 2,4,6 trichloroanisol, and 2,4,7 tribromoanisol (both “corked” chemicals) exist outside the cork. If I remember correctly, they come about by interaction of a fungus with chlorine or bromine. In the 80s, some Bordeaux chateaus were having corked problems with their production. But the smell wasn’t directly from the corks, the chemical had entered into the rafters of the chai and was affecting the wines. So one does not need cork to get a corked bottle. The issue might be an issue with cleaning chemicals bright into a winery the had a little bit of mold.

  5. I’ve been a winemaker for a long time. Glad you are addressing this issue. There is another compound that can be present in wineries called “TBA” — Tribromoanisole — which is chemically very similar to TCA and which can be present in a barrel cellar. TBA comes from contaminated pallets made from South American wood that were treated with a bromine-based fumigant. This fumigant is no longer used but its effects are still pervasive. To most people it would smell very similar to TCA . TCA used to be a problem in wine cellars back in the day when wineries used chlorine to sanitize their cellars; we no longer do that so that problem has gone away. It is possible that a wine under screwcap might seem cork tainted when it most likely is TBA.
    For Tony: you can purchase a TCA standard so you can practice smelling it (I think Enartis offers aroma standards). Some people are more sensitive than others but with practice you will be able to pick it up more often.

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