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.