As the waiter watched, I tried my first sip of wine from a new bottle. It was bad. Not like cheap bad, rather the smell of wet cardboard bad. “Sorry, no this bottle is bad,” I said. At the time, I had only been drinking wine for about two years. The waiter looked annoyed. “You just need to let it breathe,” he said and left the table. My confidence wavered. Fifteen minutes later, I sent the bottle back.
Some of us have to steel our nerves the first time we send back a corked bottle. Especially when there’s pushback. So how does one know with confidence if corked wine anyway?
3 Signs Wine is Corked
Like anything else, learning about wine comes with certain markers of progress. That marker for me was knowing, with confidence, when a bottle of wine is corked. I first learned about corked wine to Union Square Wine & Spirits in New York City. Two employees sampled the wine I returned and agreed, corked. I asked, “How do I know if it’s just bad wine or corked wine?”
1. Brittle or Smelly Cork
Though they can’t tell you everything you need to know, wine corks hold clues. Think of them as the first hint of what’s inside a bottle. Before pouring the wine, check the overall condition of the cork. Does it look healthy or dry, and brittle?
Improperly storing wine bottles (vertically in a dry environment) can prematurely dry out the cork. Dry corks can expose the wine to too much oxygen. Too much air exposure over time, means wine might not be in the best condition. While drinking corked wine is not unsafe, it’s damn unpleasant. Being able to tell by smell saves a face cringing experience.
This is why the second thing to do with a cork is to smell it. Wine corks should smell like wood, wine, or neutral. Wine corks should never smell dusty, musty, or funky. The video below explains why smelling the cork is a good first step in for testing for wine for cork.
Take strong smells on a wine cork as an early warning sign. Proceed with caution and take your time smelling the wine in the glass, which is the next step.
2. Musty, Dusty, or Missing Smell
Wine should not smell like a dusty room, a wet dog, musty towels, cardboard, newspapers left out in the rain, sour body odor, stinky cheese, or a damp basement. With wine, bad smells are generally a bad sign. A complete absence of any smell is also a bad sign. Wine should smell like wine not neutral like water. So if there are bad smells or no smells at all, and you’re still in doubt, it’s time to taste.
3. The Wine Tastes Foul or Has No Taste
While a nose in the know can sometimes detect and protect your palate from cork taint, the only true guarantee is taste. My personal golden rule is to trust your nose first and when in doubt your palate second. Taste the wine to check for notes of cardboard, vinegar, or any of the foul smells listed above. Any of these tastes mean the wine is corked. Additionally, similar to wine that has no smell, wine that has no taste at all is a bad sign.
As gross as it sounds, trying corked wine is the quickest way to learn how to identify cork taint. So if you see your waiter open a bottle, smell the cork and look surprised, then smell the cork again, ask. If they think the wine is corked, ask for a taste to understand what corked wine tastes like. Can’t bring yourself to taste wine you suspect is corked? Watch the video below instead. I love that Dr. Matthew Horkey is willing to take one for the team on his wine youtube channel!
What is Corked Wine?
This is the only technical paragraph in this article, promise! When fungus, mold, or bacteria grow on cork tree bark, cork makers treat it with halophenols fungicides or insecticides. 2,4,6-trichloroanisole better known as TCA is a bi-product of these fungicides and insecticides. Both of which can create cork taint. Without getting too sciencey, what’s important to know is that too much TCA in wine stinks, literally.
As Dr. Horkey mentioned in the video above corked wine is not little pieces of cork that have fallen into the bottle. That’s just a bit of cork in the wine. “Corked” wine aka cork taint is a bit more serious. Corked wine is a bit of an umbrella term. It describes foul tastes or aromas in wine.
Whats more, poorly sterilized winery equipment and barrel contamination can also cause wine corkage. However, the most common culprit is the cork itself. Thus the name.
How Often is Wine Corked?
According to Wine Folly Trichloroanisole aka cork taint affects between 2-3% of bottled wines. While that might not sound like much, for wine collectors or spirited wine drinkers that is equal to a bottle in every 2 cases. There is a bit of luck of the draw here, but it’s safe to say the more wine you drink, the more corked wine you’ll come across. Having a bit of confidence in understanding corked wine is key. Especially when it comes to sending wine back or returning a bottle.
Can You Return a Bottle of Bad Wine?
Absolutely. That said returning a bottle of wine is a lot easier when you know what you’re talking about. In a restaurant, ask to taste the wine before a second glass is filled. If you suspect it is, don’t hesitate. Signal there is something strange right away. If a sommelier is present, using a little wine etiquette can go a long way. Let them know something smells off and ask their opinion.
When buying wine at a store, get to know your local wine store’s return policy. Ask if they allow returns on bad bottles before you buy. Many good wine stores do. Always keep your receipt! The same as a restaurant, sip before you pour. Otherwise, grab the funnel. Half bottle returns cause a little more pause.
Other stores like Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s take returns as well. In my opinion, it’s smart business. I’m guessing I’m not the only customer more likely to buy a $20 plus bottle if it’s less of a risk.
Can You Return a Glass of Bad Wine?
In similar fashion sending a glass of wine back is possible. Wine that’s been open goes bad quick. Many places that sell wine by the glass mark the bottle with an open date, precisely for this reason. We’re talking a couple of days max. Especially if the bottle has the original cork in place half way down to reseal it. If you order wine by the glass and get a whiff of vinegar, the bottle has been open too long. Thus, you should not be afraid to send it back. Stand strong!
How to Recork Wine
Primarily exposure to air is one of the things that turns wine bad. In fact it’s actually part of the argument for trying boxed wine for occasions when you just want a glass. Which really, when does that ever happen? Jokes aside, there are plenty of tricks. From wrapping the cork in wax paper to keeping clean half bottles at home to reduce air exposure.
Try a wine saver pump with a vacuum bottle stopper. Although unfinished bottles don’t happen often in our home, we have noticed this little gadget gets us a day or two more.
You’re not alone if some aspects of learning about wine are intimidating. One thing I’ve seen with wine lovers is respect for curiosity. Sip, sample and share. True wine lover respect knowledge but they do, not expect to share the same with everyone. In short, there is just too much to know about wine to know it all. The only real expectation? Chiefly, wine lover will expect you to know what corked bottles taste like.