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 when a bottle of wine is corked 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 how to tell by returning a bottle I suspected was corked to Union Square Wine & Spirits in New York City. Two employees sampled the wine and agreed, corked. I asked, “so how do we know for sure if it’s just bad wine or corked?” Here are three things the experts told me to look out for as signs of 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. If wine is exposed to too much air over time, it 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 does a good job explaining why smelling the cork is a good first step in determining if wine is corked.
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. A wine that tastes of water from rung-out cardboard, vinegar, or any of the foul smells listed above is most likely corked wine. Additionally, similar to wine that has no smell, wine that has no taste at all can also be corked.
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 if you can have a taste to understand what corked wine tastes like. If you 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! Cork taint happens when fungus, mold, or bacteria grow on cork tree bark and that cork is then treated with halophenols fungicides or insecticides. The result is 2,4,6-trichloroanisole better known as TCA. 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 used loosely to describe foul tastes or aromas in wine. While the causes can be anything from poorly sterilized winery equipment to barrel contamination 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. This is where a bit of confidence in knowing if wine is corked is key. Especially when it comes to sending wine back or returning a bottle.
Can You Return a Bottle of Bad Wine?
Absolutely. Once you learn how to tell if a bottle is corked returning it, is much easier. In restaurants, check to see if wine is corked before additional glasses are poured. 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?
Bottles can be sent back to restaurants and so can wine by the glass. Two things are at stake with wine by the glass. Corked wine and wine that’s been open too long. Many places that sell wine by the glass mark the bottle with an open date, precisely because wine goes bad quickly. We’re talking a couple of days max. Especially if the original cork is jammed back in the bottle. If you order wine by the glass and get a whiff of vinegar, the bottle has been open too long. Don’t be afraid to send it back. Stand strong!
How to Recork Wine
Exposure to air is one of the things that turns wine bad. 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.
For my part, I pull out a wine gadget that’s worked well for us. 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. Willingness to sip, sample and share are highly valued. While having knowledge of what a particular bottle of wine holds is respected, it’s not expected. The only real expectation is being able to tell if a bottle is corked if you’re the taster at the table.