David Schildknecht on corks

This American commentator on German wines reports on one aspect of his latest tour of Germany.

Thanks for your sage words on the great disappointment of cork. I had myself been saving up ideas for the counter-campaign to 'does your producer care enough ...'!

At every one of the 68 stops in my just-concluded German trip, the subject of cork arose. How can it not?! Clearly TCA taint is especially noticeable with wines as transparent as Riesling. It may also be that high levels of active carbon dioxide contribute to quicker or more aggressive extraction of TCA.

I have wearied in my attempts to raise consciousness about many of the facts which are so frequently ignored, including that TCA taint passes through air and requires no contact between the corky 'spot' and the wine (which one can easily prove to oneself).

I believe it is finally dawning on winemakers the world over that there is an even worse problem than overtly corky bottles, and that is what I call 'stealth cork'. EVERY TIME I come to a bottle that seems mute in the nose, inexpressive in the finish, or just in any way not up to the standards typically established at the estate in question (and usually confirmed by other bottles from that same vintage standing open on the winemaker's tasting bench at the same moment) I SUSPECT cork. So, I do some shaking of the wine and a little waiting for any possible taint to 'blossom' with airation – as it will – and in MOST instances TCA proves to be the culprit. But in such cases, few wine enthusiasts let alone casual consumers would have come to this conclusion. They will simply consider their experience a reflection on the quality of the wine and buy something else (or from a different vintner) the next time. Only obviously corky bottles are routinely ascribed to bad corks. Very many times I have found the grower him- or herself just as uncertain as I am at first blush whether or not a wine is afflicted.

It has taken a long time, but growers are also beginning to realize at last that they cannot buy their way out of this problem. Longer, optically smoother corks are no protection against TCA.

It may also begin to dawn on growers and consumers that whatever the instance of corkiness among wines bottled within a year (and this is where most of my experience – and that of most consumers – lies) the percentage of tainted bottles can only rise the longer the wine sits in a cellar, wine and air gradually passing across the entire length of the cork.

Please excuse my going on, but this subject just sets me off. The most important contribution I hope to make to the discussion of corked bottles is some statistics.

But first – pardon me if I sound as though I am tooting my own horn – some background to those statistics. I taste around 750 German wines and 500 Austrian wines each year on my trips. In my work at Vintner Select I regularly present to clients hundreds of wines from France, Italy, California and Australia. In addition, on the occasion of public tastings which form a major part of my profession, I typically take personal responsibility for checking all of the bottles. In Germany it has been said of me that I can hear a corked bottle, so yes, I suppose I am pretty sensitive to TCA. I automatically have the taped record of all corked bottles I am served 'in the field' and I keep a very close tab on the corked bottles I encounter Stateside in my work at Vintner Select.

Here are the levels of cork I experience:

  • Germany – 14-15 per cent
  • Austria, France – 11-12 per cent
  • California, Australia, Italy – 10-11 per cent

In Germany, I have been keeping a 'watch list' of growers each year who transcend the 20 per cent level. (And by the way, poor Erni Loosen has been on that list more than once.) In the last few years, I have had six to eight on that list. This year it was 10 (again, out of 68)! No wonder growers are finally taking action, switching to synthetic closures, crown caps or screw caps.

See also my story on a spoilt lunch – Cork disappoints yet again.