These thoughts ran through my mind when I opened a 2000 Chateau Laroque, a grand cru classe from St. Emilion. You don't hold a wine for 17 years without some degree of excitement when you pop that cork. Excitement was hardly the reaction when I got a whiff of cork taint, technically known as trichoroanisole. The wine was like a booby trap in my cellar just waiting to be detonated.
Cork taint is becoming less and less common -- some estimate it occurs in 5 percent of the wine produced. TCA happens when airborne microrganisms attach themselves to the bark. When this comes in contact with chlorides (bleach) at the winery, cork taint occurs. Since this cause was discovered in the 1990s, chlorides are rarely used. However, cork taint still happens and some winemakers resolved this problem by using screw caps or other artificial stoppers.
In the case of my precious Chateau Laroque, the defect was as obvious as rain. The telltale wet cardboard, damp basement smell knocked me over. It is not always as obvious. Sometimes, TCA just strips the wine of flavor with no residue of odor. Those corked wines are harder to identify, but if you are familiar with the wine, you just know something is wrong. I was enjoying lunch with a Bordeaux producer several years ago and he immediately dismissed one of his own wines because it lacked its usual fruit flavors. I just thought it was a boring wine.
Consumers go through life not knowing they are drinking an occasional corked wine. They just think the wine is not to their liking and never buy it again -- and that's a winemaker's worst fear. Or, worse, consumers will refuse a wine because they think it's corked -- but it isn't. It could be a wine they simply don't like.
Many years my wife and I were dining with a friend who turned away an Opus One because he said it was corked -- I didn't have a chance to smell it before it was whisked away. He turned away the second bottle for the same reason and that summoned the maitre d' who suggested he order a different wine. Could two bottles of Opus One be tainted? Unlikely.
As for my Chateau Laroque, I fortunately had one more bottle left in the case. It was glorious and I breathed a sigh of relief. I used the two as a lesson for my guests who were able to get a whiff of a tainted wine and compare it to an untainted wine. Although you can taste TCA, it is more obvious in the nose. Aged Bordeaux can get funky and barnyard-like, but TCA at this degree is impossible to miss.
Detecting a corked wine is impossible to explain in words. But once you experience it, your brain is conditioned to identify it again.