Smelling the cork after opening a bottle can seem like a relic of the past, but you’re making a huge mistake if you skip this step in evaluating wine.
Chances are, when you’ve ordered a bottle of wine at a restaurant, the server presented you with the cork. What should happen next is a source of some confusion and disagreement.
Tradition has held that you should inspect the cork. Indeed, there are two things you should look for. The first is that the cork, if branded, is from the correct producer and vintage as what you ordered. It’s unlikely, but spotting fraudulent bottles is one reason that this ritual started. The second is to inspect the integrity of the cork.
Next, many people believe that they are supposed to smell the cork. However, the topic is surprisingly controversial.
“Seriously, don’t sniff the cork,” advises one article. “Don’t smell the cork,” declares another. “Put down that cork, sniffing gets you nowhere,” opines a third.
To smell the cork is a vital part of evaluating a bottle of wine. It appears, however, that though the ritual has persisted for some, most people don’t know why it began in the first place. Here is why you should sniff around every bottle of wine you open.
A percentage of wines sealed with natural cork contain a contaminant called trichloroanisole (TCA), known as cork taint. Wines that suffer from this defect are referred to as “corked.” This term is sometimes used erroneously for a wine with any fault, but should truly be reserved for TCA-tainted wines.
At its most subtle, cork taint simply mutes the aromas and flavors of a wine. At its most overt, it gives the wine a strong aroma and flavor of a damp, moldy basement.
When a server pours you a small amount of wine and you look at it, swirl it, smell it and subsequently taste it, cork taint is one of the things you are examining for. So why not just smell and taste the wine and skip the cork?
Here’s the thing: To the extent that the wine is tainted by TCA, the most likely source is the cork itself. This means the moldy basement aroma is often quite concentrated in the cork, whereas it might be less so on the wine. Additionally, cork taint on a wine can start out as very subtle, essentially undetectable even by people who are highly sensitive to it. However, as a wine is exposed to oxygen, cork taint can become more prominent.
Without sniffing the cork, it’s possible that everything will seem fine until 15 to 30 minutes later, when the taint starts to show. If you are at a restaurant, you’re now in an incredibly awkward position. You’ve pronounced the wine sound, consumed some of it, but now have to tell your server that the wine is actually corked. Ugh!
This is where smelling the cork is your friend. It’s your first shot to detect cork taint. About 90% of the time I come across a corked bottle, the taint is first detectable on the cork before being confirmed in the wine. While smelling the cork is not 100% effective at picking up TCA taint, in my experience it’s still an extremely effective technique, even for wines that don’t seem corked on first pour.
If you’re having wine at home, smelling the cork can also save you from contaminating your glass with a highly corked wine and having to wash it out or grab a fresh one before moving on to another bottle.
Writers have pointed out that smelling a cork is only helpful if you know what you’re looking for. Indeed, many wine lovers don’t know what cork taint smells like. But I believe this view is shortsighted.
If you always smell the cork, you’ll better educate yourself as to what cork taint smells like. You will come across a cork that smells faintly, or perhaps strongly, like wet cardboard, and you can hone your skills from there. You may only pick up the more obvious examples at first, but subtler faults will become apparent over time. You’ll also notice interesting variations in what different corks smell like.
So go ahead. Sniff away the next time a server presents you with a wine cork. There’s a lot to learn from smelling that tiny piece of tree bark. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.