Our wine scribe Jim Walker enjoys everything about wine – from the glorious places the grapes are grown to the truly marvellous people who farm the grapes and turn them into the elixirs he loves so well. But, there is one fly in his vinous ointment. Read on to find out what it is.
The cork! Wine’s Achilles heel.
It must have been a desperate person who first wadded a bit of bark into a bottle in order to contain and preserve the precious liquid within. But I suppose it’s a little better than the oil-soaked rags that French vintners stuffed into the necks of bottles as late as the mid-17th century. It seems that wine and corks have long been companions. Proof of this is a cork-stopped amphora from the 1st century BC found in the ruins of the ancient Greek city of Ephesus. Corks were reintroduced at beginning of the 17th century by the Benedictine monk Dom Pérignon, who used them to seal the bottles of his famous champagne. They were joined by the other champagne houses Ruinart in 1729 and Moët et Chandon in 1773. From then on the cork became the wine stopper of choice worldwide.
The source of my vinous travails is indeed the bark of a tree. A species of oak tree scientifically dubbed the Quercus Suber that grows in the Mediterranean and Iberian regions to be precise. It is harvested for cork stoppers when the tree reaches forty years, and then every nine or so years after that. The productive life of the tree averages about 150 years. While cork-related statistics vary wildly, it seems that there are about five and a half million acres of cork forest worldwide with 34 per cent in Portugal and 27 per cent in Spain. Annual production is about 200,000 tons; 49.6 per cent from Portugal, 30.5 per cent from Spain, 5.8 per cent from Morocco, 4.9 per cent from Algeria, 3.5 per cent from Tunisia, 3.1 per cent from Italy, and 2.6 per cent from France.
A typical cork tree yields around one hundred pounds of bark when harvested, enough for about 4,000 corks. Then there’s the granddaddy of all cork trees – The Whistler Tree found in Alentejo, Portugal. It is the world’s oldest, at well over 225 years of age, and largest cork tree. Its 1991 harvest was the largest ever from a single tree. More than two and a quarter tons of bark were pulled from it – enough for well over 100,000 individual corks, more corks than some trees produce in their entire 200-year life spans. By the time The Whistler Tree’s bark is removed for the last time it will have yielded the raw material that went into more than a million corks.
At the outset I will concede that corks have one endearing factor – they are easily recycled and thus are environmentally friendly. But, that’s about it.
Now then, why do I have a personal problem with corks? There are two reasons. The first is cork taint. This nasty little devil makes the poor unsuspecting wine taste worse than my old hockey socks. I received an unpleasant reminder of it the other day when I opened a bottle of 2007 Château La Nerthe Châteauneuf-du-Pape, (which should have been divine), sniffed the cork and recoiled from that dreaded musty, mouldy, damp cardboard whiff of cork taint!
The most common culprit causing cork taint is 2,4,6-trichloroanisole (TCA). TCA is formed in tree bark when fungi, mould or certain bacteria come into contact with a group of fungicides and insecticides, collectively referred to as halophenols. These were widely used during the period from 1950 to the 1980s and remain in the soil. Fungi have a defense mechanism that chemically alters these compounds, rendering them harmless to the organism but creating TCA and the miserable stink in the process.
The percentage of corks that are tainted is open to much debate. I’ve read it is as high as 10 per cent, but more often around five. The rate has decreased in recent years as counteractive treatments have been added to the cork production process. Unverified rumour has it that, years ago, 50 per cent of the shipments of corks from Portugal and Spain to their wine-producing competitors Australia and New Zealand were found to be tainted. As the result the latter two countries became forerunners in the use of screw tops and glass stoppers.
I call the second problem ‘old cork crumble.’ Perhaps you’ve experienced it? You insert your trusty corkscrew and begin to pull the cork out when, oh no, sawdust! Admittedly this is not a common fault. It crops up when wines become 15 or so years old and then becomes rampant when they reach 25—clearly a collector’s issue to be sure. The pictured bottle of a Domaine Giuliani Châteauneuf-du-Pape was only 14 years old.
All is not necessarily lost when old cork crumble rears its ugly head. Bits and pieces of flotsam and jetsam usually end up in the bottle. At this point my trusty port strainer comes to the rescue. Placed at the top of my venerable decanter, it not only filters out the cork detritus but the sediment in the wine as well.
There are some preventive measures that can be taken to avoid old cork crumble. The most obvious is not to drink old wine (perish the thought!).
The second is to use a corkscrew with a large thread in order to grip more cork in hopes it won’t disintegrate. My go to corkscrew is a Screwpull. This little marvel was invented by the American Herbert Allen in 1979. It has since been acquired by that maker of colourful and extremely heavy cookware, Le Creuset that for some unknown reason killed the Screwpull brand. While dandy for unstopping newer corks, it is a menace for older ones because the Teflon-coated ‘worm’ is simply too narrow. It delights in propagating old cork crumble. The two corkscrews at the left of this photo (the furthest left is my grandfather’s, next to it my father’s; the raspberry one is the Screwpull) are much better for old corks.
By the way, did you know that a corkscrew collector is called a helixophile?
However, the best device for extracting old corks is called the Ah-So (from the German ach so! – now I understand), also dubbed The Butler’s Friend. Pictured at the right of the corkscrew photo, I got mine many years ago at the marvellous gourmet food and wine store in Napa Valley, California called the Oakville Grocery (founded in 1881!). To make it work, first insert the longer tong between the cork and the bottle, then push down on the Ah-So while rocking it back and forth till it reaches the hilt. Then rotate it while gently pulling the cork out. Voila! With any luck the geriatric cork has been satisfactorily removed.
There is one potential salvation for old bottles of fine wine – cork replacement. This is not an easy exercise and the amateur might do more harm than good. Château Lafite Rothschild devised the marvellous public relations gesture of holding travelling re-corking clinics. They were followed by Penfolds on behalf of their iconic Grange (Hermitage) marvel. I’ll tell you more about these in my next article.
In summary, if I had my way, all wine meant to be consumed in its first three or so years of life would be sealed with a glass stopper or, preferably, a screw top. Further, there should be a movement to ban corks from all rosés! Wait staff in all but the snootiest of restaurants would rejoice. Corks are fine for wines held for a longer duration, but for goodness sakes enjoy them before they reach their 20th birthdays. Old world wineries are loath to heed my recommendations and I can tell you that I have had many very lively discussions with several of our vintners on the subject. They say that their clients would sorely miss the tradition, pomp and ceremony that goes with uncorking a bottle, not to mention the satisfying pop that goes with it. Besides, they say, only grocery store wines have screw tops. Bah, nonsense I say. The momentary loss of the cork yanking ritual (or struggle as the case may be) would be more than made up for by the absence of the dreaded cork taint or old cork crumble.
PS: If you are interested in some really great wines from the Southern Rhône such as Côtes du Rhône, Vacqueyras, Gigondas and Châteauneuf du Pape, you might consider joining my Arthur’s Cellar Wine Club – no fees or other obligations, just marvellous wine.
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