The Penniless Epicure: The Spoils of Wine

Written by Josh Perilo on . Posted in Dining Our Town, Dining West Side Spirit, Eat & Drink, Lifestyle, Our Town, West Side Spirit.


Last week, I spoke enthusiastically about my support of Stelvin closures, or screw caps, for wine. And I stand by my zeal for this cause. However, I had many friends and colleagues approach me and take major issue with my stance.
“I don’t want to hear a ‘crack’ when I open my bottle of sauvignon blanc,” one friend complained. “There’s nothing sexy about that.”

I guess there’s something to be said for the tradition and the ritual of removing the cork from a bottle of wine. With a collectable bottle of wine, especially, the removal of a cork can become not only ritual but an art in and of itself. My experience with opening a bottle of 1945 Chateau Latour was one of the most harrowing experiences of my professional life—mostly because the bottle wasn’t mine!

But tradition aside, the fact of the matter is that corks are outdated. Not just because they are expensive, but because they contribute in a major way to the loss of billions of gallons of wine each year.

There are three major ways that wine can go bad between the vineyard and your table, and cork contributes to the two most
widespread causes. Today, I’ll discuss all three and hopefully leave you with a better understanding of them, able to point out a spoiled bottle the next time you taste something off in a wine you get from a store or at a restaurant.

The first and most common cause of wine spoilage I discussed briefly last week. It is commonly known as “corkage” or getting a wine that’s “corked.” Corks are sterilized with chlorine before they can be used. Now, mind you, they aren’t dunked in some powerful, toxic vat of Clorox; the cleanser that is used is extremely mild and diluted. There’s just enough chlorine present to clean the corks, then they are rinsed thoroughly before sealing the bottles. If, however, even the slightest amount of that solution stays on the cork, the bottle of wine will be ruined.

We’ve all had it happen. You open a bottle of wine, pour yourself a glass, and the smell that comes out is something akin to wet cardboard, a dog after a rainstorm or a flooded basement. That’s TCA, or trichloranisole. TCA is the chemical compound that develops when chlorine comes in contact with wine. While nothing terrible will happen if you drink the wine, it severely affects the taste and smell. Up to 6 percent of all wine bottled each year is affected with TCA.

The second way a wine can spoil before it reaches your table is through oxidization. The fault for this also lands squarely on the cork’s shoulders. Again, because cork is an organic material, it expands when it gets warm and contracts when it gets cold. Humidity also factors into it, with the cork expanding with higher humidity and contracting as it dries out.

If a wine has not been stored properly or if the temperature and/or humidity have vacillated in any significant way during its journey from the vineyard to the wine store, there’s a good chance that the wine will be oxidized. As the cork contracts, minuscule amounts of oxygen will creep in around the compromised seal. Oxygen is wine’s mortal enemy, and as soon as it is exposed to it, the wine begins to age rapidly. By the time you try it at home, it will most likely taste and smell nutty, like a sherry.

The third and less frequent way a wine can spoil before it makes it to your glass is through accidental double fermentation. After a wine ferments in a tank, the yeast is removed and it is bottled. If, however, any yeast remains and the wine has even a tiny amount of residual sugar, fermentation will continue in the bottle. If you’ve ever had a slightly fizzy Cabernet Sauvignon and scratched your head about those bubbles, you’ve been the victim of accidental double fermentation.

Now that you know, be proactive and return those bad bottles to the store. And support producers who make screw cap wine! They’re just trying to ensure that you get a flawless product.

Follow Josh on Twitter: @joshperilo.

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