Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Fixing corked wine: An experiment...

It's like the ten plagues have been cast upon me in 2006 - I've encountered more corked bottles of wine in this one past year than in my entire prior half-century of life.

Now my friends may counter that this is probably because I've consumed more wine this past year than in the past 50. But this rumor just isn't so. Perhaps it is true that I've been drinking more vintage wines, thus more wines with a higher probability of having the TCA taint ("cork taint").

If you're fortunate enough not to have experienced a corked bottle of wine, you may not recognize the distinctive aroma and taste, variously described as, "wet dog in a damp wool jersey", or, "mushroom in Clorox stench". Whatever you call the experience, it seems to be one of growing frequency among wine consumers.

The phenomenon troubles me personally for a number of reasons. First, I've been blogging more wine tastings (in lately. Second, I've been buying more wines for long-term storage in my own cellar. Third, I'm doing more home winemaking and bottling (described in Fourth, I just bought a corker for these homemade wines. Fifth, I have secured hundreds of clean, empty 750 ml wine bottles in need of corks once they are filled with the homemade wine. And sixth, I just bought 1,000 brand new Portugese corks!

So my question for this entry (which I'll cross-post between spiritofwine and chezraywinery) is, having encountered a corked bottle of wine, Can you fix it? For extra credit, I'll ask, Can you quickly fix it?

To answer these questions, I'll perform an experiment based on two pieces of research that I recall. The first is that polyethylene can extract TCA from solution. The second is that activated carbon can extract TCA from solution. There are inventions and commercial products backing these notions. But there are also home-spun solutions. Let's try a couple.

First, I'll take the 1990 Tokaj that I recently reviewed, which showed a mild cork taint. I'll break the remaining Tokaj into four parcels of about 100ml each: 1) the original Tokaj; 2) Tokaj mixed with a "baggie", specifically an unused Glad Fold-Top sandwich bag; 3) Tokaj mixed with a 1-foot square piece cut from a light plastic Stop & Shop grocery bag; and 4) Tokaj passed through a used (but not expired) Brita water filter.

I'll test each parcel after a 2 minute treatment; then I'll Vac-u-Vin each sample and allow it to sit cold for a full hour and retest.

Here goes...

The first two-minute test included shaking and swirling each sample for alternate periods to ensure good contact with the plastics, and equivalent airing for the original and Brita-filtered samples. Results were as follows: 1) the slightly corked original sample was still slightly corked; 2) The Glad-bag sample was somewhat cleaner than the original, though I think I still would have identified something odd in the flavor; 3) The shopping bag sample was slightly cleaner than the original, but not quite as clean as the Glad-bag sample - there was only a marginal difference between 2) and 3) in corked aromas, and both were better than 1). 4) The Brita-filtered sample was an absolute transformation, delivering gobs of sweet fruit and nothing that even hinted of corked wine. Did it strip the wine of any of its original flavors? I can't say, but it definitely transformed what was a mixed experience into one that was wholly pleasurable.

So, in answer to the second question, Can you quickly fix a corked wine?... your best bet would seem to be a charcoal filter, Brita or otherwise.

Now, after an hour, I've retested. And, voila, we've got a change in the outcomes: 1) original was still just as corked as ever; 2) Glad-bag sample was extremely improved - bright, round, complex, just a hint of oak, or is that cork - hmm, not sure. But quite drinkable and thoroughly enjoyable; 3) Shopping bag is like 2), but without the hint of corkiness. Excellent. 4) Brita filter was pretty much unchanged from earlier, still round and sweet, but now it seemed flabby and flacid in comparison with samples 2) and 3). Maybe too much oomph had, in fact, been squeezed from the wine by the charcoal filter.

So, if you can spare an hour, here is the preferred method to rid corked bottles of the TCA taint: crumple a 1 foot piece of light plastic shopping bag (or Glad sandwich bag) into the bottle of bad wine, shake and let rest. (This might also work with plastic wrap rolls like Saran Wrap, but I have not tested that.) If after an hour, unacceptable corked aromas and tastes remain, go ahead and use a charcoal filter on the wine - plan to accept the loss of character in exchange for a drinkable wine.

Now that this is solved, I can go ahead and put those thousand corks to use without reservation, right?!

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