What To Do If You Order a Bottle of Wine That's Gone Bad

It's okay to send the bottle back if you know something's off.

The first time I was handed a glass of corked wine, I had no idea anything was wrong with it. I was enrolled in a wine class and quietly terrified of saying the wrong thing. The other students promptly identified the flaw by its signature wet cardboard aroma, however, so I nodded along and quietly jotted their observations in my notebook.

“There are varying levels of cork taint, and people’s perceptions of cork taint are also varied,” says Ryan Fillhardt,  wine director and executive chef of Tasting House bistro in Los Gatos, California. 

While I am living proof that even the least sensitive tasters can learn to detect cork taint, I’m hardly alone in this struggle. Cork taint is often misidentified and, as a result, widely misunderstood. 

Whether you’re sniffing a glass in a restaurant while your server and friends stare expectantly, or studying with a professional tasting group, it’s useful to know the difference between wine that is flawed, or just a pour you don’t like too much. By figuring out what cork taint is and isn’t, you’ll be better able to determine what wines you prefer and why.

Here’s how to tell if your wine is corked — and what you can do about it.

Old wine pouring into a glass

Alefat / Shutterstock

What is cork taint?

Like volatile acidity, light damage, and oxidation, cork taint is one of several flaws that can crop up in wine. It occurs when wine comes into contact with a chemical compound called 2,4,6-trichloroanisole, or TCA. 

TCA isn’t dangerous to consume, it’s just unpleasant. The flavors and aromas of corked wine will be at best muted and at worst obscured by those wet newspaper, cardboard, or dirty sock notes that my classmates so expertly identified.

The causes of cork taint vary. Some cork trees form TCA in their bark to defend themselves against certain fungicides and insecticides. If corks are made from one of those infected trees, it can carry TCA compounds into wine production and packaging facilities. 

TCA can also occur when lignin, an organic polymer in lots of woods, interacts with bleach. In this scenario, cleaning fluids can actually carry TCA to different corners of a winery. 

"It can transfer into barrels and cellars, so even wines with screw caps or glass closures can have cork taint,” says Danielle Kuzinich, proprietor of San Francisco Wine Society. Still, she says, it’s more likely to occur in wines with traditional corks. 

Even then, it’s pretty rare. Cork taint affects just 5 or 7% of wine globally, depending on which corner of the Internet you believe, but it still looms large in hearts, minds, and tastings. “Cork taint isn’t the only issue that could be wrong with a wine. It’s just what most people know the most,” says Fillhardt.

How to detect cork taint

Several factors determine how easy it is to sniff out a corked wine, including the degree of contamination, the sensitivity of the taster, and how the wine was made. 

One way to determine if a wine is corked is to smell the wet end of the cork itself, says Andre Tkachenko, the co-owner of Aged Cork wine shop in Yonkers, New York. “If it’s slightly corked, it won’t smell or taste like anything other than wine. If it’s heavily corked, it will have a wet, moldy, cardboard taste and smell to it.” 

If you don’t smell anything unusual, or the cork is unavailable, pour a small amount of wine into a glass and give it a swirl. Aeration exacerbates the signature musty, moldy, wet-cardboard-y aromas of corked wine, making the flaw easier to identify. 

Some people find it easier to identify cork taint in light-bodied Provençal rosés made in stainless steel tanks versus big, hearty California Cabernet Sauvignons that undergo years of oak aging.Either way, practice makes perfect. “The more people are exposed to the smell and taste of corked wine, the easier they’ll be able to identify it,” Tkachenko says.

What to do if you buy a bottle of corked wine

If you open a bottle of wine at home and suspect it might be corked, bring it back to the retailer. The salesperson can likely swap it for another bottle free of charge — provided only a glass or two is missing. “Some people will drink half a bottle and say, ‘Oh, it was corked,’” says Tchachenko, laughing. 

Similarly, if you order wine at a bar or restaurant and think it might be corked, ask your server for their opinion. A polite question along the lines of, “I think this wine might be off, would you mind smelling it?” should do the trick. “Just be direct,” says Kuzinich. “It happens. We understand as wine professionals that there are flaws in wine.”

There’s no way to fix or undo TCA contamination, so the only solution for a flawed bottle is to take it out of circulation. Fortunately, in many instances, a retailer, bar, or restaurant can return flawed bottles to their distributors for reimbursement.

Besides, any wine shop, bar, or restaurant worth its salt will want to leave you with something you love in your glass, Fillhardt says. “It doesn’t do anybody any good to drink a bad bottle of wine.”

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