Australian wine industry looks beyond cork for solution to taint

Has the cork at last had its day? Wine makers are fed up the high incidence of ‘corked’ wine. And if the cork industry can’t solve the problem, it could find corks replaced by a new generation of synthetic seals.

The unpleasant, musty-cork smell and flavour permeating so many wines comes chiefly from a compound…2, 4, 6 trichloroanisole (TCA)…formed, I’m told, when cork is bleached with chlorine. When this nasty little molecule remains in the cork, even in the tiniest quantities, it can be leached into a wine sealed with the cork within a day or two of insertion.

Our noses are sensitive enough to detect TCA in concentrations of around four parts per billion. So sensitive are we to it, tests designed to help Australian winemakers detect problem corks rely on the winemaker’s nose rather than on any laboratory equipment for detection.

Corkiness’ varies in degree. In big concentrations it infects wine with unmistakable and strong mouldy and musty aromas and flavours. If you drink wine regularly, chances are you’ve encountered this problem. I wonder how many perfectly good wines we’ve sent to Coventry in our minds because of a cork problem.

In smaller concentrations TCA may just dull a wine: the aroma and flavour may seem less lively in a familiar tipple, or a new wine not live up to expectations. As well, we all have different sensitivity to it. This seems partly inducible.

Not surprisingly wine makers and wine show judges are amongst the most sensitised of all and have been outspoken in criticism.

So much so, says James Halliday that one Portuguese cork grower angrily berated him. Corkiness, he fumed, was an Australian wine making fault. It had to be, he claimed, because we are the only ones that make so much fuss about it.

Such unsustainable views aside, it is a big problem for consumers and industry alike. Why is that in 1997 a science-based industry, of which Australia is world leader, relies on a wad of bleached tree bark as a seal.

There are many answers. Perhaps the biggest is fear of changes that might drive consumers away. Remember Yalumba’s bold move into Stelvin caps in the late seventies?

Take your most delicate riesling. Protect it from the vagaries of cork with a synthetic screw on seal. No corkscrew needed. Perfect. It was an utter disaster. Consumers stuck with the good old faulty cork.

And despite odd articles predicting Stelvin’s inevitable return, no maker dared stray from tradition.

The problem was never ignored but it was never properly addressed either. Now the explosion of global bottled-wine consumption demands a solution to a problem that taints an estimated 1.4 million bottles of wine a year globally.

Cork failure – whether through TCA taint or disintegration – probably presents more of a marketing challenge than a technical one. But at last one of our major wine companies is taking its solution to the world.

Recently, Southcorp Wines trialled ‘supremcorq’ a synthetic cork look-alike in 250,000 bottles of its Lindemans Cawarra Range in a promotion explaining why the new seal was there and seeking consumer feedback.

92 per cent of respondents ‘accepted synthetic closures as equal to, or better than, natural cork”, said Bruce Kemp, Southcorp chief.

Even as the trial progressed, Southcorp Wine’s sister company, Southcorp Packaging, was perfecting its own cost-effective, synthetic wine bottle closure to be marketed under the proprietary name ‘Aegis’.

Not surprisingly, the first customer is Southcorp wines, using Aegis in a trial run of over one million bottles of Lindemans Cawarra, Matthew Lang and Woodleys Queen Adelaide wines – all at the budget end of the market.

But the product has been produced with an eye to the huge US market and already the food grade polyethylene seal has been approved by the FDA.

Hopefully, with proper educational material to inform drinkers why a reliable seal is replacing the flawed one that’s been around since the seventeenth century, tradition might be broken.

There appears no doubt that the new seals will perform better in the short term. And, especially on delicate whites where fresh fruit flavours are desirable, it is hard to accept any argument for continuing with cork.

There are legitimate concerns over the ageing of top quality wines and longevity of the new synthetic seals and whether or not they might have their own taint waiting to emerge.

These concerns can only be addressed over time. But for right now – with most wine being consumed within a few hours of purchase – there is a compelling argument to accept a seal that brings wine to the glass in exactly the condition it was in when the vigneron bottled it