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Inside Knowledge: Corked Wine

What does corked wine taste like?

In Short:
Over three per cent of the world’s wine is ‘corked’ - here’s how to tell why your wine might smell like compost or wet carpet.

As anyone who has ordered wine in an expensive restaurant will remember, there’s a moment of truth before getting to enjoy your bottle. You’ll be familiar with the theatrical display of being offered the chance to taste the wine. Remember that this is not to determine whether or not you like it but rather to establish whether the bottle you have chosen is “corked”.


Despite the name, “corked” is not what happens when you mishandle the bottle opener and end up scattering shards everywhere. Nor is it when a dry cork crumbles in an older wine. It’s how a chemical reaction within the bottle can ruin the taste of the wine you have selected. There are also grades of corked - some wines will be rendered utterly undrinkable and some will only have the faintest hint. Some establishments also take great delight in presenting you with the cork as a souvenir - even though you cannot determine whether a bottle is corked by sniffing the cork. Despite the improvements in wine technology, it’s estimated that at least 3% of the world’s wine is corked. As such, if you drink regularly, you could suffer a corked bottle about 100 times in your adult life.


Corked wine occurs when the contents of a bottle become contaminated with cork taint. Because corks are made of a natural substance, they can occasionally come into contact with airborne fungi. Under certain circumstances, these fungi can create a chemical compound known as TCA. 


Corked wine’s taste is distinctive - dank. musty, peaty, compost-like, reminiscent of wet cardboard or being nuzzled by a wet dog. It is not pleasant but it is also not harmful. It not only effects the smell of the wine but the taste - it makes it seems duller, less fruity and the results lacklustre. 


If you discover your wine is corked, act immediately: you can return it to Majestic for a full refund. Remember also that most restaurants and wine bars would rather replace the bottle for you in that moment rather than have a customer endure a disappointing evening and recount that experience online. If the sommelier or manager argues about it, take your custom elsewhere in the future.


Corked wine is not the only problem that can occur. Storing bottles also under cork can result in oxidation, where the wine loses its primary characteristics. If the wine is exposed to the air for too long, the alcohol turns to acetaldehyde, which can smell like rotting apples.


Imperfections are part of what makes wine so special. As such, if you taste authoritatively and trust your gut, you should be able to determine whether a wine is corked or compromised in another way. And if this is all too stressful to consider? We would suggest investing in one of our many, many bottles under screw cap.