There are few joys in life that compete with the pleasure of opening what you hope to be a great bottle of wine to share with your friends and family—or even just drink on your own. And so there are few disappointments greater than when that wine turns out to be corked.

Corked wines have received a taint from their natural cork which destroys the aroma and flavor of the wine. The wine is safe to drink, but it’s not enjoyable, so there’s no reason to drink it. So how do you tell if your wine is corked?

What Causes Corked Wine

Wine becomes corked when it’s contaminated with a compound known as 2,4,6-trichloroanisole (TCA). This compound is often produced by natural fungus when it’s exposed to chlorine-containing cleaning agents.

The most direct expose for wine is when the TCA is produced by fungus in the actual cork of the bottle, but that’s not always the case. Sometimes, the TCA is produced elsewhere and transmitted to the wine from many different sources. TCA is detectable by smell or taste at a level of parts per trillion, so a tiny contamination can go a long way. How long? Well, one drop of TCA could contaminate nearly 70 million bottles of wine.

Given that, it’s remarkable that there aren’t more corked wines, especially since TCA can be very hard to remove from a winery once it manifests. Once released into the atmosphere of a winery, TCA can cling to aging barrels, bond temporary with gaskets, or be absorbed by bentonite clay sometimes used to treat wine. And, of course, it can get into corks, which is why the wine is described as being “corked.”

How Common Is Corked Wine?

Corked wine is much less common than it used to be. The peak of corked wine seems to have been during the mid-1990s to mid-2000s, when as much as 7% of wine was found to be corked. The goal of trying to sanitize bottles and corks unwittingly led to more contamination.

However, since the discovery of the cause of wine corking, reduction efforts have cut the levels of TCA by about 80% over the last decade or so. This reduction in TCA levels doesn’t correspond exactly to a reduction in bottles that seem tainted. These days, most experts estimate the rate of cork taint to be about 2-3%, or about one in every 40 bottles.

How to Tell If Your Wine Is Corked

So how do you know if your wine has been corked? You will be able to identify cork taint in your wine by looking for five signs:

  • Dank smell
  • Reduced aroma
  • Reduced taste
  • Lack of fruit
  • Doesn’t match reviews

Dank smell is the most perceptible sign of cork taint. A strongly tainted wine won’t smell like wine. It’ll smell moldy, like wet cardboard, a mildewy basement, or even a wet dog.

However, if the wine is less strongly tainted, it will have reduced aroma. All the expected scents, the first of many sensual pleasures in wine, will be almost imperceptible.

But it’s not the aroma that’s gone, the wine will have reduced flavor, too. It will seem flat and boring.

In particular you’ll notice a lack of fruit in corked wines. All the brightness of the flavor will be gone.

If you suspect a wine might be corked but aren’t sure, separate yourself from it for a moment, then try to smell it again. It’s important to take time and clear your palate between sniffing the wine because the nose acclimates to TCA quite quickly and you’re less likely to smell it with each sniff. Then go online and read a few reviews of the wine. If it  doesn’t match reviews, then it’s quite likely that it’s been corked. Confer with another drinker before making the decision that the wine is probably corked.

What Can You Do about Corked Wine?

There isn’t much you can do about corked wine, other than return it. If you ordered a bottle at a restaurant that you think might be tainted, ask the sommelier to taste it, and they’ll identify the problem right away and replace the bottle (usually). The same is true of liquor stores. If you got a wine that you think is corked, then you can typically take it back, as long as you didn’t drink too much of it.

Don’t believe that you can remove the taint from wines using plastic wrap. This may have worked in the past, but the chemical that used to be used in plastic wrap changed because the old compound leached chlorine into food and discolored unattractively. Trying that these days just makes a mess and doesn’t have any effect.

Don’t Let Corked Wine Mold Your Enthusiasm

We understand that getting a bottle of corked wine can really ruin your experience, but don’t let it keep you from looking forward to the next great bottle. It’s out there, and you’ll find it. Let the helpful staff at Applejack Wine and Spirits guide you.