Cork taint - your views on the WSA results
Eighteen months after the project began, the UK's Wine and Spirit Association's investigation into the incidence of wine taint has come to its conclusion. The study was based on close to 14,000 samples, which identified the incidence of commercially significant defective wines at around 3.4% by commercial testers, with mustiness being in the range of 0.7% to 1.2%.
Cork taint is one of the most emotive subjects in the wine industry and the press conference that accompanied the release of these results was no disappointment in these terms. Having reported on it last week, just-drinks received a great deal of feedback from its readers, once again proving that this is a controversial issue that is unlikely to die down soon.
We think it is important that the trade gets the opportunity to have its say and have therefore decided to print some of your responses. Over the next week we will update this feature if more of you decide to write in as a consequence of these letters, so feel free to get in touch on firstname.lastname@example.org.
I appreciate the work the WSA has done over the past 12 months in its investigation into the occurrence of mustiness, but from our experience in New Zealand, the level of mustiness occurring in cork-finished wines is considerably higher than the WSA's 0.7%.
To endorse this, please find below comments from leading New Zealand wine industry figures:
John Belsham, chairman of Judges of the Air New Zealand Wine Awards comments: "
"A level of 0.7% is inconsistent with evidence in Australia and New Zealand at organised wine tastings, where 4-6% of wines are routinely recalled "
Kingsley Wood, wine educator and proprietor of one of New Zealand's leading fine wine stores and convenor of New Zealand's Top 100 International Wine Competition, has accurately recorded cork tainted wines over the past three years of the competition. An average of 5% of the wines entered had obvious cork taint.
At a recent Cuisine Top 10 Chardonnay tasting held in his store, of the 38 bottles opened, 9 were clearly corked.
Stephen Bennett MW recently tasted wines for an insurance claim and found that about one third of the wines had a musty taint. All the bottles had a cork closure.
Respected winemaker of Kumeu River Wines, Michael Brajkovich MW, states: "Having just seen the report from the Wine and Spirit Association in the UK regarding mustiness in wine, I must say I am very surprised at the low incidence of defects reported. Over twenty years experience in the Wine business, including judging at numerous Wine Shows in New Zealand and Australia, I am sure that the true incidence of cork taint across all wines is more in the order of 3% to 5%, with oxidation and other problems on top of that.
"Indeed, we have seen batches of cork where the incidence of mustiness is well in excess of 10%, but these are isolated cases. I would therefore strongly question the sensitivity of the methodology used in this survey in respect of detecting mustiness, which is reliant on the tasting ability of a large number of people in the British Wine Trade.
"It is interesting to note, in their results, that for synthetic closures and screwcaps the incidence of mustiness is nil. This is consistent with what we know already, that mustiness is a problem caused by cork."
Technical Review No 125 April 2000 published by Australian Wine Research Institute states: "This case study conducted by experienced and trained tasters found a relatively high degree of TCA taint, 10.3%, in a batch of corks which had been deemed appropriate for testing by producers and suppliers."
At Villa Maria Estate, throughout the last ten years we have put increasing resources into the quality control testing of cork closures.
"However, the continuing presence of TCA taint in an unacceptable number of wines has meant that we will progressively change to bottling all of our wines under screwcap."
By doing this we can guarantee that 100% of our wines will retain their distinctive fresh fruit flavours that New Zealand is becoming famous for.
It will also mean that we can guarantee that our wines will age gracefully and have greater cellaring potential.
Villa Maria Estate
I read with interest the findings from the WSA re cork taint (namely an official incidence of 0.7%) especially since all the evidence continues to suggest such a figure is ridiculously optimistic to say the least.
Over the last three weeks, we have carried out two tastings for our magazine: 150 bottles of New World Pinot Noir (all over £10 bottles of wine), and 70 bottles of Sancerre and Pouilly Fumé (again, not cheap).
The number of corked wines for these two tastings was, respectively, 12 and seven bottles - or around 8% and 10%; more than ten times higher than the 'official' amount predicted by the WSA. Nor, alas, were these a particularly bad batch of wines. In our experience, cork taint of 5-10% each tasting is normal.
Dear editorial team
I very much welcome the research and results, which is long overdue, and I have a sneaky feeling the 'actual' corkage is a bit higher than 0.7%. However, I am still concerned that the industry as a whole will regard this as a 'huge success', due to two key driving forces:
1. The cork industry's reluctance to change
They are driven by a desire for self preservation and, whilst you can't knock this in itself, they should be doing much more than simply trying to deny a problem exists. Ironically, acknowledging the problem outright and then dealing with it is the only way of guaranteeing their long-term future.
In any other industry they would have long since been abandoned as they are in the unique position of providing one of the most costly closure options along with one of the least reliable!
2. The fact that the wine industry is still operated, on the whole, by 'experts' who have a rather snobbish attitude to their industry's produce.
At one time, wine may have been one of the pleasures of the affluent minority and this (almost) justified the way in which it was revered as an almost magical product, the result of some strange 'creation' processes only achievable by those who spent years attaining almost genius status. This, by way of the same argument, justified the fact that spoilt wines were an 'expected' result.
The reality today is that most of the wine produced is drunk by consumers who treat it as part of their whole drinking repertoire and all they want is something with a good taste and a guaranteed quality. I'm not saying that it can't still have a bit of the 'mystique', but only in the same way that, for example, a trappist beer is more 'mystical' than a Budweiser. Beers are a good case in point, many beers take just as much skill, experience and attention to detail to produce but their owners don't preach to their consumers and try to remain one step above them. Although the new world influence has lessened this snobbery,
"The wine industry will not be able to deal openly and quickly with quality problems until it realises it is selling a 'commodity', just like any other modern drinks brand."
These figures are astounding. It has long been my opinion that many people in the trade are incapable of spotting low-level cork taint and these findings back up my suspicions.
Trials conducted last week and at regular intervals over the past few months have come up with a cork taint problem running at between 4% and 6%, and this with corks from so-called quality suppliers. Even supposing that we have been particularly unlucky with the corks supplied, where we to half our figures we would still be over the maximum limit of the WSA findings.
Published findings such as these will do nothing to encourage the cork producers to improve their standards as there is an unwritten rule within the industry that allows for a 3% spoilage rate. Beneath this level, they are not prepared to accept any form of culpability. Other food manufacturers who attempted to pass off even 1.2% of their production which was inedible find themselves filing for bankruptcy very quickly.
The cork manufacturers have spent a lot of money recently on marketing themselves, not least through your website, and very little on organising themselves into an efficient and credible body.
"Until there is a common code of practise, there can be little chance of faith being restored in the industry. "
They are still working on the principle that their position is unassailable because of the negative public reaction to plastic corks and screw-caps, but they should be careful. The pioneering work that the Australians and the New Zealanders are doing with screw-caps will hopefully eventually filter through to the mass-market and public opposition will be broken down. I cannot see any other way that the cork manufacturers are going to be forced to smarten up their act.
Les Vins Charles Blagden
As a wine enthusiast, I have watched and read with great interest the growing debate about Cork taint. What I would like to understand is - are other consumer goods subject to the same rigorous testing and scrutiny that wine is? And should bread and milk be compared to wine?
From a marketing viewpoint, it has been stated that if the consumer can't detect the fault, then is there a problem? As a consumer of wine, I accept that sometimes I am going to come across a bottle that is not quite right. To me that is part of the theatre of wine. I simply return the bottle and have it replaced. If some of the bottles I have put down turn out corked in five or ten years' time, then I just sigh with disappointment - no investment is without risk. If that were the case, we would all be filthy rich.
Most hand-made garments carry a tag saying that faults and inconsistencies are part of the "authenticity" of the product. Such admissions of frailty keep the human element of the product alive and are in fact an attraction for the product - we accept these inadequacies because we want to believe that someone made this with their bare hands from natural resources in a production ritual handed down by generations. And we all know that humans aren't perfect. Now, I know that cork is a huge industry, and corks are made by machine, but the perception of damage relates to the wine, not the cork.
"Are we damaging the romantic, human element involved in wine by blatantly berating our industry cousins (ie the cork manufacturers)"
Finally, every alternative offered also has a downside. Stelvin caps keep out oxygen that some researchers believe is instrumental in aging the wine. Plastic? Put a piece in your mouth and suck on it. Then tell me you won't recognise that taste in your reds in a few years time. No matter what we find to replace cork, there will inevitably be some imperfection discovered down the track.
So instead of attacking the cork industry and rushing off looking for alternatives, why don't we put all this effort into improving the quality management practices involved to reduce the chance of cork-tainted wine. That way we might just save the romance and theatre in wine which is such a drawcard for many of our consumers.
Thank you for your report.
Having considerable experience in retail and wholesaling of wine I believe the large majority of dissatisfied wine buyers never complain.
The probability is that the percentage of corked wine is considerably higher than the wine industry wants to admit. They would rather dissatisfied customers switch brands than hear about the true figure.
Townsville, Queensland Australia
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