The Cork’s Taint and Other Tales of the Evolution of Wine Areas

Neolithic man gave the world winemaking. Not only the domestication of the grapevine, but also the development of ceramics permitted him to take this propitious step. Wine, the result of ripe grapes spontaneously fermenting, is a natural product that occurs without human intervention. But to make good wine, fermentation must be carried out in a suitable vessel. Then, if it is to remain tasty for more than an evening, wine must be stored under conditions that exclude air. In fact, winemaking history could be interpreted from the perspective of man’s attempt to control air. The manufacture of pottery, the earliest of which appeared in 6000 BC, by the Neolithic people was the technological advance that made winemaking possible.

Clay, easily extracted from the earth and malleable when wet, becomes nearly indestructible after firing. When clay is shaped into narrow-necked jars, wine may be fermented and stored with reduced exposure to oxygen. Since clay remains quite porous after firing, the inside of these early bottles was coated with tree resin to further limit the wine’s contact with air.

Resin contains chemical compounds that help preserve wine, and although the strong flavor leaches into the wine, it was perhaps deemed better to drink tree-flavored wine than spoiled wine. Modern Greek Retsina wine is a well-known relic of this ancient practice. The history of wine abounds with very creative approaches to the problem of preservation. In fact many wine styles persisting today — to greater or lesser acclaim than Retsina — evolved in response to the challenge of reducing spoilage.

Consider Port. This wine originated in Portugal, a significant distance from the markets that consumed it: England and the young United States. Shipped in wooden casks stowed below decks on sailing vessels, Port wines endured severely adverse conditions. But Port evolved out of the circumstances of its trade. It was fortified with distillate to thwart the bacteria that would otherwise have turned it to vinegar.

And then there is Champagne, a wine of divine inspiration whose production was facilitated only through the use of glass and corks. In Luke 5:36-39, “No one puts new wine into old wineskins; or else the new wine will burst the wineskins and be spilled, and the wineskins will be ruined,” Jesus, winemaker extraordinaire, was referring to the hazards of the evolution of carbon dioxide during fermentation. Were he to stick around to witness the commercial production of glass in the 17th century, he may have had a creative hand in the first Champagne. As it turned out, the task was left to Dom Perignon and his disciples.

Wineskins had their moment in Biblical enological history. Pottery flourished as the vessel of choice for millennia. But glass — light, strong, inert glass — has been the bottle to beat for three centuries now.

With the mass production of the glass bottle came the discovery of cork as the ideal bottle-stopper. In the time of clay and skin, the variety of stoppers one might encounter included a wedge of wood, a wad of leather, a plug of oil-soaked cotton or a dollop of clay plaster. None of these technologies transferred to the smooth sided necks of the glass bottle as effectively as cork, the inherent elasticity and waxy cells of which provided a nearly impermeable barrier to keep the wine inside and the air out.

Cork has reigned without contest as the stopper of choice for many kinds of bottles until very recently. Now plastic is gaining ascendancy as a viable closure. Eighty years ago all medicine bottles used cork. When was the last time you were thwarted by a child-proof cork in the Tylenol?

Cork’s role in winemaking is to preserve the wine indefinitely in a state of reduced air exposure, thereby preserving the flavors. It is a well-established fact that cork can extend the ageing of bottled wine. Unfortunately, it is also an all too-familiar phenomenon that cork occasionally contributes moldy flavors to the wine it is charged with protecting. Cork taint is profoundly frustrating for winemakers and consumers. Why would winemakers knowingly ruin even a small percentage of their wines each time they put a vintage to bottle? And how can they in good conscience sell these few bad bottles? The most troubling thought is that there are many bottles that are not egregiously corked but whose flavors are compromised by low levels of taint; one might think the wine is just lousy rather than know to blame the cork.

It is in winemaking’s spirit of innovation and improvement that many wineries are now considering applying the next development in wine-preservation technology, the use of plastic cork. Of course, it is also human nature to resist departure from tradition, particularly considering the rich history of winemaking. The objections to synthetic cork are many, and they revolve around doubt in its ability to reproduce the extraordinary feats of natural cork. To this end we entertain concerns that synthetics either allow too much air in (because their elastic memory is inferior to cork’s) or prevent air permeation entirely, thereby arresting rather than retarding the salutary aging process. We also worry about the synthetic material either absorbing the flavor from the wine or releasing unwanted flavors into the wine. And finally we question its appearance relative to the beautiful, natural cork.

Similar to the way that fine dining is as much about theater as it is about food, so wine-drinking goes far beyond the simple fact that it is a beverage as it enters the ethereal realm of aesthetics. If the good in tradition is devalued by the aesthetic interruption of pulling a synthetic cork, the pleasure to be had from the event of drinking a wine may diminish.

Similar thoughts may have afflicted the 17th century generation that began to see their wine stored in glass. Did they declare, “But it is unnatural!”? Possibly. In this case, time has demonstrated that advancing technology conquers tradition. At least we aren’t drinking resinous wine from a crock anymore, and soon our wines may never again suffer the cork’s taint.

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