Wine enthusiasts know that opening a bottle of red wine is like unwrapping a present — it's exciting! But sometimes, instead of a delightful aroma, you're greeted with a smell that's more like damp, old cardboard. This is known as cork taint, a common issue in wines that can affect even those sealed with screw caps. Unfortunately, the corked bottles and the resulting cork flavor are more common than one might expect.

Even the best wines can be affected by the cork taint. (Danuta Hyniewska/

Let's dive into this topic so that we can better understand its nature, causes, and potential solutions.

What is Smoke Taint?

Imagine opening a wine bottle and getting a whiff of something musty or card board flavors instead of the expected fruity or floral notes. That's cork taint. Not harmful, nor does it have legal limits, but it sure can spoil your wine experience.

Why Does Smoke Taint Happen?

Tiny little microbes, unseen to the naked eye, can contaminate the cork or come from the winery itself. It's thought that around 2-5% of all cork-sealed wines have this issue. It only takes a tiny amount of the contaminant, about 5 parts in a trillion, for our noses to detect it.

The Science Behind Smoke Taint

The main troublemaker here is a compound called 2,4,6-trichloroanisole (TCA). Natural substances in the cork bark, like lignin, mix with chlorine from the environment to form it. Lignin is just part of what makes tree bark tough.

Detecting Smoke Taint

Can You Tell from the Outside? Unfortunately, no. There's no way to know if a wine has cork taint until you open it. And it doesn't favor any; it can affect both budget-friendly bottles and those pricey enough to rival the cost of a car.

How can wineries deal with Smoke Taint?

The ball is in the court of the wineries to prevent this. They have ways to check and treat corks to avoid this problem. Some wineries use special corks called DIAM, which are cleaned using a high-tech method used for decaf coffee and perfumes. The method goes by the name of "super-critical point carbon dioxide washing."

DIAM, says around 40% of high-end Burgundy wines use their corks. They sold about 1.5 billion corks in 2016 alone! Given how common cork taint is, that's a lot of potential issues avoided.

Beyond Cork Taint: Other Issues

It's Not Just About the Closure: Other similar compounds can also cause musty smells in wine. They're often leftovers from wood preservatives and can be tricky to spot.

Going Geeky: There are a few other compounds that can cause similar problems, like 2,3,4,6-tetrachloroanisole (TeCA), pentachloroanisole (PCA), and 2,4,6-tribromoanisole (TBA). They're less common, but when they do occur, they add a slightly different off-flavor to the wine.

These issues often start in the barrels, which is something barrel makers and wineries need to watch out for.

Wrapping Up

Cork taint and related issues are a real headache for winemakers. While natural cork is the main source of the problem, the environment in the winery also plays a role, even if everything's clean and well-maintained. It's a reminder that making great wine is as much about science and attention to detail as it is about the art of winemaking.

When you open a bottle and it's not perfect, remember that a lot of effort is put into making each bottle. Chemistry and care are involved in the process.

It might not be wet cardboard, it could also be smell and taste of "wet dog".

And while cork taint is an unfortunate reality, the wine industry's ongoing efforts to tackle it mean better-tasting wine for us all.

Cheers to that!

Stay tuned to VinoVoss for the next part of the series, where we explore other wine faults!

Peter Douglas

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