Corked wine isn't simply a drop that comes in a bottle with a cork. What "corked" refers to is a wine that, instead of fruity aromas, has smells you might describe as "wet dog", "mouldy newspaper" and "damp basement".
The scientific names for cork taint are TCA (2,4,6-trichloroanisole) and TBA (2,4,6-tribromoanisole). But what actually causes it? In most cases, it is related to the manufacture of corks and to airborne fungi carrying the chlorophenol compounds found in pesticides and wood preservatives (products that may have been used on, or near, the harvested cork trees). Chlorine bleach is commonly used to sterilise corks, but chlorophenols are by-products of this process, too, so by trying to keep things clean, a cork manufacturer could inadvertently affect a wine's taste and aromas.
Master of wine Bob Campbell, a major advocate of the Stelvin (screwcap), claims that about 5 per cent of all wines bottled with corks are corked - about one bottle in every other case. A 2005 study of 2,800 bottles conducted by Wine Spectator magazine found an even higher proportion - 7 per cent. That is a lot of spoilt wine.
Women seem to be better at detecting faulty wine than men - why, I'm not sure. When sharing a bottle with friends from the Hong Kong Wine Society recently, we discovered it was corked. One of the men at the table, a partner at a winery in Australia, thought it was salvageable and said he'd show us a nifty trick that would fix the problem. He asked the waiter for a length of cling-film, which he crumpled up and put into his glass. After about five minutes, he fished it out, tasted the wine and pronounced it cured. Polyethylene, from which cling-film is made, is said to absorb TCA molecules.
I tasted from our sorceror's glass and begged to differ - I agreed that some of the corkiness had gone, but there were still traces of it present. When we put the issue to a poll at the table, overwhelmingly the women thought the wine was still corked while the men considered it drinkable.
Wine that comes with a screwcap cannot be corked. At one restaurant where I worked as a sommelier, a guest insisted the bottle he had ordered, which had a Stelvin, was tainted. Really, it came down to the fact that he didn't like the wine; so, of course, I suggested an alternative, which he did like.
If you order a bottle of wine in a restaurant and think it's corked, ask the sommelier or manager to taste it. If it is indeed corked, they should offer to open another for you.
If you buy a corked bottle from a shop, you should be able to return it, provided it's a recent purchase and vintage.
Nellie Ming Lee is a food stylist and part-time sommelier studying with the Court of Master Sommeliers