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Corked Wine Aversion Therapy
7 December 2002

Don't believe it when you read there is nothing you can do with a corked wine except 'cuss'. I've got one solution that will turn a corked wine into a tasty treat and if you keep reading you will find this below (or click here now). Doing 'nothing' about it, as many websites suggest, is the worst thing. Unless you are the source you should go back to the source - back up the supply chain - to try and procure a replacement. If a replacement can't be secured, start making noises even if it is as simple as posting your complaint to an Internet wine discussion forum.

I've had two very memorable incidents where a corked wine was refused replacement.

The first occasion was in a bar in Auckland's trendy suburb of Parnell years ago. I ordered a gold medal winning Vidal Estate Chardonnay. Yuck. The wine was disgusting as well as having it little socks chilled off. I asked for a replacement. "You can't ask for another wine just because you don't like it", said the buxom blond bar mistress quite a few years my junior. "I do like the Vidal Estate Chardonnay, just not the one you have poured in my glass. The wine is off". Reluctantly she got someone to taste it. "Nothing wrong with it", the know-all bar boy said. "Do you want to buy something else". "No way", I thought. "This definitely doesn't taste like the gold medal winning Vidal Estate Chardonnay should. May I see the bottle". Thank goodness I asked to do that. The wine was the wrong vintage. "Hey", I said, "you've got the 199x vintage on your menu this bottle says 199y. This is not the wine I ordered." They had to open another bottle much to their disgust and I got my replacement glass of wine.

The second occasion was about 1998 in the swanky Mikano restaurant on Auckland's waterfront at Mechanics Bay in the days where Warwick Brown was the owner. It's at the heli-pad so can be a bit noisy at times, when the restaurant is not generating its own noises that is. But the view is awesome. I was entertaining a visiting academic, an Englishman who was teaching at one of the Asian Universities. I ordered a Millton Opou Riesling, a delicious riesling that had just won gold at the Air NZ Wine Awards. It was corked as heck. I asked for a replacement from a new bottle. The sommelier, at least that is what I think he was trying to be, looked down his nose at me. "Corked, madam", he said in a manner that was like 'how dare you complain'. He took the glass away. I was waiting for a replacement and turned to see three 'boys' in cahoots at the bar. Shortly after, the waiter returned. "Madam, we don't believe there is anything wrong with this wine. And besides, those people over there", he flourished his arm in the general direction as he spoke, "are drinking the same wine. They haven't complained". He put the glass back down. I sipped on it and it still had that stinky musty aromas and swimming pool water taste. I would have made a fuss except my guest was looking decidedly uncomfortable by this stage. The bastards. What happened to the concept that the customer is always right. We didn't order desert or coffee and left the restaurant, the glass of wine untouched. We did not leave a tip, even though that was the custom of my visiting academic. I told everyone I could about it and I never went back to the restaurant again, not until long after it was sold to one of the most beautiful women restaurateurs in Auckland. Judith Tabron pulled that place out of its shame and then sold it off a couple of years later to do her own soulful thing. Incidentally just a couple of months ago I went to SOUL and did get served a corked wine. I asked for a replacement and it was done without even the batting of an eyelid. Just the way it should be.

While those restaurant incidents were appalling, even more appalling is the behaviour I've experienced at cellar doors. You tell them a wine is corked. "Er, is it?", they say. Other responses are "Look, the bottle's almost empty and no-one else has picked it up". "Do you want me to open another?". "I'll check with the winemaker". Geez. Don't these people have training!!!! So I was at a winery in the Clare Valley on the back road. As we were leaving I saw the corked bottle go back onto the counter for the next poor soul. "They won't be selling any of that variety today", I thought to myself with a chuckle as they bit the nose to spite the face.

Turning corked wine into a tasty treat
So what can you do with corked wine? Martin Field, writing for Strat's Place, says he uses it to keep the drains clean - does the cleaning job at least once a week. Tipping it down the sink in other words. But like almost everyone else he says you can't use corked wine for cooking. Those sceptics have never tried cooking with corked wine, I guess, otherwise they would know what I recently found out.

The cork taint seems to evaporate off in the cooking process, for reasons unknown to me.

The inspiration came from James Millton, the man behind that legendary Opou Riesling and a follower of biodynamic methods of viticulture. He buries cow horns in his Gisborne vineyard and does other weird things according to where the stars and planets line up. And he never wastes his wine, not even a corked bottle. He is the source and can't send it any further up the supply chain.

We walk through his vineyard to taste Viognier beside the compost heap. He's very proud of his compost. It actually smells quite nice.

"This is my 1999 Viognier" he says as the wine is poured around. 1999 was his first foray into Viognier and he added 10% Muscat to fill up the 114-litre barrel, the contents of which fill just over 150 x 750ml bottles. It was not sold commercially so we are fortunate to be given a taste of this rare wine.

I swirl the glass and sniff. Oh no, there's that dastardly TCA (2,4,6-trichloroanisole and/or its derivatives and relatives). It strikes anywhere but seems to be quite prevalent in New Zealand wines from the 1999 vintage. There were plenty of knowledgable wine people at this tasting. My threshold for TCA is so low I often find the taint when no one else does and hate to speak out when so many other 'experts' are in company. Sometimes it just doesn't become apparent until another bottle is opened and tasted alongside. Fortunately someone else picked up the taint this time. And as someone else had opened the wine as James talked, we can't blame him for the corked wine being poured. "No problems" said James. "I'll reduce the wine with sugar and herbs to make a wine reduction. Fennel grows wild around here - that's good for Gisborne corked wine. In Central Otago you would use thyme most probably".

Did I hear him say that is his 33rd bottle of this wine to be corked - don't quote me on this one, I'm half deaf (thanks to rubella) and may have misheard him. The figure is quite high. "We waste nothing around here", says James.

I remember James's words a few weeks later when I'm doing a tasting of BBQ reds. "Nothing to lose", I thought. It was a young Marlborough merlot from the 2001 vintage. I poured it into the saucepan, raided the garden for fresh herbs and came up with a handful, which included mint, thyme, rosemary, sage, fennel, parsley and oregano. These were added to the wine along with a cup of sugar. The brew boiled happily away and very soon there was this amazing aroma of sweet berries filling the house. Even better than the aromas of cooking jam. When the original 740ml had reduced to about 200ml I was left with a thick dark red heavenly smelling liquid. It was obviously a good wine before it had been infected with TCA. Now there was no evidence of TCA at all. My husband Neil, who got a chemistry degree in a life long ago, said that it could possibly be chemical reaction under the heated state causing the TCA to combine with other compounds in the wine and oxidise to a different compound that didn't taste or smell. "This is wild speculation, of course. Basically I've got no idea", he said. He did study inorganic and physical chemistry, after all. "Organic chemistry was never my strong point", he said.

OK, now what to do with a corked wine reduction. No idea really, so once the liquid had cooled I simply placed some lamb steaks in it to marinate overnight. Neil cooked then on the BBQ plate and the sugars caramelised the outside of the meat. It was a terrific and there was definitely no hint at all of the flavours that the tainted cork had introduced. Try it some time. Key ingredients are corked wine, fresh herbs and sugar.

Oh there's another use for corked wine - TCA evidently is used as a pesticide. A small sample of TCA, just 0.1 of a gram, costs US$395 from Cambridge Isotope Laboratories Ltd. Something for the organic growers to consider - the corked wine can be returned to its source - the grapevines.

Incidentally, the toxicology statement for 2,4,6-trichloroanisole on one chemical supply website says "May be harmful or act as an irritant if swallowed, inhaled or absorbed through the skin".

And to finish, here's a slightly related link: How much alcohol boils off when cooking wine?
See this page from the University of Alaska's food preparation study course. Based on a joint study from the University of Idaho, University of Washington and US Dept of Agriculture, it appears that alcohol is retained in cooking, the amount retained depends on the cooking process.

© Sue Courtney 7 December 2002.

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