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tugal, where removal of the bark from cork trees is a sustainable enterprise)
for years sterilized cork, treating it with chlorine to disinfect the mould that
causes the problem. This treatment has produced more bad news. It has
been found to be no treatment at all. The mould reacts with the chlorine to
produce a compound called “2,4,6-trichloroanisole” (TCA for the tonguetied)
that, in fact, creates a whole new category of the “corked” problem.
TCA affects wood-derived materials, which makes it cork’s worst enemy. It
is caused when chlorine comes into contact with certain fungi during the
cork’s processing. While physically harmless, the compound can transfer to
the wine and cause aromas of wet cardboard, damp basement or wet dog.
Until the nexus between them was discovered, the amount of “corked” wine
increased markedly and by the late 1990s was estimated to cost the wine
industry some US$1 billion worldwide each year.
That amount of spoilage can create huge problems on a winery’s “bottom
line”. Contrary to popular opinion, many wineries cost their owners money
instead of making it for them. For many, opening a winery is a lifestyle
choice (and even that is far different from the PR, as it is really just farming
with high overhead).
Fortunately, science has come to the rescue of the cork. Chlorine is no
longer used, with other alternatives having been developed. Cork can be
treated with microwaves, and moulds can be extracted using hypercritical
carbon dioxide. There have also been major advances in testing cork for
presence of mould before the corks are made from the cork bark, using
instantaneous techniques such as gas chromatography. It is estimated that
the percentage of corked wines has now decreased from upwards of ten per
cent in the late 1990s to around three per cent today.
Another issue with corks (especially lesser-quality ones) is their tendency
to dry out and crumble. Wines cellared for long periods of time must
be kept on their sides to keep the cork damp. But even with careful cellaring,
how many of us have fished the remains of a crumbled cork out of our
wine after it breaks on its way out of the bottle?
Other cork variants are manufactured from cork particles, much like
Frankenstein’s monster was of bits of human material. These composite
“Franken-corks” are made either from a “colmated” process, where
medium-grade natural cork has its crevices filled in with fine cork powder
made from cork dust to give it a softer texture and smoother exit out of the
bottle, or from an “agglomerated” process, rather like cork “particle board”.
Granulated cork dust is bound together tightly by glue and pressure. These
manufactured corks should be used only with wines destined to be consumed
young, as they tend to break down quite quickly, with the recom-