Traditionally, wine is a marvelous marriage of two plants: wine grapevines and cork oak trees.
Almost the perfect closure, cork is elastic (fits snugly in the bottle) and—with 35 million cells per cubic centimeter—almost impermeable. Those millions of cells also hold minute quantities of air that help finish wine as it ages in bottle.
Cork bark harvesting does not kill the tree. Harvests begin when trees are about 25 years old and repeat every six-to-nine years. During its 200-year life, a single tree will yield about one million wine bottle corks.
Bark is cleaned and dried after harvest, and this can produce cork’s flaw—a chemical taint called TCA. TCA creates “corked wine”—wine with a musky odor and cardboard taste. It’s why you sniff the cork after opening a bottle.
TCA is subtle. It can influence wine with a presence of just 5 parts per trillion (equivalent to one second in 6,400 years), but such tiny amounts only bother TCA-sensitive people. Most of us consume bottles of slightly corked wine and never notice. Still, pay $100 for a wine and it tastes like cardboard, you are not happy.
Portugal produces more than half the world’s cork. The 1980s wine boom stressed producers, increasing incidents of TCA contamination. Synthetic corks and aluminum twist caps now close 30% of wine bottles (and are fine for wine consumed a few years after it is made). Cork manufactures also tightened quality control. These developments help ensure the ancient, magical synergy between grape and cork will continue. Hallelujah!
• Vecchio Greppo Rosso del Salento. Great every day dry, red Italian. $9
• Vinos Magali Malbec. Malbec found it terrior in Argentina; classic Malbec. $14
• La Crema Sonoma Coast Chardonnay. Vivid citrus and green apples, complex finish. $21