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Friday Fishwrap
TCA: The Fox In Wine’s Hen House

By Stephen Eliot

There are regularly recurring whines and woes in the ongoing conversation about wine, and one of them, TCA, has taken its turn in the spotlight once again this last week.

TCA, the friendly acronym for 2,4,6-trichloroanisole, as most wine ethusiasts know, is the source of off odors or “corkiness” in wine that are regularly described as being musty or redolent of dank cardboard or wet dogs. It is a problem whose history must be as old as wine itself. A “faulty” cork is a principal cause, but there are myriad vectors and ways in which TCA can visit a wine, not just from corks but from everything to barrels to the wooden pallets upon which cases are packaged and shipped to various flaws in the winery environment.

We went through a period of years starting about a decade or two back when the incidence of “corked” wines was alarming, claimed by some to be 1 in 12 bottles. Here at Connoisseurs’ Guide, we open upwards of 250 to 300 bottles a months and never found the percentage as high, but there was no question that there were far too many faulty, overtly musty wines showing up in our glasses.

Owing to a number of reasons, things have gotten a great deal better over the last several years, and we rarely see more than one or two bottles, and sometimes none, with obvious TCA flaws during the course of one issue’s tastings. We have, however, become convinced that low levels of TCA, so low that they are not readily perceivable, can rob a wine of character and leave it essentially empty. We talk of such wines as being flattened out with something suppressing their expressions of fruit. We will tag those wines for retasting, and, while most turn out to be empty on second try as well, there will be some that prove themselves to be far more expressive and interesting when given another chance.

Now we are told by a fascinating new study that low-level TCA does, indeed, appear to dumb-up a wine by inhibiting human olfactory sensitivity. The wines so affected do, in fact, have character, but subliminal levels of TCA prevent us from perceiving it. Science, it seems, has caught up what with we knew for a long time to be true but did not quite know why.

This, of course, changes nothing, and the discovery simply identifies a problem for which no remedy really exists. It is interesting, but arguably useless, information, unless you are looking for new ways to trumpet the virtues of alternative closures to cork. I am a little concerned that real, natural cork may now be frowned upon further as potentially inducing a flaw you cannot notice, that it can insidiously rob your wine of character without leaving fingerprints.

I wonder, if this “discovery” becomes a part of the new wine catechism, just how many genuinely empty wines will be excused of their sins of omission and how many unaffected wines might be sent back in restaurants for the simple reason that some diner did not like it all in the name of stealth TCA at work.

And, of course, there are singular and specific agendas at work. There have already been renewed calls for more screwcaps on the part of their champions and for less reliance on corks, but I must confess that they leave me a little uneasy. While an entirely sound alternative when understood and whose technique is mastered, the screwcap offers no protection from TCA sources other than cork, and we have proportionally found far more acrid, unpleasantly reduced wines so bottled than we have musty or flattened-out examples bottled under cork. Do not get me wrong, it may someday prove that screwcaps are, indeed, the answer. I am far from a luddite regarding things vinous, but the current results are long way from perfect. There is still a lot of work to be done, and I am not near ready to abandon a good cork as my closure of choice.

I suppose that when it comes right down to it, I am not terribly worried about TCA. Yes, one flawed bottle out of one hundred is too many, but the really bad days have passed, and I would be very surprised to see them return. There are plenty of other things to worry about if you are the worrying type. I would ask how many bottles are beat up and battered by less-than-ideal shipping and storage, and, while a musty, suppressed wine will certainly come along now and then, I would argue that there are more distressingly bad and terminally boring bottles out there than there are ones destroyed by a faulty cork. At least when a wine has been spoiled by TCA, it is easily sent back at a restaurant and any ethical retailer will refund your money. Boring and bad are usually yours to keep.


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by TomHill
Posted on:9/20/2013 10:39:48 AM


Is it correct that a bottled wine can become TCA-infected by being stored on a TCA-infected pallet?? Seems a bit suspect to me.

But good rant on "distressingly bad and terminally boring bottles". Maybe not "bad" so much..but certainly " terminally boring bottles" abound.



by Stephen Eliot
Posted on:9/23/2013 8:59:51 AM


Yep. That's what I understand. Had lunch with the winemaker for a large Sonoma County producer a couple of weeks back, and she very much stressed the point. Of particular issue was plastic-wrapped pallets that would capture and contain TCA. She went on to talk of many ways that the insidious stuff could make its way into wine. And, this from a winery that make full use of Stelvin screwcaps.

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