The Tradition Of Sniffing The Cork

Roberto Viernes
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Wednesday - October 17, 2007
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Have you ever wondered why some people smell the cork after they pull it out of the bottle? Is it snobby, cool, appropriate, looked down upon or all the above?

There was actually a place in time for this practice, but I don’t really see the point of doing it any longer.

So much of the practice of serving wine is steeped in tradition and habit. And some of those habits are really hard to break.

To find the answers of where this habit of smelling a cork started, let’s go back to a time where there were no label makers - none of those slick, brightly colored, eye-catching labels that we are all so used to today. In those days there was a huge amount of counterfeiting. People were blending wines and selling them as something completely different. Most consumers did not know what they were buying. There was no Internet, no Wine Spectator or Robert Parker. There were only a few of ways people who bought wine could verify that the wine they were drinking was the wine they actually ordered.

One way was for people to travel directly to a producer and purchase exactly what they wanted and transport the wine themselves.

There was always faith to fall back on, of course. They had to trust whoever was selling them the wine - either a merchant or restaurateur had to have an impeccable reputation for delivering whatever it is they said they were selling. But you can imagine there were many unscrupulous individuals who were willing to make an extra buck off their patrons.

The other way was to inspect the cork that came out of the bottle they were being served. Back in those days, the only way for producers to brand their wines was to put their names on the cork. Many still do, with quite elaborate brandings with coats of arms and even website addresses. Inspection of the cork not only gives us authenticity of the wine’s origin, but also can indicate if it had seen any higher temperatures. In a young bottle of wine, the wine stain should only be at the bottom of the cork. When the temperature rises, the wine starts to push up the side of the cork, leaving its stain higher up, indicating a possible problem with the wine.

So where did smelling corks come from? Upon inspecting the cork, they also smelled it to see if the wine had anything wrong with it. They thought that they could smell “corkiness” or other faults in the wine by smelling the cork.

But in fact, recent studies have found that smelling a cork is not a foolproof way to detect any taint in a wine. If you have ever smelled a cork, what does it smell like? It smells like ... cork!

The only true way of identifying any faults in a wine is to smell and taste it in a clean glass. I’m sure there are a few bloodhounds out there who can detect any fault on a cork, and if you are one of them, more power to you. Personally, I check my wines in the glass, not from the cork. That is, if it even has one. And until they make an instrument that can check a bottle of wine to see if it is tainted or faulty without opening it, that’s the way I’ll do it, not by sniffing the cork.

Sniff these: 2005 Summerland Pinot Noir Santa Barbara ($19) Having trouble finding a really good Pinot Noir for less than $20? This one is a palate-pleaser that will have you singing the praises of Pinot - sleek, elegant and spicy. 2006 Arancio Pinot Grigio, Sicily ($9) not too many Pinot Grigios really make an impact on my palate. But this one simply over-delivers on flavor and intensity. It is really refreshing, vibrant and smooth.

Roberto Viernes is a master sommelier. E-mail .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)
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