Wine Myths #2: Smelling the Cork

  • Kevin 

Wine Myths, Misconceptions and Misinformation #2: Smelling the Cork

Smelling a cork

Smells like….a wet cork. But is it corked?

Have you been out with friends at a restaurant or a wine bar, ordered a wine and the server – or even the sommelier – has pulled the cork and then paused briefly to take a whiff of its corky majesty before pouring the wine? Did you think this was an important part of the ritual or did you wonder what the point of this might be?

Myth: After Opening a Bottle of Wine, Smelling the Cork is Useful

Well, no matter what you may have been told, it is relatively pointless.

It should also go without saying that this myth only applies to wines that are sealed under cork. There is even less point to smelling the closures of wines sealed under screwcap, Vinolok or artificial corks.

Nevertheless, I don’t want to say that there might not be good intentions behind the practice of smelling the cork – but we all know what they say about good intentions. If, somehow, you don’t know what “they” say…. well, read this.

The Point

Any well-trained server knows that a wine can be faulty. There are a wide variety of faults that can present themselves in a wine, from (excessive) Dimethyl Sulfide (smelling of canned corn) through excessive Brettanomyces (smelling of farmyard, at best) all the way to that great bane of wine drinkers: cork taint, the most common version of which is actually called 2, 4, 6-trichlorianisole (TCA for short). Feel free to forget that bit immediately. Ostensibly, smelling the cork will impart immediate knowledge to the trained smeller as to the faulty/not faulty status of the wine sealed under the cork that has been smelled.

This is largely nonsense.

The thing is, most wine faults are too subtle to present themselves with certainty simply on the cork. Even mighty cork taint itself, if present in small quantities, will not be immediately obvious on the cork. It will, however, be quite clear in the glass, if a sample is poured and then “nosed” appropriately. And, honestly, this is what any well-trained server or good sommelier will do; they will pour a small sample for the person who ordered the wine and allow them to judge, or they will do the same for themselves and make the assessment. The cork will only indicate the worst of problems, and never as well as a simple, small pour of the wine itself will permit.

So why do it?

In short: don’t. Unless your goal is to look a bit pretentious, then, by all means, smell the cork, cock an eyebrow and curl your lip while you smell before, finally, pronouncing the wine sound or defective – but please believe me when I say that the last thing the wine world needs is more pretension.

The only halfway-acceptable rationale I’ve heard for the practice is in the event that the server/sommelier does NOT want (or is not permitted) to pour a little sample for themselves to assess the quality of the wine. In this case, smelling the cork is the only remaining alternative. Nevertheless, it is a poor, ineffective substitute. Far better, in my opinion, to simply pour the wine for the guest and allow them to make the call. Should the guest then proclaim the wine faulty, the server/sommelier can then smell the wine themselves.

My Advice:

Don’t smell the cork. Pour a sample and smell the wine. Unless you just really like the smell of wet cork. I won’t judge you.

Go back to Wine Myths #1: Decanting!

Go on to Wine Myths #3: Old Vines Make Better Wines!

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