TCA is the convenient abbreviation for trichloroanisole, the chemical compound which infects cork and wine when a bottle of wine has the misfortune to be corked. It results from a chemical reaction which may take place at various points of the winemaking process due to molds in the tree bark used to make corks, or even in the wood used for barrels and vats. If the problem occurs, the customer will pull a face and get another bottle, but the restaurant owners, shopkeepers and producers suffer economic damage. A bottle’s probability of being tainted by TCA varies, depending on whose data you believe (2% according to cork producers, 15% according to some studies carried out by wine producers), but it is money poured down the drain in any case.
The momentous case of Elio Altare — who discarded a whole vintage of Barolo, with consequent legal claims against the cork supplier being decided in the producer’s favor — is a significant precedent. But producers are not yet sufficiently protected; they are at the mercy of a sector, the cork producers, which is facing constantly increasing demand and steadily decreasing supplies, and does not have any qualms about the customers’ plight.
The cork industry talks about research, new treatments and all kinds of anti-TCA chemical tricks, but tainted wine does not seem to have slipped into memory. It is true that sealing a bottle with a cork has a certain appeal and tradition — for many people the distinctive sound when a bottle is opened is an integral part of the wine-drinking ritual and cannot be replaced. Then there are “technical” reasons: a cork is said to still be the best way of ensuring the product can “breathe” while aging. But I feel it is time to look for alternatives, without being horrified at dissenting views or beating the drum of traditional values.
It is not only a question of wine and economic costs, but is also beginning to involve environmental issues: cork trees do not grow as quickly as corks are being used and demand is increasing year by year. Developing and selling bottles with the by now familiar synthetic stoppers has proved successful only for wines needing to be drunk within a year to a year and a half: we can forget the idea of corking vintage wine with those cylindrical bits of colored plastic. They are not very stylish and it is very difficult to use them to recork an open bottle, but we should acknowledge that they go some way to serving their purpose.
Research and innovation are now proceeding in other directions and there are various new developments to report. They have strange names: MetaCork, Zork and Vino-lok. MetaCork is a US product and is a system comprising a synthetic cork, corkscrew and a stopper to reseal the bottle: it is not yet fully convincing, particularly due to the materials used. The Australian Zork is an all-plastic product: it is opened with a tab, appears to give an adequate hermetic closure and promises to produce the same sound as a natural cork when opened. It needs investigating further.
The product perhaps arousing most interest is the newest, the German Vino-lok. It is made of glass covered with an aluminum cap and another in PVC similar to those used for traditional bottles. Using glass is an interesting choice and I have to admit that the system has a certain stylish elegance, slightly resembling those stoppers used for flasks at the beginning of the 19th century, but keeping the same look that we are used to on shelves and in the cellar.
These inventions are worth watching, they will not necessarily be the last word to an age-old problem, but at least we are seeing real efforts which will sooner or later make the cork industry take proper account of the requests and concerns of winemakers. Nor will we eventually have to abandon cork, which at present risks being phased out. As long as cork trees aren’t driven to extinction.
First printed in La Stampa on July 4 2004
Adapted by Ronnie Richards