To sniff or not to sniff… that is the question!

Are you a cork sniffer? I am sure you have seen many times while dining out the waiter/sommelier pop the cork and present it to the guest ordering the wine, and they proceed to sniff it with gusto, right? I wonder how many agree with this ritual because I don’t.

Cork 1

Historically, the cork was presented to the guest for the purpose of authentication, as fraudulent wine was rampant (unlike today when fraudulent wine is still rampant, mostly at the top end) and the best indication of authenticity was to see the cork come out of the bottle and perhaps to match the writing on the cork with the label. Some Spanish wines have a wire netting wrapped around them, because they were often faked. Today however, it has become customary to sniff the cork in order to deem the wine drinkable of unfit for human consumption.


Sadly, the cork will really only give the sniffer an indication if the wine is bad, if certain things are wrong with the wine. but it doesn’t reveal all wrong things. Sure, you may sniff the cork and BAM! there it is, the unmistakable aroma of corkiness, or TCA (Trichloroanisole). Well, that is if you know what you are sniffing for.

But maybe the wine is only slightly corked, and that cork shows little or no signs/aromas of the fault… then what? Or what if the wine is oxidized or maderized? Do you know what those faults would smell like? What about brett, a yeast called Brettanomyces? Can you smell that on the cork? What if your wine has a screw cap? Holy Moly!

Just this past week, at our monthly marathon tasting, two wines passed me by that made me think of writing this article. The first was a wine that was so corked, it was gone.  If you would have stuck it in your nose, there is a good chance you would have asked the waiter to go ahead and pour the wine, but the other wine was about as ruined by brett as a wine could be, a Rosso di Montalcino, yet the cork was perfect. I sniffed both corks just to see – no issues? Nope!

Think about this – the cork industry itself believes the percentage of corks they themselves produce that will ruin a wine is somewhere around 7-9%. I am 100% positive that not nearly that number of wines is returned to us because they are corked. People just drink them, assuming possibly that the flavor was just not to their liking? I usually taste any wine returned at my stores, because they were ‘off’ and most of the time they are fine, the guest just didn’t like it.

The good thing is you will sniff out all of the maladies in wine when it’s in your glass. TCA taint, brett, oxidation and maderization right there for your nose to find IF and I strongly emphasize the IF you know what you are smelling for, and many people don’t. Read up, learn the tell tail signs of wine faults, then the next time, you will know! I was in a very famous (now closed) eatery in San Francisco years ago, and the sommelier, perhaps the most highly regarded sommelier in the USA at the time, brought us a lovely magnum of Marc Morey 1er Cru Chassagne-Montrachet, tasted it and served it.

Deader than a doornail.

Shayne Hebert, ABC Fine Wine & Spirits Wine & Spirits Supervisor

Follow me on Twitter @abcwineShayne

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