Decanter's news piece on 'cork taint' via barrels

Decanter have published a news piece on the possibility of cork taint being transmitted by oak barrels (you can read it here). It’s a bad piece for a number of reasons.

First, it doesn’t mention that Pascal Chatonnet works as a consultant for Amorim, the world’s leading cork company. They have an interest in getting people to blame musty TCA-like taints on sources other than cork.

Second, the results of the study haven’t yet been published, so we can’t evaluate them. JAFC (Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry), the journal who have accepted the paper, will likely not be impressed that media stories are being leaked before the publication date.

It is perfectly possible that trichloroanisoles can be transmitted by barrel staves (it is not an ‘infection’ as stated by the news piece – TCA is a fungal metabolite, not a fungus). Wood has been known to taint wineries when it has been treated by the related bromoanisole TBA, which also smells musty.

But if barrel taint were a significant issue, we would expect to see some musty tainted wines sealed with non-cork closures such as synthetic corks and screwcaps. In the International Wine Challenge over the last few years there haven’t really been any (perhaps 1 or 2?), even though around 15 000 bottles are opened and tasted each year.

This suggests that winery taint and barrel taint aren’t significant sources of musty taint in wine, even though it remains possible that this could occur.

Note added later: as the commentators below point out, a musty barrel would (you hope) be detected by the winemaker before blending, so this could be occurring without it resulting in musty wines. Also, a musty barrel that is not spotted could end up being put into a blend where the TCA is diluted to below-threshold levels.

8 comments to Decanter’s news piece on ‘cork taint’ via barrels

  • Martin V

    What they leave out is that most wineries will see the problem during regular bench testing and tastings before the wine goes to bottle, regardless if the source is a tainted barrel, wooden pallet etc. Not so easy if it is a tainted cork.

  • Andrew Halliwell

    I agree with Martin V,

    I’ve experienced two cases of contamination with TCA in new wines in new barrels. Both were pretty small lots within large barrel groups. At smaller wineries or with the more prestige wines made at larger wineries, you would generally expect a winemaker to check each barrel before making blends (even large wineries such as the one that makes Jacob’s Creek do this – would you believe), so a detectable amount shouldn’t make it to bottling.

    In one case I experienced, the barrel manufacturer took it pretty seriously and not only replaced the barrels and refunded the purchase price, but also lent the winery a column which contained a resin through which we could pass the affected wine to largely clear it up (without damaging the wine too much).

  • Yaffler

    Jamie. Not trying to support the so called findings of the research in way as it sounds rather suspect as you describe. However, with respect to your comment on TCA contamination identified in IWC submitted samples. Could that not just be case of increased QA amongst producers who use non-natural cork closures? Increased QA might result in contaminated wines never being either released for sale or sent as samples as well as arguably reducing risk of contamination by evaluation and elimination of sources such as other wood products. Interested to know if there is a correlation between closure usage and QA procedures

  • Yaffler, Andrew and Martin – you make some good points. I’ve added a note to the piece.

  • Anna Flowerday

    Jamie. Interesting piece and as you pointed out they have a potentially serious conflict of interest and it isn’t really ground-breaking stuff. Any tainted barrels would be picked up at blending time and would be side-lined. Interestingly about 13yrs ago I had an experience where a whole container of oak was TCA tainted. After investigation the TCA seemed to be mainly linked to the reed used between the head boards and not the oak itself.

  • clive otto

    Jamie, I also had an experience about 12 years ago whereby the musty TCA like smell was on the reeds in the headboards of the barrel, this was found to be a result of the cooperage pressure testing their barrels with hot water/steam and not drying out the barrels internally well enough before dispatch. After the cooperage started the practice of blowdrying the inside of the barrels before dipatch this was never an issue again.
    However I have recently received barrels that were delivered late in the season ( could have been stored on old wooden pallets that had TCA/TBA) that has imparted the taint to the barrel headboards. Luckily this was picked up before going into the overall blend as you would expect most winemakers to check each barrel before blending the wine

  • Dear Jamie,

    I am a bit disapointed by the way you comment our work especially if you don’t have read it. You can easily read it on the Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry because it is published on the web!!
    Second point I don’t understand also your comments about our profesional relationships…we are not only working for Amorim but for all the industrials related with the wine industry (including crew caps manufacture and plastic industrials…). I am also personnaly working with the coopers since 20 years; I am not looking something or somebody to blaim or to protect, except the wine,the winemakers and the consumers! So I’ll apreciate some “edulcoration” of your initial comments.
    Third, if you think that the wine environment is not able to influence its quality and especially if we talk about halanisoles contamination, I invite you seiously to revise your personal judgment because I can gurantee that you are very wrong.
    Fourth, when we are talking about the possibility of barrel to contaminate wine we are not saying that the entire production of a winery can be seriously concerned by a prejudiciable level of TCA in the bottle, but:
    - How can we accept this situation ?
    - What do you do the wine tainted ? especially if you are a small winery and you can’t blend in a suficient volume to dilute TCA ?
    - IS TCA diluetd acceptable on a ethical point of view ?
    - Do you think that if we don’t work seriously on this new source the coopers will take that in charge? With our experience about cork makers I have some serious doubts…

    Thanks for your comments;

    Pascal CHATONNET

  • TCA/TBA is not exclusive to wood/cork/oak. I have a garden hose at home and the water that has been sitting in the hose for some time smells ‘corked’. It is the chlorine in the water binding with phenols in the plastic to form TCA. This is another potential issue for wineries to be aware of when choosing appropriate hoses for both water and wine/juice transfer.

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