French Oak Barrels

In recent years, wine drinkers have been plagued by a phenomenon referred to as cork taint. When a bottle of wine is said to be “corked,” it displays rank smells of damp cardboard or dirty sweat socks, and is rendered undrinkable. The culprit has been identified as a bacteria called TCA (2,4,6-trichloroanisole), which has increasingly infiltrated corks in wine bottles produced around the world.

I use the adjective “increasingly” because the problem is far worse than it once was. Between 5-6% of wine bottles with corks are now suffering from cork taint, compared with an average of 2-3% several decades ago—despite the fact that between 15-20% of wine bottles are sealed today with screwcaps or other artificial closures. Even worse, the origins of TCA are unclear, and it is not known how the bacteria spreads.

Now a new study, conducted by Lab Excell in Bordeaux and published in the Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry, suggests that French oak barrels may be the culprit. It’s a fact that TCA can appear and grow in wood as well as corks, and this study theorizes that many wines may be tainted before they are even bottled.

Sacre bleu! How can this be? For several centuries, the French oak barrel has been one of the totems of the wine industry. Winemakers vigorously debate the subtle differences between each type of oak, and compete among themselves even more strenuously for the barrels themselves. Aging in French oak barrels was the catalyst in the development of Rioja, and it was the influence that inspired Robert Mondavi to believe that world-class wine could be produced in California. A top-quality French oak barrel can cost more than $1000. Could this possibly be what’s tainting our wine?

Needless to say, the top French coopers have gone ballistic. Some have charged that the motives of Lab Excell are suspicious, since the company patented a procedure to check barrels for TCA before they leave the cooperage. Philippe Rapacz, CEO of Seguin Moreau and President of the Federation of French Coopers, believes that Lab Excell is creating this charge to benefit from their own solution.

Regardless of the truth (which will not be known for some time), the allegation is sobering—far more so than a bottle of corked wine.

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