Please DO sniff the Cork!
February 29, 2008
So, I've seen a proliferation of articles recently that promise to educate wine novices to not come across as novices. Whether this is a good thing is debatable; wouldn't you want an expert to explain things to you if you didn't understand how they work? It's not always a great thing appearing more expert than you really are, as you miss out on lots of opportunities to educate yourself. Still, even worse is when advice on how to appear expert is just plain wrong. One recommendation I see again and again that I just don't understand is that sniffing the cork of a newly-opened wine will make you look like a novice, as it tells you nothing about the wine inside. A quick search of Google shows 302 matches for the phrase "don't sniff the cork".
Sniffing a cork may tell you nothing about whether a wine is oxidized, or tannic, or whether it smells like cherries, or whether it's ready to drink, but it does tell you a lot about whether a wine is corky. I open thousands of bottles of wine each year, at tastings here and around the country, as well as in a more relaxed setting at the dinner table. I always sniff the cork, not because it's a guaranteed indicator of whether a wine is corky or not, but because it's a warning flag. Sure, it's possible that a wine whose cork is suspect might taste fine, but in my experience, at least 90% of the wines that taste corky have corks that smell corky. And, the more I open and taste wines, the more convinced I get that even if it isn't apparent at first, wines with suspiciously musty corks usually are flawed.
Another interesting factor is that most sound corks have an appealing smell, like a fainter version of a new oak barrel. Wines under those sweet-smelling corks are nearly always in good shape. You do get the (very) occasional false negative, where a cork smells fine but the bottle is slightly tainted. And, of course, there are plenty of flaws that have nothing to do with the cork (oxidation, reduction, and refermentation are probably the most common). So, it's not a foolproof test and everyone should taste as well as sniff a newly-opened bottle. But, I don't see what good it does consumers to be denied a fairly reliable indicator of when they should at least be suspicious their bottle of wine might be bad.
Have any readers out there had experiences where people have looked down on you for investigating the cork? Or been fooled by a bottle (either with a nice bottle under a musty cork or a bad bottle under a sweet-smelling cork)? If so, please share.