Our Blog

Barolo, Nebbiolo and cork

16 December 2014

Barolo, Nebbiolo and cork

David Gleave writes:

I was in Barolo with the journalist Matthew Jukes (www.matthewjukes.com) earlier in December and we tasted about 400 Barolo and Barbaresco over the course of five days.  By 09.00 each morning, we were tucking into our first flight of Nebbiolo-based wines, primarily from the 2010 and 2011 vintages.  As we expected from such an enigmatic grape variety, the tasting was demanding but rewarding.  The overall standard of quality and winemaking was very high, much higher than would have been the case even a decade or so ago.  Faults were few and far between, something which allowed the alluring perfumes of Nebbiolo to shine through in the glass.  

There was, however, one subject that exercised us more than most:  cork.  There was a simple reason for this: 12% of the wines we tasted were tainted by the cork.  Some of the wines were obviously tainted by TCA, and the second bottle was a much better wine.  Many others, however, looked dull, and one of us would take an executive decision to open the second bottle.  Much to the surprise of the other person, the second bottle would often be significantly fresher or more scented.  “You wouldn’t have been very happy if you had been served that in a restaurant,” one of us would say of the first bottle.  “It would have been regarded as a poor wine due to failings in the vineyard or cellar, which isn’t very fair to either the producer or the restaurant.”  

Why so many tainted wines?  I don’t think this points to a deterioration in the quality of cork.  The producers are generally paying over €1 a cork for these wines, so would expect to get the best quality cork for this price.  I think they probably are:  the quality of corks seems to have improved in the past decade as the cork industry has finally realised that it operates in a competitive environment.  

Despite this improvement in the quality of expensive cork, I was not surprised by a 12% taint rate. By cork taint I mean one or more of the following:  wines displaying obvious TCA; wines that are ‘scalped’, where the perfumes have been removed from the wine, leaving it flat on the nose and hard on the palate, usually due to low level TCA or absorption of the aromatics by the cork; or random oxidation, where an imperfect seal has allowed too great an amount of oxygen to get into the bottle, resulting in a wine that is flat, dull or oxidised, usually displaying a light bruised apple character.  

All three of these categories were in evidence last week largely, I think, because of the delicately aromatic nature of Nebbiolo.  As one would expect in a tasting of such classic wines, and as you would find in Bordeaux or the Rhone, only a handful of wines displayed faults like excessive oak, over-ripeness, reduction, excessive levels of volatile acidity or brettanomyces.  Nebbiolo’s perfumes are so delicate, at their best ethereally so, that any fault is much more easily detected.  That is why the move away from new and small oak, to larger and more neutral barrels, is to be applauded, as it allows those delicate perfumes to shine through in the glass.  

There were some producers who had decided that the best way around cork taint was to use DIAM, a ‘technological’ cork, as it is called by the people who make it.  In most cases, we were unhappy with the wines under DIAM and opened a second bottle.  In almost all cases, the second bottle was no better, with both bottles displaying a more reduced aromatic spectrum than we expected.  In one case, we found a distinctive difference between two bottles of the same wine closed with DIAM.  My own view is that while DIAM may work well for more robust grape varieties, it isn’t the solution for Nebbiolo.  

I don’t know what the answer is for Nebbiolo.  Massolino has done some tests with screwcaps and found them the best solution so far.  There are no legal obstacles to producers using screwcap, so someone needs to grasp the nettle. If a world-renowned winemaker such as Gaja were to move to screwcap, the world would certainly sit up and take notice!  A robust solution is needed, for as the wines get better, the cork taint is more evident, as there is no hiding behind the faults that characterised many of these wines in the past. A decade or so ago, we probably lost 12% of the bottles to oxidation or other faults; today, we lose them to cork taint.  Barolo is not unique in this sense, as I find at least this level of cork taint in other regions.   

All I can conclude is that as the wines get better (and the 2013s are looking outstanding), nothing – not even cork – will keep me away from them!