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Daily RC Article 188

The Cork Controversy: Tackling Wine Taint and the Rise of Plastic Stoppers


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A corked wine does not mean a wine that has tiny particles of cork floating around in the glass, which many drinkers still think. Sommeliers now use the term "corked wine" for a wine that has become contaminated with cork taint caused by the presence of a chemical compound called TCA (2,4,6 - trichloroanisole).

This increased awareness is largely due to the battle now waging between defenders of the traditional cork stopper and its opponents, who believe that an unacceptable percentage of wine is affected by “corkiness”.

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In Britain, cork's defenders have attacked plastic substitutes as imparting their own impurities and claimed that their use would destroy the cork-oak forests of Spain and Portugal, together with their dozens of rare species of birds...

The public battle started when a number of big British supermarket groups stated flatly that any systematic fault was as unacceptable in wine as it was in any other product. They were joined by American and Australian producers more aware of profit margins than more traditional wine makers and less inclined to accept the idea of cork contamination as an inescapable act of God. The battle has, belatedly, forced the cork industry into action. For years the price of cork had been increasing and the quality declining as the cork oaks were stripped of their precious bark too frequently. 

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The manufacturing processes remained primitive and continued to rely on the use of chlorine washes which increased the likelihood of contamination. Today washes have been changed, quality controls tightened and more care, generally, is taken that the corks are not exposed to moisture which encourages the development of TCA during the manufacturing process. Today corks can be treated in a process called INOS designed to use its inherent sponginess as a way of squeezing out possible contaminants. Amorim, the biggest producer, not only uses INOS but has also introduced a new cork “twin top” based on those used in champagne – where the cork's centre is made of agglomerated cork (cork granules stuck together) topped and tailed with slivers of pure cork.

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But even Amorim and other quality-conscious producers such as Sabate are going to have to accept that plastic corks are going to take an increasing share of the market. This is not because they are cheaper. They aren't, and they create their own problems: the perfection of the seal they provide means that the air in the bottle has to be expensively removed before the stopper is inserted, and they are harder to extract than their natural competitors, although they do provide the expected satisfying plop when the bottle is opened.

The article delves into the battle between traditional cork stoppers and plastic substitutes in the wine industry, primarily focusing on the issue of cork taint caused by TCA contamination. The public debate, spurred by concerns about the quality of cork and the impact on wine, has prompted the cork industry to adopt measures like the INOS process to reduce contamination. Despite efforts to improve traditional cork quality, plastic corks are gaining traction in the market, raising debates about their cost, seal perfection, and ease of use compared to traditional cork stoppers.
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