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Stick A Cork In It

April 12th, 2016 by Dean Ricker

Filed under: Skolnik Newsletter, Wine

Oxygen can be the enemy of wine, too much and you get vinegar. Skolnik’s stainless steel wine barrels are considered to be hermetic, meaning oxygen cannot pass through them. But once wine goes into the bottle, if the cork is bad, too much oxygen can enter the bottle and ruin the wine. In a recent article on Wine Folly, we learn why corks matter. One aspect of aging has to do with the reaction of fruit acids with the alcohol. This process reduces sourness in the wine, but it’s really only important for very tart wines, the ones coming from cold climates. The complex oxidation process is the second aspect of aging. When oxygen interacts with a wine, it produces many changes — ultimately yielding an oxidized wine that has a nutty aroma. This is a desired taste for sherry styles, but quickly compromises the aromas in fresh white wines. However the oxidation process provides benefits along the way to that unwanted endpoint. Many wines develop undesirable aromas under anaerobic —no oxygen— conditions; a small amount of oxygen will eliminate those trace thiol compounds responsible for the aroma of rotten eggs or burnt rubber. Oxidation products also react with the red anthocyanin molecules from the grapes to create stable pigments in red wine. The way a bottle is sealed will directly affect how much oxygen passes into the wine each year. That will directly affect the aging trajectory and determine when that wine will be at its "best." Glass is a hermetic material. But all wine bottle closures admit at least a smidgen of oxygen. The actual amount is the key to a closure’s performance. A typical cork will let in about one milligram of oxygen per year. This sounds like a tiny bit, but after two or three years, the cumulative amount can be enough to break down the sulfites that winemakers add to protect the wine from oxidation. A small fraction of corks, 1–2% today, end up tainting the wine with a moldy smelling substance, trichloroanisole (TCA). This TCA is created via a series of chemical reactions in the bottle: chlorine from the environment reacts with the natural lignin molecules in the woody cork to make trichlorophenol, which is in turn methylated by mold. TCA has one of the most potent aromas in the world — some people can smell as little as 2 parts per trillion in wine. So, in every eight cases of wine, one or two bottles will smell like wet cardboard or simply not taste their best. This is why restaurants let you taste the wine before pouring — to let you judge if the wine is tainted. A 1% failure rate seems high in today’s world. Check out the full range of Skolnik’s stainless steel wine barrels here.

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