It was a ritual seemingly designed to intimidate the inexperienced diner which began with the scanning of an impossibly long wine list, desperately looking for something which wouldn’t involve taking out a second mortgage. And then the bottle was brought to you and you were shown the label. It was best to nod wisely at that point even if you weren’t absolutely sure this was the one you ordered. The cork was deftly pulled, and a small amount poured into your glass for you to ‘taste’.
The wine pourer stepped back and waited while you swirled it round the glass and sipped it. “Ah yes”, you said with a confident nod, “Not as robust as the ’95 but still an interesting little wine…”
Of course you didn’t, you simply muttered “very nice” and everyone’s glass was filled and the bottle left on the table. The next hurdle would be getting the server to allow you pour your own wine, but let’s leave that for another day.
One of the reasons behind this rigmarole was to allow the person ordering the wine to make sure it hadn’t been contaminated by a tainted cork – or ‘corked’. This problem is caused by Trichloroanisole (TCA) a natural compound that at higher levels can impart “musty” flavors and aromas to wines, other beverages and foods. At worst this can give a wine such a mouldy smell that it’s undrinkable.
This often gets worse as the bottle is opened and the contents exposed to the air. It’s actually perfectly harmless but that doesn’t make it any less nasty. With the introduction of synthetic corks and screw caps it’s become much rarer. but still the tasting ritual continues at the higher end of the market, though it’s starting to die off further down the scale.
Many years ago, on holiday in China, we tried to explain to baffled Beijing hotel staff that the bottle of red wine from the mini-bar that we had just opened was ‘corked’, ‘did not taste nice’,’was bad’. Maybe it would be easier these days with a lot more wine-drinking Western tourists turning up, but there was much dubious sniffing of the bottle and shaking of heads and we started to wonder if it was worth the bother. And then suddenly a light dawned and one of the staff took himself off, and a few minutes later came back with a replacement bottle. This was a tasting session like no other as the bottle was opened, and then three pairs of eyes watched me anxiously as I took a sip. Thumbs up and a relieved sigh came from the watchers. “Very nice!” I pronounced confidently.
Basil Fawlty had trouble with the concept too in the classic Hotel Inspector episode.