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what doesn’t kill you… the moldy cork explained.

An alarmed customer walked into my store the other day with a wine capsule foil torn to reveal the rim. Before she even tried to explain, I knew what was coming. Her face scrunched up as she pointed to the greenish-white mold atop the cork. I assured her it was okay, when it occurred to me that I had no real reassuring explanation. I had an idea–humidity, age–but I lacked the confidence true mastery of a topic exudes.

My friend came to the rescue and delivered a most romantic tale about how the most traditional, organic farmers have for centuries soaked their corks in wine before plugging the bottles. This archaic practice was supposed to reduce the prevalence of cork taint as well as assist in better preserving of the wine without the aid of additional sulfites and preservatives. It was a more natural process of bottling. He referred to the icky mold as ‘ullage‘–a much desired trait that we should only be too happy to see upon breaking the seal.

Then and there, we removed the mold ridden cork and produced a sensational glass of Sangiovese.  This is, without a doubt, my new favorite value in the store: 2003 Pertinello Sangiovese. For $12, you can experience an old world red that is beaming with personality and peaking at this moment. As opposed to Tuscany, this Sangiovese, born in Emilia-Romagna, bears slightly more sweet cherry fruit (not quite so tart) and a seemingly spicier song (perhaps the oak and heat?). Acidity isn’t quite as high, but it is equally friendly with food, particularly those with Italian roots. They are generally simpler when compared to the great Chianti Classico Riservas, Vino Nobiles and Brunellos of Tuscany, but for everyday value, I have seldom met one I didn’t rave about based on the quality to price ratio.

I have written of this region, Emilia Romagna, before. It is a wonderful piece of Italy that is responsible for some of the most staple elements to Italian cuisine, such as Parma (Parmesan cheese), Bologna (yep, Bolognese sauce), Modena (balsamic vinegar), amongst other delicious foods like egg pasta tagliatelle and tortellini. Unfortunately, what most people think of when they recall this region in America is the cheap, sweet Reunite Lambrusco that was born here. It’s true, Emilia Romagna is home to Reunite, but what many people don’t get a chance to do is try some of the superb examples from Lambrusco producers that are finally returning to the market after such a harsh blow post-70’s, such as La Battagliola, Pederzana and Lini. All under $20, by the way. A steal.

But we still haven’t addressed the topic at hand: mold.

I decided to do a little research. There is one producer whom continuously bears the mark of mold: Leroy of Burgundy. In fact, it was a representative of this producer who first told my colleague the elaborate explanation of cork soaking. I couldn’t get through to the winery, but I did get a hold of my regional rep for Martine’s Wines. He was certain it had nothing to with organic cork treatment, rather, having actually been in the cellar of Auxey Duresses himself, it was more to do with the mold that grows rampant in the ancient, European cellars. They are perfectly damp and cool, making it a haven for mold growth and prime for ageing. In more traditional wineries, like Leroy and possibly Pertinello, wines are not released until they are ready for consumption, so in the meantime they hangout and collect mold, as bottles in moldy, damp cellars will do. The thing is, too little humidity is harmful to wine, but it can never really be too humid, as this helps to prevent the cork from drying out. It’s just that in extremely humid environments, you increase the chance for mold. Before being shipped, they are pulled, given a swift wipe and capped, certain to still have some remnants of that beautiful bacteria from the depths of the cellar.

To answer another question, the term ullage has nothing to do with mold. It defines the unfilled space in a bottle of wine, from the bottom of the cork to the wine below it. This is the same term used for the headspace in a barrel of wine. Over time in any vessel, the wine will slowly evaporate. Therefore, ullage increases with age. The ullage, or ‘fill level’ when referring to a bottle, becomes crucial when studying old wine and their drinking potential. To be below the ‘neck’ of the bottle is a sketchy sign for the wine’s drinkability, as this indicates a great possibility of oxidization.

Ullage also increases with wines that have long corks, as the cork tends to soak up more of the wine and promote respiration and possibly even oxidization. Pertinello Sangiovese certainly has a longer cork than many others, therefore the wet cork evident in many of the bottles have also creeped out many customers. Yes, this can indicate heat damage. But after opening several bottles, I know this is not the case with the Pertinello. All you have to do is taste it for proof.

So why even store it on its side? Sure, there is a chance of oxidizing the wine more quickly laying on its side, however if kept upright the cork will dry up if it is not kept moist by the wine, which can only happen laying down. When not in contact with wine and living in dry conditions (as in, not mold-friendly at all), the cork will dry up, shrink, loosen and allow more air to come through and spoil the wine.

And so, this was a lesson of incredible variety and rambling prose, but it boils down to this: mold isn’t bad. Just give it a cursory wipe, if you will, and pour its lovely contents into your glass. At worst, it indicates a stodgy old traditional winemaker who would put out his own eye before buying state of the art humidors that will provide the same damn thing minus the mold.

All things considered, and knowing full well what $12 can get you in this pricey world of wine, it is no mystery why I have fallen for this cheap, aged, moldy red gem.

Finally, if anyone has any insight on soaking corks outside of sanitation purposes, I am chomping at the bit to be enlightened! Send your comments this way…


About mistralwine1982

Originally from Wisconsin, I moved to Colorado in 2005 in order to get closer to the mountains and rock climb. When it occurred to me that I would never make money with that hobby, I went to grad school. I received a masters in English and American Literature from New York University in May of 2009. I have since then opted not to pursue a PhD, for studying and writing about wine is far more fascinating (well, perhaps not moreso than Virginia Woolf, but still… for the long haul?). My favorite wines come from the old world, especially the Rhone, Burgundy, Rioja, Piedmont, and Tuscany. I am also smitten with roses, Italian hard-to-pronounce white varietals, and dessert wines from around the world. By day I run a wine shop. By nite, I sip and tell. It’s rough… but someone must do this.


7 thoughts on “what doesn’t kill you… the moldy cork explained.

  1. Lovely article! Small correction- When you return to ullage…”it defines the unfilled space…from the bottle of the cork”. I assume you meant “bottom”.

    Posted by Scott Sala | 01/27/2011, 2:59 pm
  2. This is a very helpful article – thank you!

    Posted by Matt Rogers | 06/29/2012, 8:51 am
  3. But what about the moldy screw-cap??? Ready to toss out the bottle…

    Posted by Cathey Blast | 07/10/2012, 4:20 pm
  4. I opened a bottle of a 2011 cabernet and the cork was moldy on the underside, apposed to the top under the foil or seal… What does this mean and is it okay to drink considering the mold was inside the bottle of wine??

    Posted by Kelley | 09/24/2012, 9:17 pm
    • Interesting… I would be willing to bet you are fine, but the only way to really know is to try it! I don’t think it would be dangerous. If it has gone bad for whatever reason, it should be obvious on the nose and certainly the tongue. If it tastes weird, just return it to the store where you bought it! Let me know how it plays out…


      Posted by ahausman | 09/25/2012, 3:14 pm

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