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Wine tips - don't sniff the cork: the truth behind an age-old ritual


Wine service at a table can be an intimidating affair. Everything has the air of tradition around it, and it’s difficult not to feel like any slight slip-up will reveal you to be someone who knows nothing about wine. In truth, it’s pretty easy – not much is expected of you, and ignorance is generally revealed by people who do too much. No aspect of this ritual is more intimidating to people than being offered the cork.

Most people think they’re supposed to sniff the cork, to detect TCA (a ‘corked’ wine) or some other flaw. In truth, cork just smells like cork to most people, and TCA can much more easily be detected by sniffing the small amount of wine the waiter pours for you, or tasting it. The truth behind being offered the cork is a now archaic tradition that has no bearing on modern day service – it is a remnant from a different time, and you can safely ignore the cork when the waiter hands it to you.

Historically, wines did not have labels. Before the advent of good paper adhesives, they were simply naked bottles filled with anything from a cheap table wine to the most premium of Bordeaux. The only place the winemaker could label his wine was on the cork – and because of the nature of cork (it’s very difficult to get a cork back in a bottle the same way it came out), it was a fairly good way to check and make sure the restaurant was serving you the wine they were charging you for (and not a cheaper substitute).

Now, of course, wines have labels. And it is almost unthinkable that a restaurant would try to pass off a cheaper wine than you ordered. So the ritual of the cork has become unimportant. Some people still choose to examine the cork – to see if it has cracked, allowing air to get in to the wine, or if a significant amount of mold has developed on the cork (a little mold is to be expected in some wines).

Ultimately, however, all of these things can best be detected by your nose and tongue. After presenting the cork, the waiter will next pour a small amount of wine for you to sniff and taste. At this point you should be able to (much more easily) detect flaws or improper storage of the wine. So while the cork might make a nice souvenir to remember an especially great bottle of wine, you don’t really need to do anything with it at the table. An affirmation that it is good will suffice. The waiter will then proceed to pour the wine around the table, finishing with you.


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