It’s something we all dread, wine drinkers, sellers and restaurateurs alike – corked wine. It’s a legitimate reason to send that expensive bottle right back and demand a new one, which hurts. It’s also a real let down if you open that long-awaited vintage only to get that weird whiff of…damp cellar, wet dog, mouldy newspaper…

There are a few things that result in so-called corked wine, but the main culprit is a pesky compound called 2,4,6-trichloroanisole, or TCA to its friends (which aren’t that great in number). TCA is created by fungi getting into the bottle somehow and reacting and interacting with the chlorophenols compounds present in the wine. Chlorophenols are compounds found in bleach, but thankfully they’re barely present in wine. However, when they meet certain fungi, they get up to mischief.

Interestingly enough, when you smell a corked wine, you’re not smelling the TCA at all! What’s actually happening is that the TCA is blocking some of your olfactory receptors and preventing them from picking up all the other amazing smells coming out of that bottle. The problem is that smell is a major part of the taste and enjoyment of wine, so…boo!

Usually the response to a corked wine is to send it back or to tip it down the sink – it’s not considered good enough to cook with, let alone drink (another subject for debate there…). But is it actively dangerous or foolhardy to drink corked wine?

Is TCA harmful?

Well, no. The safety data sheets used by chemical companies that handle TCA in its pure form say that direct, undiluted exposure to TCA can cause eye and skin irritation, as well as respiratory distress like wheezing or coughing. That’s not ideal, but this is when it’s pure. In a bottle of wine, TCA is measured in parts per trillion – that’s trillion, not million or billion – so even though it’s messing with your sense of smell, that’s as much as it can do to you.

You might have a reaction to a corked wine – wheezing, or a rash – but this is almost certainly going to be caused by something else in the wine, or by an allergy. TCA, while a nuisance to wine lovers, is not out to get anyone.


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