Have you ever sent a glass of wine back at the restaurant because it seemed corked i.e. had a musty odour and didn’t taste quite as much as what authentic wine should? This could probably be because of the contamination of wine with a molecule called 2,4,6-trichloroanisole (TCA), which is the main cause of cork taint.
On the contrary, a new Japanese study states that one cannot smell TCA directly; instead, TCA blocks the sense of smell and distorts one’s ability to detect any odour. The findings of the research could help food and beverage industry to improve its products and lead to less embarrassment for you as well as the waiter.
Authentic wine tasters are aware that TCA can ruin a good bottle of wine. The executive editor of Wine Spectator magazine, Thomas Matthews, says that more experienced tasters can tell TCA taint at the first sniff of a contaminated bottle of wine. Some wine tasters, however, are much more sensitive than others to the flaw and are able to pick it up at much lower levels. Matthews said that in some cases in which the tasters said the particular wine was okay to drink but reviewers rated the drink as inferior, there were small yet detectable concentrations of TCA when the drink was subjected to lab analysis.
Researchers have been for long assumed that contaminants like TCA activate the nerve cells that are involved in smell, referred to as olfactory receptor cells, though they have not been able to explain how even really low concentrations of the molecule can produce the odour. To discover what really happens when ORCs are exposed to TCA and other such contaminants, biophysicist at Osaka University in Japan first isolated the ORCs from newts (their ORCs are the highest among vertebrates and three times as large as those of humans). The researchers found that TCA did not trigger calcium to flow across the membrane of the cell. Instead, it stopped the flow by blocking the passages called cyclic nucleotide-gated channels through the membrane.
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