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Bad Wine
Finding Faults

For the last 16 years I have published rants about corked wines, and how to identify them at least five times. Things are much better now. With the introduction of screw caps, synthetic corks and a serious push by the cork industry to clean up their act, I would estimate that the instance of cork taint has fallen below one percent. It's still out there, but it's better. The truth is, there are a lot of things that can go wrong with wine, and believe me when I say we have tasted most of them. This time instead of just cork taint, I'll try to help you identify some of the other, more obscure things that can go wrong with wine.

Cork Taint
Ever wonder where all that restaurant wine presentation tradition came from? All that cork sniffing and tasting is designed to identify tainted bottles. Wines that have been damaged by cork taint can leave a wine smelling and tasting like moldy cardboard. Corked wine is a BIG problem. Cork taint is caused by a chemical called 2,4,6-Trichloroanisole, "TCA" for short. TCA arises from the molds on natural corks when chlorine is used to bleach and sanitize them. TCA is harmless but has a potent, musty, moldy smell and can give wine a bitter taste. Concentrations of TCA as low as 3 parts per trillion can taint a wine!

So what to do when you get a corked bottle? First make sure it is really corked. Many French and Italian wines have a pronounced earthiness, often with barnyard-y aromas. Tainted wine can range from an absence of fruit that leaves the wine muted, to undrinkable corked wine that reeks of moldy cardboard. The moldy cardboard is easy. In a restaurant, simply tell the server that the wine is corked and send it back. At home, pour it back in the bottle and return it to your wine merchant.

If you see evidence of a cork bulging up or signs of leakage from beneath the foil, don’t buy the wine or let a waiter open it. It’s been “cooked” (overheated wine expands and pushes out and around the cork) and will likely taste flat and fruitless. And remember, even an hour in a closed car on an warm day can cook a wine and we don't accept returns on cooked wine.

If you have a white wine that looks just a little too golden or a red wine in a current vintage that is more brown than red and it smells like Sherry, it’s oxidized by a faulty closure that leaked air.

Sulfur, lit match, burnt rubber or rotten egg aromas are caused by the wine not being exposed to enough air during wine making. Try decanting it many times it will blow off. This can also be caused by the use of too much sulfur dioxide during wine making.

If your wine has aromas of a horse stable, locker room or band aids, it has Brettanomyces, a naturally occurring yeast that sometimes taints a barrel. Today it is rare, thanks to the advent of modern wine making, but I know Frenchmen who grew up there and he misses it because that's what most Rhône wine smelled like 30 years ago. Even today many wine reviewers don't consider it a fault in small doses.

Too Old
Flat flavors, lack of aromas and a golden color in whites and orange ring around the edge of the glass with reds mean you waited too long to open the bottle. This goes back to my instinct that more wine is ruined in wine cellars than preserved.

Bottle Shock
Flat flavors or lack of aroma in a young wine may indicate bottle shock. Last year we received 15 cases of a Robert Parker 94 point Spanish red and it was dead on arrival, completely flat with no nose. I took it home and decanted it for over an hour and it came around to the point where Linda thought it was pretty good. I called the distributor and discovered that the container had landed the day before, so the wine has been on a boat, a train and a truck continuously for the last five weeks. We quarantined it for two weeks and it came around around just fine.

Volatile Acidity
The distinct, sharp smell of nail-polish remover or acetone is a sure indicator of excess volatile acidity (often abbreviated as simply VA). VA is considered a winemaking flaw that can arise during fermentation or from a post-fermentation bacterial infection. It is not harmful, but whenever you find any such unpleasant chemical odors, whether nail polish, airplane glue or vinegar, dominating the scent and flavor of a particular wine it's VA.