Sniffing Out Wine Faults

This week was a bit unlucky with wine. Several (two) of the bottles I have opened have gone right down the drain due to a wine fault. A wine fault is not always easy to sniff out. Many people just aren’t familiar enough with the flaws to confidently diagnose what’s wrong. But I live with someone with a super sensitive nose. He can smell a full trashcan from outside of the door, or if something has gone old in the fridge from the other side of the apartment. The same goes with wine. The smell-memory or -footprint that has been left in M’s mind is so strong, that no contaminated bottle can get away with it. It is a talent to be envied at times, but most of the time I really enjoy living in my bubble of ignorant bliss. For wine though, I would like to be more knowledgeable, so I a bit of studying can perhaps compensate for a weaker senses.There are six common wine faults to keep an eye (nose) on: oxidized wine,  2,4,6-Trichloroanisole (TCA) aka cork taint, sulfur compounds, unwanted bubbles, heat damage and Microbial and Bacterial Taint.

Oxidization of the wine starts when it is  contact with air, usually when you open the bottle. Oxidized wines lose their brightness, both in color and in flavor, and fresh tastes develop drier, more bitter characteristics. It can be called a wine fault, when the cork of the wine has in some respect failed, and the oxidization has started in a closed bottle. Corks dry out with time or dampen, so the older the bottle, the bigger the risk for oxidization. However, good quality cork is meant to last for tens of years, so if you buy a bottle with this fault, then you have all the right to take it back to the store (provided you open the bottle a few years within the time period from when you bought it of course).

Cork taint (TCA) is a chemical containment that found its way into the bottle somewhere in production, usually from real cork. TCA can be present in oak barrels, or the processing lines at the winery as well, which leads to entire batches, rather than single bottles being ruined. A contaminated wine tastes fruitless and has unpleasant side-notes like wet newspaper, moldy basement or smelly dog. TCA is the second most common wine fault in the world with almost 2% of all wine in a year being contaminated.

Sulphur is a complicated issue in wine. Sulfur dioxide is added to almost all wine to stabilize it. It is also a side product of slightly failed fermentation. Sulfur is not dangerous to the drinker in any sense, but it can give the wine tastes like rotten egg and burnt rubber.

I love bubbles in wine, but sometimes they can constitute as a wine fault if they were not intended there; For example in a young bottle of red wine. This usually happens when the wine is accidentally bottled with a few grams of residual sugar and then re-ferments. This most frequently occurs in low-intervention wine making, where little-to-no sulfur is used. In nature wines it is sometimes a desired effect, or at least an accepted side product; like in Vinho Verde and Gryner Veltliner. However, then it is usually mentioned by the winemaker in the description of the wine.

Heat damage occurs when a bottle is exposed to too much heat. It most commonly occurs during transport in the summer to and from warm countries. Transport companies seldom have trained staff who understand that it is not a great idea to leave a wine pallet waiting for hours in the scotching sun and sometimes cooling units just plain break down without notice. A heat damaged wine tastes jammy and cooked. Too much warmth also compromises the seal of the bottle (the expansion from the heated air pushes the cork out) so it can be accompanied by oxidization.

There are many other bacteria involved in winemaking. Think of them like spices, in the right quantities they can add an appealing complexity; too much though and the wine becomes uninteresting or even gross. They can have medicinal (think menthol or cough drops), animal (barnyard, mushroom, horse), or acetic (balsalmic, champagne vinegar) flavors that at high levels.

Looking back at this week, I am quite sure that one of my bottles was oxidized and the other had some kind of bacterial contamination (as it was an unexpected, sharp metallic taste). When you go through hundreds of wine bottles a year, this will of course happen. We import a lot ourselves, and then it is more difficult to return a bottle. What I really appreciate in the Swedish alcohol monopoly is the capability to return with ease. If there is a wine fault, the staff are trained to notice it. And even if there isn’t, they will probably exchange your bottle just for good service sake.

xx Soile

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A cork that has dampened over time can compromise the wine for oxidation

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