Good Wines Gone Bad

Good Wines Gone Bad, our semi-regular class on how to tell if something is wrong with your wine, has become one of our most popular classes, and we’ve learned as much putting it together as the participants have taking it.

Knowing when a wine is flawed is one of those things that’s expected of an industry professional, whether you work in retail or as a sommelier in a restaurant.  However, there are surprisingly few teaching tools out there for learning how to recognize these flaws, so we had quite the adventure creating our own.  Stay tuned for the next installments of Good Wines Gone Bad in 2013 – until then, here’s a handy dandy guide that will help you figure out what’s wrong with your wine.

Corked  Of all of the wine flaws, cork taint is the least understood, largely because it has a misleading name.  Wine that is corked doesn’t have cork floating in it, nor does it refer to a broken cork.  Wine that is corked has been tainted by TCA, which stands for 2,4,6 trichloroanisole (we can’t pronounce it, either!).  Wine that is badly corked will smell of moldy cardboard – musty and faintly chemically.  Barrels and other winery equipment can become tainted with TCA as well, but the most common culprit is the cork.

Sometimes, though, wine that is corked won’t necessarily smell strongly.  The wine will just be sort of ‘off’ in a way that’s hard to describe.  This is because cork taint dampens the fruit in wine before it actually starts smelling actively of cork taint.  To us, the biggest indicator is the finish.  If a wine’s finish abruptly dies off rather than lingering pleasantly, something might be wrong.

Heat Damage  During the oven-like temperatures we experienced this summer, heat damage was on all of our minds.  Of all of the flaws we wanted to show in our class, we thought it would be the easiest to create on purpose.

We started by taking a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc and putting it in the trunk, imitating a common activity – you buy wine on a hot day and get stuck on a longer-than-usual errand. We left it there for an entire day on a real scorcher and then let it cool down again for a few hours.  When we opened it side by side to an undamaged example, they were almost identical.  What madness was this?  Prolonged exposure to 80 degree + temperatures is supposed to be death for wine!

We also tried wrapping a heating pad around a bottle.  this looked really funny, but again, no dice.

What finally worked was our high-temperature dishwasher, which gets up to 180 degrees!

So, why was this so difficult?  What we’ve concluded is that wine must be exposed to 80+ degree temperatures for quite a long time for heat damage to really set in, and that heat damage can take time to show itself.  It can cut into the end of a wine’s life that you’re cellaring.  But, leaving something you’re planning on drinking in the next few months in the trunk for a few hours probably isn’t the end of the world.

Heat damage can present as prune-y aromas and flavors, or as really big fruit aromas that fade into nothing on the palate.  Wine that is heat damaged can also take on Madeira-like aromas and flavors, since Madeira is a style of wine that is created by intentional heat damage.

Oxidized  Oxidation is one of the most insidious wine flaws because it’s often subtle.  It happens when air somehow gets into the bottle, usually from a tiny hole or flaw in the cork, but sometimes there are other causes.  While winemaking and aging is all controlled oxidation and spoilage, when extra, rogue oxygen enters the mix, things go south quickly.  One thing to watch for is a bottle that has leaked.  If the neck the bottle is sticky, it often means that wine leaked out from a tiny hole in the cork.  If wine got out, that means air got in.

Wine that is oxidized can smell like old apples and/or cardboard, and, like heat damaged wine, oxidation can cut off the finish.  If you get a whiff of something that reminds you of sherry, be suspicious, since sherry is a style of wine that is oxidized on purpose.  That is the mental template many of us have for the aroma markers for oxidized wine.

Next are the beauty marks of the wine world, the flaws that are character for some, and unacceptable to others.  Both, when they take over the wine, are bad.

Brettanomyces is a secondary fermentation that can produce aromas that range from bandaids to a stinky barn.  Brett, as it’s commonly referred to, can sometimes add to the complexity of a young wine.  In the past it was so prevalent in some wines of Bordeaux and Rhone valley that it became inextricably linked to them as a stylistic marker.

So, a little funk can be a good thing, but if you feel like you’ve stuck your nose into a box of Curad band-aids, something has gone wrong at the winery.  Brett can be hard to get rid of, and once it works its way into your barrels and equipment, there’s often nothing you can do but start over.

Volatile Acidity is what happens when the bacterium acetobacter creates vinegar-like aromas and flavors in wine.  Like brett, a little can be a stylistic marker and can lend additional complexity to wine.  Often found in Italian wines and the whites of Alsace, it can accentuate the ‘high tones’ of a wine’s aromatic profile.  Too much, though, just smells like vinegar or nail polish remover.

Our noses are amazing pieces of equipment – if a wine in a restaurant or that you bought in our store smells or tastes ‘off’ to you, speak up!  Often, your nose knows something is wrong, even if your brain can’t quite put it into words.  So, trust yourself, and don’t be a victim of good wine gone bad!

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