Wined Down: Common Wine Flaws

By Joe Roberts

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The good news: there’s never been a better time in history to play the odds on trying a bottle of fine wine. That’s because more wine is being made at higher levels of quality now than at any other time in history. The bad news: a crap-ton of wine gets made every year; well over 26 million liters of the stuff. Which means that the odds of you meeting up with a bad bottle are small, but by no means “winning the Powerball” small. *You already know how to send a bottle of wine back if something’s wrong with it, but how do you know when something is actually wrong with it in the first place? You can take a clue from the in-the-wine-trenches experience of my buddy Jason Whiteside, a former restaurant wine director who is now a Master of Wine candidate and here to give us the skinny on what wine faults you’re most likely to encounter “in the wild”—and what to do about them. The first thing you need to know is that, unless a jealous husband is out to poison you, you’re unlikely to get anything worse than a gag reflex (or hangover) out of a faulty bottle of vino. “Nothing pathogenic grows in wine,” Jason told me, “so you aren't going to get sick from 'faulty' bottles, unless you drink two or three of them in a sitting. Even then, the resulting hangover will be from the ethanol, not from any flaw. So this isn't a life-or-death decision; this is about increasing pleasure by paying closer attention (I learned that from Playboy!).” Okay, so the wine is probably safe even if it stinks to hell. But not all stank is due to the wine itself. According to Jason, the most common fault you’re likely to encounter actually has nothing to do with the wine but everything to do with the glass. “First, always sniff your empty glass, if you can. I’ve seen countless restaurant servers polish fancy stemware with dirty, smelly bar rags. If your glass stinks, you won't enjoy your wine much either.” If that glass looks or smells off, ask for another one. Cork taint, also known as 2,4,6-Trichloroanisole (TCA for short) is probably the wine fault that gets the most bad press. It’s a musty odor that almost always gets imparted to a wine from a bad cork. “People are quite sensitive to this smell and we innately find it highly unattractive,” notes Whiteside.“Our natural revulsion to the smell of moldy things probably kept us from eating spoiled food when we were cavemen. TCA likes to live in wood and woodlike products (cork, barrels, even the paper lining of screw-capped wines!). So if your wine smells musty, like your grandma's sweater or a dank basement, send it back and order a new bottle. The problem is usually specific to the cork in that bottle; rarely, entire lots of wines are tainted from bad oak barrels.” Sherry—the distinctive fortified wine from Spain—might be the wine world’s biggest bargain right now. But if your wine smells like sherry and you didn’t order sherry, then something is way off kilter. “Acetaldehyde is the chemical compound that gives sherry its distinctive smell; it forms when oxygen reacts with the ethanol in wine,” explains Jason. “In sherry, this is expected and desired, but not so much in your pinot grigio. You'll run into this one if you like to order obscure white wines by the glass in wine bars, or if the action got romantic before you finished that bottle of chardonnay and you returned to the opened bottle a few days later.” The answer: open a fresh bottle. Finally, Jason cautions about another flaw that has to do with a wine’s freshness: ethyl acetate. “That’s the high-toned aromas of acetone or nail polish remover. This is a reaction between the ethanol and acetic acid in wine, so this fine wine is on its way to becoming vinegar.” Remember, between grape juice and vinegar we get wine, and the trick of the wine trade is prolonging that middle state as long as possible. “This fault is more often found in the slower-moving wines by the glass in bars,” notes Jason; the wine might be sitting for longer periods before the bottle gets refreshed, which happens more often for faster-selling inventory. “So if you end your evening with a glass of ruby port and it smells like you've been removing paint, ask them to open a fresh bottle.” *About the Author: **Want to learn more about maximizing your wine pleasure? Visit Joe Roberts’ award-winning website 1WineDude.com, where you can find him regularly roasting wine's sacred cow (and pairing it with robust, obscure red). Joe is a certified wine geek and has been called "an original" by media maven Gary Vaynerchuk, "provocative" by the Seattle Times and "a Robin Hood in the exclusive world of vineyards and corkings" by The Urban Grocer. His wine knowledge has been tapped by the L.A. Times, New York Times, CNBC.com, Mutineer Magazine, PalatePress.com and Washington Post.


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