Weekend Wine Pocket: How to Know if Your Wine is Flawed

You’ve scanned the wine list to find the perfect match. One of them catches your eye. The description sounds perfectly delectable and you know this varietal is your type. Your waiter presents the bottle to your table. Your friends all nod in approval. The wine is poured; you lean in to your glass hoping to catch the lovely aroma and instead get a whiff of something that reminds you of when it rained on that pile of newspapers you were going to recycle or your grandmother’s old musty basement. Your wine has a flaw that will not pass muster with you or your friends. It seemed like the perfect choice. How did this happen?

Despite the winemaker’s best efforts, occasionally you will run into a wine that is flawed. There is a practical reason for why you try the wine before you commit to the bottle.

  1. In the case above, your wine had been infected with trichloranisole or T.C.A. Your wine is “corked”, meaning a fungus has managed to set up camp in your unsuspecting wine’s cork. However, simply saying “This wine is corked” to your waiter will be sufficient. Despite the best sanitary processes this is a common flaw that can impact anywhere from 5- 15% of wines that use cork closures. This percentage will vary depending  on whether you are talking to wine tasting experts or cork producers.
  2. Brettanomyces, commonly referred to as “Brett”, is wild yeast that can get into wine and leave its calling card. Depending on your own sensitivity, you may or may not find this offensive. At low levels, both can contribute to the “complexity” of the wine. At more noticeable levels, your wine will smell like a barnyard and not the good earthy aspects. Specifically, it will smell like a horse’s stall or even a manure like scent. Brett will also tend to have a sour acidity upon tasting. It is a flaw that typically impacts red wines.
  3. Your chosen wine does not smell like a dank basement or a barnyard but instead reeks of vinegar or nail polish remover, blame Volatile Acidity (V.A).  Acetic acid bacteria can contaminate a wine and produce vinegar in the wine. Wines impacted by VA can taste vinegary and will have an unpleasant lingering aftertaste. If the acetic acid, (vinegar), has reacted with the alcohol in the wine, the wine will smell of acetone or nail polish remover and will be very unpleasant to drink. This smell is hard to miss if you have ever gotten a manicure.

Some things you might notice about your wine are perfectly acceptable. If you notice that the end of the cork that was exposed to the wine is crusty, there is no reason to be alarmed. The crust is tartrate crystals that formed from the tartaric acid in the wine. Sediment in wine is perfectly natural as well. Don’t dismiss your wine if you notice these things. Wine is alive and evolving and sometimes it leaves evidence. Please don’t smell the cork though, you look like an idiot, basically you should verify that the cork has some evidence of dampness to confirm your wine was stored properly, no other action is necessary.

Back to our restaurant scenario.

You could not help but notice one of the above flaws with your wine. The self doubt kicks in and you start to dread having to make a fuss. It is time to have “the talk” with your waiter.Do you want to celebrate with Moldy Merlot or Cuvee Barnyard Blend? If the wine is flawed, you should feel comfortable sending the wine back or returning it to the store.  Restaurants get reimbursed for flawed wines and most reputable wine stores will take the bottle back and exchange it.

Just remember Brett, TCA, or VA are likely to blame.

Life is too short to drink bad wine.