Know If Your Wine Is Flawed

Over the holidays I was out at a very nice restaurant in our town. My friend ordered a glass of wine, swirled it, took a little sniff...and then made a very funny scrunched up face. Her wine was flawed. She could tell immediately. This started a chain reaction within our crew. About three other friends smelled theirs and started passing the glasses around saying, "Is this flawed? I think mine is flawed?" I took a whiff of each of them and the only one that seemed truly flawed to me was the first one. It made me start thinking that we all need a good lesson on what the signs of flawed wine are.

How often a wine is flawed turns out to be a controversial questions. Some people feel that 1 out of every 12 wines they consume is flawed. Personally, I don't find anywhere near that many wines to be a problem, but I tend to drink a lot of younger wine. Wine flaws are usually due to improper production, handling or storage, there are a fair amount of things that can go wrong with wine--most of which should be cause to return a wine if ordering in a restaurant. Some restaurants that are less educated in proper wine service may argue with you about returning the wine, but if you feel there is a problem. Stick to your guns. Wine merchants will also take back a flawed wine. So if you come upon a bottle that is flawed save it and take it back. Don't pour it down the drain. Any respectable wine store will exchange the bottle for you.

The most common word you will hear out of someone's mouth when they taste or smell wine that seems "bad" is that the wine is corked. Corked wine has the flavor of wet, musty cardboard. Once you have really tasted a corked wine, you'll know what it is--it is not subtle. It is caused by trichloranisol 2, 4, 6 (TCA), a compound released by molds that can infest the bark from which corks are made. One theory: you can't get TCA without chlorine, which is used to bleach corks (for aesthetic reasons). If corks aren't properly rinsed and dried this problem can occur.

While some people attribute all flawed bottles to being corked, there are a number of other things that can go wrong. A non-exhaustive list follows.

· Brettanomeyces(Brett). Earthy and/or manure type smells caused by the Brettanomeyces strain of yeast. Liked by some (for example particular French and Italian wines), disliked by many California vintners. In small amounts, can add "character" to a wine. Too much, and forget it.

· Dekkera. Another wild-yeast caused flavor of fresh dirt or cement. Liked by some (for example in some Bordeaux, Burgundy, Rhone and Italian red wines), disliked by many California vintners. Dekkera can also come from contaminated equipment and barrels.

· Madeirized. Wine subjected to oxygen or heat through poor storage which ends up tasting like Madeira or Sherry. No fruit flavor left. Off-color.

· Mercaptan. Smells of garlic or onion or even of skunk. I'm told that this is much of the cause of the "foxy" flavor produced by grapes native to North America. It is said that the term "foxy" came about because their wines were often made from the Fox grape, where the flavor was first seen.

· Sulfur. Burnt match smell caused by too much sulfur dioxide (used in the winemaking process) and rotten egg smells caused by hydrogen sulfide from bacterial contamination. Depending on what it is, it might go away if you air the wine for a while.

· Volatile Acidity. Smells of vinegar. May go away if you air the wine for a while.

· Acetaldehyde. If you've had sherry, you're very familiar with this character. In red or white wines, an acetaldehyde character is generally considered undesirable. This character can be nutty, musty, or swampy. Some people may claim that the wine is simply "oxidized". This last characterization gives us a clue about the aldehydic perception, as wines with this flaw have often been exposed to too much oxygen (or air). Again, this character might be desirable if in small amounts, but can be overbearing if excessive. Sometimes such wines can be flabby, dull and just plain oxidized.

· Cooked. "Cooked" or heat-damaged wines have been improperly stored or transported. Wines stored above 55 degrees Fahrenheit will experience accelerated aging. If the temperature gets really high, the wine can expand and push the cork partially out of the bottle. You can sometimes recognize cooked wines by a streak of wine color up the length of the cork, a partially protruding cork, or leakage. Red wines may turn brown.

A few things that aren't flaws are tiny glass like crystals on the bottom of the cork (or sometimes in the wine). Assuming they really aren't glass from the winery, they probably the result of tartaric acid in the form of potassium bitartrate (cream of tartar). This is tasteless and harmless. I've seen them many times and they are harmless. Some times you will see sediment in the bottom of your glass or bottle. Sediment occurs as tannins combine with flavor compounds in the wine and fall to the bottom of the bottle. This just means that your wine has not been filtered. As long as it is not excessive, this is not a flaw.

So, what have we learned.... Be sure to smell your wine. Some of these "flaws" are acceptable in certain amounts. Especially when dealing with Old World wines. If you think your wine is flawed, ask your wine steward. He/she should be well trained in recognizing these problems and will take your glass or bottle back without a problem. If not, think about frequenting a different restaurant and let the manager know why. CHEERS!

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About The Author, Jennifer De Jong