April 7, 2015
Most Common Wine Faults
Not every bottle of wine that you purchase will be perfect. While the incidence of flawed wine isn’t astronomical, if you’ve ever opened a bottle or been poured a glass that doesn’t taste right to you, odds are that wine is somehow flawed. These faults can range from bacterial growth to oxidation to light damage, and each present with different “symptoms.” The following is a collection of the most common wine faults, what they present with, so you can spot them when you see them.
Cork Taint – Most commonly known as TCA, cork taint is a chemical (2, 4, 6-trichloanisole) that enters into the bottle somewhere along the processing line, usually through the cork wood. You’ll know that your bottle is “corked” when it has not only a muted, but a distinct odor. Many people describe it like a wet newspaper or wet dog (I think it smells like a damp and musty basement). People have different sensitivity to TCA, so will have different reactions to wine affected, depending on how bad the contamination is.
Heat – Wine is extremely susceptible to heat damage – it’s widely accepted that 55 degrees Fahrenheit is the ideal temperature at which to store your wines; it ensures that the wine itself is at a stable and optimal temperature for evolution and aging, and is best to maintain the cork as well. However, imagine a shipment of wine sitting in a truck being transported from California to Florida. All that time in the heat and the sun heats that wine up, essentially “cooking” it. Storing your wines in your kitchen, for example, also put them at risk. They're best stored in a climate controlled facility (like a wine fridge), or your basement.
Light – We’ve established that wine is very delicate and sensitive to changes in its environment, and they’re best stored in a cool, humid, and dark place. The darkness is not incidental, in fact, UV rays can prematurely age your wines. Light from indoor or household lightbulbs probably won't affect the wine, but your best bet is to keep your bottles away form the sun (otherwise you'll end up with "cooked wine," see above).
Oxidation – oxidation is probably the most common issue that you’ll find with your wines. It happens with overexposure to oxygen, and can come from multiple sources, whether it’s being left out too long in the air, or when too much permeates through the cork. Wine needs oxygen to evolve, but too much will turn your wine into something no one wants to drink. If you've ever left your wine out on the counter overnight and come back the next day, your wine is "flat," has lost its flavor, and completely changed color.
Brettanomyces – AKA “Brett,” is a yeast sometimes found in wines, known for giving off a “barnyard” or “wet dog” scent. Keep in mind, however, that some old world wines have small amounts of Brett in them, and it’s actually part of their hallmark flavor profile. Certain estates of Châteauneuf -du-Pape, for instance, are known for containing Brett, and it’s a good thing.
Sulfur – This scent is unmistakable, and there’s absolutely nothing worse than sticking your nose into your glass of wine expecting citrus and passion fruit, but finding rotten eggs instead. Sulfur is one of the more offensive scents that you can find in a bottle of wine, at least in my opinion. Sulfur is sometimes used in winemaking in an attempt to prevent other wine faults, but when the winemaker is a bit heavy handed, or the levels are somehow thrown off the result can be…unpleasant.*
*Note – Sulfur is different from sulfites. Sulfites smell like a just-lit match, and are found naturally in wine. However, too many or an over-occurrence of sulfites can result in a smell like a matchbook.
Using the Coravin System to access and pour wine will protect against oxidation; by leaving the cork intact, oxygen never enters the bottle, leaving the remaining wine free of oxygen and preventing any oxidation. You can prevent heat and light exposure by storing your bottles properly. The rest of these flaws, however, are generally undetectable before opening the bottle and pouring. Learning to detect them will save you the trouble of drinking bad wine, and you'll know when it's time to send it back for a new bottle.