If you've ever had this misfortune of being served a stinky bottle of not-so-perfectly-preserved wine, you have my condolences.
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Few things are so disappointing to a wine lover as anticipating an intoxicatingly aromatic blend of fruit, earth, and maybe a hint of spice and instead being greeted with the bottled-up equivalent of a grape-soaked dirty gym soak. What, gag-inducing funk doesn’t pair so well with your grass-fed filet mignon? Shocker.
While wine faults may still be the exception rather than the norm, they do occur – the problem is that the average wine drinker doesn’t actually know what fault their wine has. (Surprise! Not all “off” wines are actually “corked”.) By understanding what’s really ailing your once highly anticipated bottle of wine you can better understand this living, breathing entity you so enjoy quaffing, leading to better overall appreciation of wine – as well as the ability to more ably send back those bottles that just aren’t up to standard.
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How You Know: That bottle of Cab? Yeah, it shouldn’t be bubbly. If it is, chances are it’s because the bottle has undergone secondary fermentation.
Why/How It Happened: If a wine has perhaps been bottled in nonsterile conditions and some little bit of naughtiness crept in the mix, yeast may start comingling with residual sugar in the wine, thereby setting of a chain reaction similar to what winemakers use (in controlled situations) to make sparkling wines. You won’t like the uncontrolled result.
What To Do: Please don’t drink it. Everything is better with Champagne except wines that aren’t Champagne (or other sparkling wines). If your wine isn’t supposed to be bubbly (be aware of some “still” wines that are intended to be frizzante, or slightly fizzy, like Txakoli, Vinho Verde, Gavi, Moscato d’Asti, Lambrusco, even some Gruner Veltliner, and more), chuck it.
Stewed or Cooked Wine
How You Know: The wine actually smells and tastes hot, like wine you cooked down on your stove. The fruit will taste boiled and blown out, with little nuance – think your Grandma’s jam, mid-processing, or that gastrique you could never quite get right.
Why/How it Happened: Not all retailers know how to store wine properly, and if their wine delivery is left in the sun or in boxes on a hot dock too long, this is what happens.
What to Do: A cooked wine is a dead wine. Just try not to be the source of this problem;you’re your wine from reputable sources and store them at the proper temperature – not in the trunk of your car, your garage, or your friend Bob’s pool house.
Corked (aka Cork Taint, aka TCA (2,4,6-Trichloroanisole)
How You Know: Ah, cork taint… we meet again. I know somms who have noses like bloodhounds when it comes to sussing out a case of TCA. They can literally walk through a crowded, food-and-guest filled dining room and smell a tainted bottle from a table or two away. Once you’ve smelled this nasty combination of dirty, flooded basement, wet dog, and moldy newspaper, you won’t soon forget it either.
Why/How it Happened: TCA is a very powerful chemical and just a hint of its presence can turn into a big problem. TCA is naturally occurring and thrives in natural cork, so it’s sometimes introduced to wine during the bottle process via the cork (hence this fault’s nickname), but any natural element used in the wine-making process, including but not limited to barrels, cardboard containers, wood winemaking utensils, etc., could be the culprit.
What to Do: Do. Not. Drink. It tastes every bit as disgusting as you might imagine. Toss or send back to the retailer/producer/sommelier – this is a faulty wine, and you shouldn’t be paying for it.
Note: Most reputable sources will accept the return of truly faulted wines (that means wines that are subpar, not wines you just decide you don’t like) and give you either a new bottle or credit on your purchase. If you eat at a restaurant or buy from a wine store that won’t replace or refund a bad bottle of wine, that should be the last time you visit.