Have you ever been in a restaurant and ordered the seemingly perfect dessert only to have your heart broken by the anguish of disappointment? What about receiving that first ding on a brand new car?
These are the feelings a wine enthusiast must learn to cope with when they encounter a bottle gone bad.
I've experienced this several times and can attest that the experience is both infuriating and heartbreaking. For example, several weeks ago we prepared a multi-course dinner menu in the hopes of pairing with a glass of vintage, 25-year-old champagne. Like a kid on Christmas morning, taking the cage and wrapper off of the bottle I could barely contain my excitement. However, the fates were not on my side. The odors of wet dog and cardboard filled my glass, accompanied by not the elegance of bubbles but rather a still and lack-luster shadow of what once was. While the dinner itself was amazing, I could not help but imagine the symphony that was to happen had the wine been on the same level.
But what makes these “bottles go bad?”
While the subject sounds like a series of ‘90s cop investigation shows or a debunking of white collar crimes, the topic nonetheless is one that needs to be discussed for the emerging wine enthusiast readying to tackle such sadness.
Beginning wine drinkers know to smell the wine as part of the 5 S’s of wine tasting, but for what exactly? Of course, we smell the wine to pick up on the aromas and bouquet of the wine. But the nasal olfactory sensors are also our first detection of a wine that’s gone bad, saving us the displeasure of taking the first sip of vinegar or otherwise.
With that, let’s unpack and sniff thru some key faults wine enthusiasts look for when it comes to sniffing their favorite wines:
Trichloroanisole, or TCA, is used to describe a wine that is commonly referred to as “corked.” Often described as the smell of wet and moldy cardboard, this compound deflates the overall bouquet of the wine and often comes across as tasting flat. Affecting a small percentage of wines, they can be tainted with the chemical compound if the wine comes in contact with the substance found in some fungicides and packing materials. There’s little that can be done to salvage a wine when TCA is detected, short of adding the bottle to the recycle bin.
Ethyl acetate develops when acetic acid and ethanol react in the wine during the production process and results in aromas of nail polish remover.
Hydrogen sulfide occurs when yeast in a wine’s fermentation process does not receive adequate nutrition (sugars) and can result in a wine that smells of rotten eggs, burning rubber and other unpleasant odors.
Brettanomyces is yeast growth that gives a wine smells that range from smoke and cloves on the mild end to barnyard and band-aid in more extreme cases. As with volatile acidity, the presence of Brettanomyces is favorable in some wine productions to a point but can easily become out of balance.
Volatile acidity is the term used to describe wines that have developed the bacteria acetobacter during fermentation-producing acetic acid commonly found in the wine vinegars you see in your pantry. You will note the smell immediately in extreme cases, but it’s also important to note that this smell is sometimes favorable in wine, at least to a point.
Some of the faults that may be detected in wines occur during the production process at the winery and cannot feasibly be avoided. However, faults such as oxidation (excessive aging or improper storage) or maderization (result of heat fluctuations) of wines can be avoided by following proper storage conditions in your home.
While the average wine enthusiast cannot justify the addition of a temperature-controlled wine cellar of 55 degrees, the main rule to follow is consistency. Try to find a space in your home that’s both cool (less than 68 degrees year round, if possible) and out of direct sunlight; often a basement closet fits the bill. Wines are best preserved when kept under constant conditions and if followed can offer your wines sanctuary for many years until they are consumed. Fluctuations in temperature, excessive movement, vibration and/or sunlight are all sure fire ways to go from a once beautiful bottle of Bordeaux to swill.
This column may be little consolation if, like me several weeks ago, you find yourself with a wine completely tainted with TCA and oxidized beyond repair. But for the wine enthusiast in all of us, these hiccups are what makes the journey into wine even more special. Appreciating each glass as a successful transformation from grape to glass for the enjoyment of its beholder.