Common Wine Faults

When you take your first taste from a bottle of wine are you experiencing the vintner’s intentional style or some sort of accident?  The degree to which wine faults are considered problematic often lies in the nose (or palate) of the beholder and it’s often hard to tell the difference.

Here’s a guide to seven common wine faults, plus two situations you can happily ignore.

Brett

If the smell of the wine reminds you of a barnyard, horse stable or a band-aid, the wine may contain Brettanomyces yeast.  Many wines, including really good ones, have small amounts of brett.

Brett is most prevalent in red wines.  At lower concentrations, it can add a spicy, leathery note to a wine. People’s thresholds of perception of brett vary.  Some people don’t notice it while others are more sensitive. Brett does not pose a health concern.

Brett can develop in wine at any point during production. The yeast can be on the grapes or can be in barrels. There are lots of opportunities for brett to occur.

Corked Wine

About 5% of the world’s wines are corked, which leads to a less than pleasant wine-drinking experience.  If you smell the wine before drinking it will help determine whether or not it is corked.  If it smells okay, taste it to make sure that it has the strong, fresh flavors you expected when you bought it.   If wine is corked, it will have an odor that you wouldn’t expect from a good wine. It may smell musty, or like a dank towel, wet dog, wet cardboard or newspaper.  Your first sniff is more reliable than later sniffs. Trust your first whiff.

Wine becomes corked when it is exposed to  “2,4,6-Trichloroanisole” (TCA), a naturally occurring compound that may be found in the cork of the wine bottle.  TCA forms when natural fungi present in corks comes into contact with certain chemicals found in sanitation and sterilization products used in wineries.

Taste the wine. If the wine has only been exposed to a small amount of TCA, it may be difficult to decide for sure whether or not it is corked by just smelling it. The taste of the wine will be dull and will not exhibit any fruit characteristics.  A wine that is only slightly corked may lack aroma and have very little taste. It may even taste like paint thinner.

It may not be the cork in the bottle that caused the contamination. You may come across a bottle of wine with a screw top that tastes as though it is corked. In this case, the wine may have become contaminated in the barrel before it was bottled.

Many people mistakenly believe that corked wine is just wine that has little bits of cork floating in the wine. This is not the case. Although pieces of cork in your wine may be annoying, the wine itself is perfectly fine, unlike corked wine, which is generally undrinkable

Cooked / Manderized

Cooked or manderized wine is not mulled wine but is wine that has been exposed to heat levels that cause the wine to spoil. If you have ever bought a case of wine while on a summertime trip to wine country and stored it in your car’s trunk you may have been surprised to find it tasted completely different than when you bought it. A temperature of a mere 24 degrees Celsius (75 degrees Fahrenheit) can be sufficient to spoil the taste.

White wine affected by temperature will appear brownish in colour and will have the flavour of flat baked fruit or nutty flavours.  Red wine will taste roasted, stewed or jammy with a raisin flavour.

Other indications of a cooked wine include finding that the cork is very difficult to remove. Essentially when the wine is exposed to high temperatures the cork expands. The cork might be extremely hard to pull out or may even be visibly forcing itself out of the bottle.

If the wine bottle is not cool to touch then you’re probably not storing it properly. A common misnomer is that room temperature is adequate for wine storage. It’s actually advised that wine should be stored at cellar temperature, which can be 10 degrees Celsius cooler than standard room temperature. To keep it cool during the summer months, either get a small wine fridge or keep it in a cool dry place like your basement.  For additional information on cellaring wine see my August 24, 2019 blog, “Drink or lay down and how to cellar those you keep”.

Over-The-Hill

Over-the-hill wine is wine that has been stored too long.  The colour of the wine will appear faded and less vibrant and the taste will be rather flat, having lost its freshness and structure.  Only about 10% of all wine produced is suitable for long term retention.  Most wines are ready for consumption the day you bring them home from the store. 

Oxidization

As soon as wine encounters oxygen it begins to break down, or “open up,” as some people say. Oxygen allows the aromas in wine to become more present, making it easier to identify the aroma. Oxygen also softens the mouthfeel of wine which occurs due to the breaking down of tannins, the cause of that harsh, dry sensation you may feel along your cheeks and tongue. Decanting is extremely beneficial in young reds, whose bright acidity and gripping tannins can seem austere and unpleasant at first. See my November 9, 2019 post, “To Breathe or not to Breathe” for additional information.

However, too much oxygen can lead to oxidation and  the degradation of the wine. This can happen during wine production or even after the wine has been bottled. Basically all oxygen needs is a simple catalyst for the reaction to occur. Think of an apple that’s been sliced and left out too long; the abundance of oxygen causes the flesh to brown, the aromas to dissipate and the flavors to disappear. The same thing occurs in the oxidation of wine.

If there is too much oxygen in white wine it will be ruddy or brownish in colour and will have the smell of spoiled cider, nuts or dried leaves.  Red wine will take on an orange brick colour and will taste lifeless and flat.

Reduction

Reduction is the opposite of oxidization.  It occurs when there is too little exposure to oxygen.  In this case the wine will take on a sulfuric smell like that of a struck match or the smell of garlic, rubber or rotten eggs.

Reduction occurs during the wine making process and can often be cured simply by introducing oxygen during the fermentation process. However, if reduction appears in a finished bottled wine, it is a clear flaw and while decanting will usually clear it up, some wines are permanently reduced and about all that can be done is to put a penny (if you still have one) in the wine.

Slight reduction is not something to worry about because the basic characteristics of the wine are still evident. Heavy reduction that extends to the flavours makes a wine almost impossible to accurately judge and if the condition is left untreated it can permanently mark a wine.

Volatile Acidity

If the wine contains extremely high levels of acetic acid it will have the smell of nail polish or vinegar. Small amounts are generally not noticeable by most people as the human threshold for detecting it is about 600 to 900 mg/L. It is likely to be present anytime you see “high-toned” fruit flavors in a tasting note. It can offer a tangy edge that works well with food that could use a little pizazz.

Volatile acidity occurs during the wine making process and is often associated with oxidation problems in a wine due to overexposure to oxygen and/or a lack of sulfur dioxide management. Acetic acid bacteria require oxygen to grow and proliferate.

Decanting will often help the sharp aromas disappear.

Perceived Faults

Though often mistaken for wine faults, wine diamonds and sediment are common phenomenon that are perfectly normal, and won’t harm the flavour of your wine.

Wine Diamonds

These are crystals that appear in the bottom of the bottle or glass.  They are a tartrate deposit that form when naturally occurring potassium and tartaric acid combine and sink. While winery techniques mostly prevent it from happening, they are harmless.

Sediment

Sediment is dark, grainy material that can accumulate in the bottom or side of a red wine bottle.  Sediment occurs for a couple of reasons.

Wine producers may elect not to filter their wines.  They do this to preserve flavour and texture. This leaves particles that with time settle to the bottom.

The second reason relates to aging. Research indicates a combination of acid, tannin and color compounds bond and separate from the wine. Fortunately, sediment is innocuous and is easily removed by decanting the wine before serving.

Final Thoughts

Although any of these situations may impede your enjoyment of wine, none of them are detrimental.  It several of the cases these flaws are part of the personality of the wine.  Many times I have read wine reviews that contain “hints of leather”, “earthy”, “nutty”, as part of their description.  As they say, “Beauty (or taste in this case) lies in the eyes of the beholder”.

Sláinte mhaith

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