Friday, December 9, 2011

A beginner's guide to flawed wines

Sometimes, the bottle of wine you open at home or order at a restaurant is flawed. That doesn't mean you made a poor choice and bought a crummy wine. As a delicate, living product, wine can go bad, like milk, produce, meat, or anything else. People feel enough anxiety about wine to begin with, and deciding whether a particular bottle may be flawed could enough to induce a panic attack. But just as drinking wine is as simple as going with what you like, picking out flawed bottles isn't too tough. While there are a litany of possible defects and, as with anything involving wine, geeks can parse the nuances of each flaw until it induces you to drink even if the wine is spoiled, it is worth being familiar with a handful of common signs that a wine is defective. You'll grow more comfortable once you've encountered some of these bad characteristics, but hopefully you don't run into them too often.

1. "Cork Taint"
This probably is the most common flaw you'll run into. You may hear it called "TCA," which is an abbreviation for the chemical compound that causes cork to ruin wines. No need to bore you with the science; you can read more in-depth information for general audiences at the Wine Spectator. "Corked" wine is also among the easiest flaws to pick out. Have you ever smelled a cardboard box that sat in a garage during the humid, rainy Houston summer? That is basically what cork taint smells like. It makes the wine smell musty or like damp, moldy cardboard.

Your first indication that a wine might be corked is by smelling the cork itself. It is that plug of cork bark itself that imparts the TCA bacteria on a wine and ruins it. (A side note: it is possible for a cork to smell corked but for wine to be untouched.) If you smell that musty aroma coming from the wine in the glass? Send the wine back at a restaurant, which should bring out another bottle at no charge. Or put the cork back in and return it to where you bought it. Any self-respecting merchant will honor your return, even years after a purchase. You should get your purchase price refunded, receive store credit, or take home a replacement bottle of the same wine from a recent (if not the same) vintage. This is the same resolution a restaurant, retailer, or winery should give you for any flawed wine.

2. "Brett"
"Brett" is short for "brettanomyces," which is a bacteria that, not to be rude about it, makes a wine smell like crap. Literally. Some diplomatically refer to the aroma of brett as "barnyard," but make no mistake: brett is, at its core, a flaw. Some might argue a bit of brett in wine adds complexity -- and, indeed, it can be nice to have a hint of brett in wine. The French wines of Burgundy and the Rhone are most commonly linked with (and even renowned for, in some cases) moderate brett levels.

But brett is, without a doubt, a bacteria that can destroy wine. Perhaps you have a threshold for enjoying brett, which is most often found in red wines; perhaps you are as intolerant to it as you should be of cork taint. If a wine is too full of brett for you? Send it back.

3. "Cooked"
Cooked wine is a unique problem among wine flaws. This is one instance where, in most cases, you can't blame the winery. Whereas cork taint, brett, and the other faults listed here are without a doubt imparted at the time the wine is made or bottled, a wine is cooked somewhere in the supply chain -- either during delivery or storage. When a wine is cooked, it takes on aromas and flavors that are stewed and, yes, cooked. This can be somewhat difficult to ascertain in an era when wines are riper than ever before, but a wine that is cooked as opposed to simply overripe will display a dull, blunted palate presence.

Another sign that a wine may have been cooked somewhere between the winery and your glass again comes from the cork. When wine heats up, as with other liquids, it expands. Sometimes, the wine will saturate the cork or even seep out the top of it if the wine has been exposed to extreme heat -- like you might remember we get in Houston on occasion.

You can avoid cooked wines by paying attention to whether wine has seeped out of the top of the cork or capsule. In addition, think twice if you walk into a wine shop, and they're touting a "new arrival" in the summer months. Ask if the distributor or winery shipped the wine using climate-controlled delivery methods. If not, you may be set up for a cooked wine. Also, if buying wine direct from the producer, they should not ship when temperatures are 80 degrees or warmer. As a courtesy, most wines will hold your wine for shipment until the weather is suitable.

4. "Premature Oxidation"
You might also hear the term "maderized" to describe a wine that essentially has aged before its time. Maderized white wines -- the most common victims of this flaw -- are easy to spot. They'll generally have a surprisingly dark yellow or even brown color. And they will smell and taste like Madeira. This flaw is a particular problem in the white wines of Burgundy from 1996 to the present, but any wine can suffer from oxidation. You shouldn't have to drink a wine that has died before its time, so send it back.

5. "Reduction"
Have you ever stuck your nose in a glass of wine only to be greeted by an unpleasant burnt rubber smell? That is reduction. Often a side effect of a wine not being exposed to enough oxygen during the winemaking process, reduction also seems to be more pronounced in wines sealed under screw caps. Screw caps seal the wine almost flawlessly, causing reduction to take much longer to resolve. (And most of the time it does resolve with time in bottle.)

But the truth is that a reduced wine is as much fun to drink as a grilled tire is to eat. Reduction dominates a wine's bouquet and blunts the palate. It makes it undrinkable, and you should send it back.

How to handle returning the wine
It's understandable that you might feel apprehension if you believe something is wrong with a wine. If you're at a restaurant, you should be able to consult a sommelier for his opinion. Be mindful, though, that sensitivity to cork taint, or any other flaw, is individualized. Even very experienced, passionate, and knowledgeable wine drinkers may have less keen sensitivities to these flaws. Trust your own palate. If something seems amiss, ask for a second or third opinion.

You may encounter an unprofessional wine shop or waiter or sommelier who refuses to acknowledge an obvious flaw or tries to belittle or bully you about a bad bottle. Good wines are sometimes bad. Anyone in the business consumer knows this. Flawed wines also are returned or sent back with regularity. Depending on which estimates you trust, between 3 and 8 percent of wines are faulty, and wineries, wholesalers, retailers, and restaurants know that dealing with flawed bottles is a cost of doing business. Ultimately, it is your discretion and any important circumstances on a given occasion that determine how hard you push the issue, but bringing an establishment's attention to flawed bottles is nothing to be embarrassed about.


SirRon said...

Great summary. I hate sending wine (or food) back at restaurants, but if I do, I do my best to be certain that I'm right about the flaw.

Anonymous said...

Great details. Thanks!