The moment of truth: that much anticipated wine was ordered and now the bottle has been uncorked with the first splash in the glass to assess – all eyes are on you. Aside from the proper way to swirl and taste, it’s important to know wine being corked is only one flaw that can foil a perfect bottle. There are actually 5 other culprits which have different telltales worth learning. From an odds perspective, the occurrence of corked wine is much less than 10%, with many experts saying less than 2%, so chances are your wine could be flawed from other things beyond TCA. Hence, with the holidays upon us, it’s very timely to know the other five.
Here’s a rundown of everything you need to know to feel more confident the next time you go to taste that special selection from the wine list...
1. Corked wine – The most well known reason for rejecting a wine, yet sometimes tricky to detect. In short, this is called cork taint resulting from TCA (trichloroanisole) which can cause a musty or moldy aroma (which can also be confused with “brett” which is more “barnyard” and actually an intended attribute). Without getting into a chemistry lesson, this condition can result from the sterilization of corks or with compounds in the cork itself. Either way, you’re dealing with organic matter, so there will inherently be the risk regardless of how flawless the cork process. Hence, why many wineries have moved to synthetic corks or glass toppers.
2. Maderized wine – Also known simply as “cooked wine”. As you might guess, this is when the wine has been exposed to high temperatures either during production, storage or transportation. The result is a strong toffee or wet cardboard profile and likely a browning discoloration. This is an unfortunate but quite easy fate, as once a bottle leaves the winery it is subject to several hand-offs before it gets to the shelf at your local store or restaurant. Whether on a tractor trailer, delivery truck or distributor’s trunk, there are many opportunities where that juice might bake in the sun.
3. Oxidized wine – This is where wine has likely been stored vertically versus horizontal causing the cork to dry out and shrink, allowing air to come in contact with the wine. Or a cork can also have a natural defect in the form of a long channel which can allow oxygen to pass (though this is usually caught during quality control of cork suppliers). The resulting profile impact is similar to maderized wine.
4. Fizzy wine – This is something you have likely experienced but may have been puzzled by. It happens from wine undergoing a second fermentation, or re-fermentation. This happens when some live yeast still exists with sugar. Unless you ordered bubbly, no still wine should have detectable fizz.
5. Hazy wine – This is the most difficult condition to assess, as all varietals and wine making styles result in varying levels of clarification. That said, if a wine looks particularly cloudy and the taste is off, you should avoid.
6. Acetic wine – This is easiest of faults to detect, as the wine will smell and taste similar to vinegar. A host of causes from any of the above, or multiple combined, can bring about this most harsh demise of wine.
Okay there you have it – the Big 6 to watch out for when ordering wine. Though all this aside, if you’re not sure the wine is tasting right – just speak up. Tasting a bottle is not an urgent or binary process, you’re not forced to pass judgement within five seconds. If you’re questioning a certain attribute, just ask the sommelier or waitperson and they should be able to talk through it and assure you (or take it back themselves). If it feels tight, it may need to open up and needs decanting. Or it may have been stored slightly cooler and the full profile may not be apparent to the palate. Whatever the concern, politely voice it and a resolve should result. I’ve seen too many people just say “yes” and then fret for the next hour over whether the wine is right instead of enjoying their meal. Or worse, drink half the bottle and then decide to send it back (big no-no). Somms take great pride in pleasing guests with wine, they’re your friend and there to help.
- Mike Casey, The 29 Napa