Most wine drinkers have had the disappointing experience of popping open an intensely anticipated bottle of wine to discover the contents had transformed into a putrid vinegary elixir. While that is an extreme example, even the most casual drinkers have likely endured the unpleasantness of a wine that just tastes ‘off’ or ‘not quite right’ even if it was still drinkable or slightly enjoyable. Although production practices today are technologically advanced and methodical, winemakers’ attempts to tame mother nature and eliminate problematic occurrences in the wines have been met with limited success. Surveys regularly report the estimated rate of defective wine bottles hovers around a stubborn ten percent, regardless of the region or vintage.
Distasteful wines can be described in two ways – those with flaws and those with faults. Flawed wines are generally those with minor faults. They contain a flavor that is normally present in the wine in a certain quantity, but is occurring in an excessive amount. This is similar to having too much salt in a soup. A small amount of salt is generally necessary in making a soup and adds welcome flavor in the right quantity; however, as the amount of salt increases, the quality of the soup decreases until it is unenjoyable. While the exact optimal amount of salt in the soup (or specific flavor in a wine) directly depends on the taste preferences of the person consuming it, a wine can be rightfully described as flawed if the majority of those drinking the wine agree that the overabundance of the offending aroma is detracting from the otherwise pleasing flavors of the wine. In contrast, wines that are regarded as having faults are generally undrinkable. A fault may be a severe iteration of a flaw and/or it can arise from the presence of mold or bacteria, missteps in the production process or mishandling of the finished product.
One of the more infamous wine faults is ‘cork taint’ and a wine exhibiting the characteristic moldy, musty odors and muted, flat flavors is called ‘corked.’ This common affliction can be sourced to a chemical compound, TCA, which is created during the process of sanitizing the corks in a winery. Although it is associated with natural corks, once the TCA invades a winery, it lives on the wine-making equipment and even wines with screw-caps and synthetic corks are vulnerable to its destructive aromas of wet dog, soggy cardboard and damp basement.
Although only two types of bacteria, acetobacter and lactic bacteria, can live in wine, they both change the chemical composition of the wine and are considered faults. Affected wines greet the nose with smells of sauerkraut, goat, spoiled cheese and even nail polish remover depending on the exact nature of the bacterial contamination. A common byproduct of this unfortunate occurrence is carbon dioxide, so a slight effervescence may be noted in the wine as well.
Although sulfur has earned a negative reputation due to its current prevalence in highly processed junk foods, it has been a ubiquitous component of the wine-making process since ancient times. It is used to stop the fermentation process, stabilize the wine, assist with color extraction and it even works as an antimicrobial agent. As with life, though, there can be too much of a good thing. Excessive amounts of sulfur can result in various wine faults that cause smells ranging from burnt matches to rotten eggs to garlic weeds and may or may not be accompanied by a burning sensation in the nose or throat. Grapes and wines with lower acidity have a tendency to also exhibit a rubbery fragrance.
Other faults traced to the production process include a yeasty or leesy aroma that is the result of leaving the wine in contact with dead yeast cells too long, typically associated with some sparkling wines. The use of under-ripe grapes creates a grassy, leafy smell known as green while the inclusion of too many stems in the press generates a bitter taste aptly known as stemmy. Additionally, a certain strain of yeast, Brettanomyces, can produce volatile compounds in wine which results in either a band-aid, medicinal flavor or a sweaty, horsey essence. Both instances are known as ‘Brett.’
Finally, mishandling or inappropriately storing a wine can create faults. Although the fault of oxidation, which refers to the liquid’s exposure to oxygen, can happen during the production process, most often it occurs after the wine is bottled. Air can seep in through the cork for many reasons. Commonly, this takes place when a bottle is stored upright and the cork dries out, when the wine is exposed to heat and expands pushing the cork out or when the wine is subjected to fluctuating temperatures and the pressure variations cause the cork to draw air into the bottle. It is interesting to note that Madeira, a fortified wine from Portugal, is purposely exposed to heat during production and is known as ‘maderized,’ a term that has been expanded to include the negative implication for any wine that showcases a cooked or baked flavor due to exposure to heat. Alternatively, wines exposed to ultraviolet light can be affected by a fault known as ‘lightstrike.’ This issue harms white wines in clear bottles giving them a wet, woolly perfume.
Wine lovers often wonder how in this day and age such a high percentage of wines can be substandard, but thinking about how many numerous ways there are for a wine to be damaged, it is almost shocking there are any excellent tasting ones at all. To that end, let’s look at the glass half full and celebrate all the great bottles that are able to be produced!
By: MaryJane Baker Vu