A bottle of wine is a surprisingly fragile thing, and I’m not just talking about what happens when you leave it too close to the edge of the table. Despite the best efforts of winemakers and retailers, unfortunately faults and flaws are more common than you’d think. Sometimes that wine you didn’t like wasn’t your thing, but sometimes there’s something wrong with that bottle (or the whole batch). So what can go wrong, and how can you know? The short answer is, you have to use your senses, and talk with the person who’s selling you the wine. Let’s talk about a few of them.
The Wine Smells Like Your Basement
If your wine smells like moldy cardboard or is lacking in any pleasing aromas at all, the chances are that Trichloroanisole (commonly called TCA) is to blame. It’s typically transmitted to the wine via a tainted cork (which is why those wines are often termed “corked”), but TCA can even be present in screw-capped wines, so don’t just assume that if there’s no cork you’re safe.
The Wine Smells Like Vinegar
You’ve probably left a bottle of wine open a bit longer than you should have; if so, you’ve learned that when exposed to oxygen, wine inevitably becomes vinegar. Well, either too much exposure to oxygen during winemaking, or a poorly-closed bottle can do the same thing before you ever open it.
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There are a few classic styles of wine that might have faint hints of vinegar; it’s fairly common in Italian red wines for one, so if this turns you off (or on), talk to your server or sommelier beforehand.
The Wine Smells Like Nail Polish Remover
A whole host of different yeasts can contribute to a wine’s fermentation. Some of them can produce compounds that don’t exactly smell like wine, like ethyl acetate. As with acetic acid above, individual preferences and tolerances can vary, but if you dislike this odor you should be a bit wary of wines that are fermented with wild yeasts, like natural wines. In less experienced hands, fermentations can quickly get out of control and produce some of these off odors.
The Wine Looks Discolored Or Faded
The color pigment in red wines decays over time, so if you’re ordering older bottles (10+ years old), don’t expect a vivid purple. But if you’re buying a relatively new wine, faded or rusty colors might be another sign of oxidation. There are a few varietals (Pinot Noir, Nebbiolo, Grenache) that are naturally low in pigment, but if you’re drinking Syrah or Cabernet Sauvignon, color can be key. The best way to examine color is to hold the bottle at a 45-degree angle away from you and look at both the center of the glass, and how the color changes as you move to the edge of the wine. A significant rim variation in a young red wine is rarely acceptable.
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Most of all, don’t be afraid to ask your server and sommelier their opinion. Yes, it can be scary, but restaurants can almost always get a refund from the distributor for a flawed bottle, and in any case they’ll undoubtedly want to make sure that you get the best possible wine in your glass.