23 Mar 2011

The Author

Amy Zavatto writes about wine, spirits, and food for a mess of different publications, including Imbibe, Edible Manhattan, Every Day with Rachael Ray, and Frommer's. She's the co-author of The Renaissance Guide to Wine & Food Pairing and the author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Bartending. Amy lives, eats, and drinks in NYC and cannot live without pasta.

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Good Wine Gone Bad
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Wine Faults: Good Wine Gone Bad

You are sitting in your favorite restaurant. You are surrounded by a few good friends, or family members, or perhaps a couple of make-you-or-break-you business associates. At any rate, a group of people who are hoping to drink well – and they’ve given you the task of selecting the wine.

Okay, no problem! You can do this. Easy-peezy. You take a survey of what everyone plans to order for their meal. You scan the wine list and find a bottle you love that you know can play well with the different foods at the table. It arrives, it’s presented to you, and, yes indeed, it is the right bottle and vintage. Then a little is poured for you to test drive, and you give it a little swirl, lift it to your nose, and… oh, whoa. Wow. No!

The subject of judging whether a good wine has gone bad can cause a whole lot of anxiety for a wine drinker who’s left in the position of Flavor Gate Keeper. What if it’s bad? What if you don’t know the difference? What if you don’t send it back and everyone’s meal is ruined? What if you DO and the sommelier is pissed off, or worse, disagrees with you? What if you’re wrong??! It’s enough to make a you need a nip of whiskey to steady your nerves before you even get to taste the wine. And that’s just not how it ought to be.

So what’s the difference between a wine with a serious fault and a wine that you simply just don’t like? And how can you tell? There are some really funky wines out there, for sure. But there’s a big difference between funky and “oh, girl, no!” In fact, we have an entire portion of this blog devoted to the topic of funkalicious vino—the ones that smell like petrol or band-aids or pencil led or horse hair. Freaky as that might sound, these can be good things—really good things! And my co-blogger Adam Eisenberg’s kick-off entry on the topic is one you definitely need to check out.

But there’s funky and there’s ewwwww-funky! The latter being our topic here today. What follows is a smelly, stinky, down, and dirty crib sheet of the bad stuff to keep your nostrils peeled for:

  1. Corked. The classic, tell-tale sign of a corked wine is when you take a sniff and… ugh. It smells like that time you had a flood in your basement and all the cardboard boxes you stored your high school yearbooks in got wet and the resulting aroma of musty, nasty, damp, gross paper was what you were left with. Yuck. If you smell that hideous aroma, your good wine has gone bad. Another telltale, though early, sign (although admittedly harder to pin-point) for corked wine: A complete lack of fruit in the aroma. A caveat here though – many wines take time to open up and reveal themselves and need a little time mingling around in the fresh air to give you what they’ve got. If you don’t smell any fruit at all at first, don’t panic—just give it a few minutes. And  if you’re not sure, don’t be afraid to ask your somm – they don’t want you to drink bad wine either, and they definitely want to get credit from the producer in question for wines that were no good. What about if you open a bottle and your cork falls apart? Nope. That’s just the result of a wine that wasn’t stored properly—but it doesn’t mean your wine is corked. Just that your cork has gone kaput.
  2. Reductive. Reading a word like that, you might deduce that it has something to do with evaporation of the wine, but that’s not the issue here. (Good guess, though!) The thing that has been reduced in this instance is the presence of oxygen. While you don’t want to have too much oxygen in your bottle (see oxidation below) you do need a little bit because when a wine lacks too much, it encourages the flourishing of reduced sulfuric compounds hanging around in the juice. And what happens in that perfect storm of a situation? The wines give off the smell of sulfur — rotten eggs, oniony aromas, gas, or really pungent burnt matches. Ever driven by the beach at low tide? Yeah, like that. Not so yummy. But while reduced sulfuric compounds exist in any ol’ wine, the chances are if you smell this, it’s going to be from a) a white wine and b) a bottle with a screwcap because corks are better equipped to absorb odors. Screwcaps tend to trap and hold aromas, both good (freshness and fruit!) and bad (sulfer).
  3. Oxidation. A little oxygen is good. Like I was saying in an earlier blog post here on wine tasting, you need some air in your glass to release all the great aromas a wine has in store for you. But too much, over time, causes a wine to deteriorate and, bleh, lose all its smell and taste deliciousness. Think about it: Grapes are, after all, fruit. And what happens when you are sitting at your desk and bite into, say, a nice juicy apple, put it down, and forget all about it for a few hours? It turns brown, it starts to taste not so fresh, and definitely kind of gross. Oxidation at your service.
  4. Volatile acidity. All wines contain volatile compounds – they’re what give them their aromas. But volatile acidity ain’t one of the good ones. While it might sound like the perfect name for a death metal band, it’s actually the presence of out-o’-control acids in wine—most notably, acedic acid–that makes it smell like nail-polish remover or vinegar. Bad stuff. No one wants their Nebbiolo to smell like a nail salon.

I really hope this little round Cliffy-Sniffy Notes for Wine Faults helps you next time you’re in charge and unsure of what you’re smelling. After all, life’s too short to drink bad wine.

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