Does your wine taste funny?
If you drink enough wine, you will eventualy come across the “bad” bottle. It’s one of wine’s hazards and the cost of doing business for a winery. But what’s troublesome is that three out of four times a wine is sent back, but not because it’s flawed technically, but rather it’s that the customer’s experience with wine is limited.
Most people who drink wine purchase it at a Wine and Spirits Store, or, if you’re lucky enough to live in a state other than Pennsylvania, at a large box store. It’s extremely rare that they would encounter a bad bottle because these types of stores stock wine that is produced on a large scale using industrial methods, whereby the wines are manipulated, filtered, stabilized and, in general, robbed of any element that could produce variations.
While these large scale wines are almost always pleasant and technically consistent, they lack character and, for lack of a better word, “soul.” With real winemaking comes vintage variation, differences in taste and style as well as some byproducts that are far from being flaws. They are, in fact, indications of a wine’s quality and natural origin. Wine sales and wine consumption is at an all-time high in the United States, so now is a good time to familiarize yourself with these byproducts and what is and isn’t a flawed wine.
This is wine that has been exposed to high temperatures either in storage and handling or in shipping. This leaves the wine with a “baked” or “stewed” flavor. This can happen in hot weather if the wine was shipped without temperature control. There will often be a bitter sediment residue from the exposure if the wine is unfiltered, which is something factory produced wines seldom see. Another telltale sign is wine seepage from the cork and along the bottleneck, though this isn’t always the case. Wine seepage can occur when there is a high fill at bottling and a wine is stored horizontally. When in doubt, always taste the wine before assuming it is flawed.
This wine has the smell and taste of a moldy, musty stench that reminds you of wet cardboard or a damp basement. This is caused by faulty corks that have been in contact with a fungus, which usually comes from the cork producers rather than the winery itself. This is commonly referred to as “TCA.” The level of taint can vary, from a strong obvious odor to a “dried out” taste to a lack of fruit to a slight hint of mold. This is the primary reason why so many wineries choose to bottle with screw caps and that takes this problem out of the equation.
Although oxidation is an important process in the production and maturing of wine, helping to soften a wine’s tannin or integrate its acidity, unintentional oxidation can occur, causing the wine to be flawed. To prevent this in the winemaking process, wine is “topped off” in tank or barrel to prevent excessive exposure to oxygen. Exposure to oxygen can also occur over time when a wine has been on the shelf for too long or opened for a long period of time without any form of preservation (nitrogen, argon, etc.). Some wines are produced intentionally with this style, which was the norm hundreds of years ago. Examples are Sherry, Madeira and wines from the Jura and northeastern Italy. A good rule of thumb is to know the wine style from experience and weigh the wine in question against the normal characteristics of the wine. When in doubt refer to your wine retailer or sommelier.
Sediments and Crystals
Sediments and crystals are the natural byproduct in the production of handcrafted wine. Neither of these are true faults, but both have the potential to spoil the experience unless they are understood. Sedimentation within the bottle is a natural occurrence in many wines, generally those designed to withstand some ageing, and it simply reflects the solid matter settling out of the wine. It’s a sign of a naturally produced wine and is really a plus. The cure for this is decanting. Tip: This is not a cause for returning the wine.
This one is a little trickier. For those accustomed to drinking New World wines that emphasize fruit and lots of new oak, the first taste of Italian or French wine may be a bit different. (This is a good thing.) Many wines tend to be drier and oftentimes reflect the place they come from. That can be the soil including rocks and minerals as well as the vegetation that grows nearby. This taste of place is generally called “terroir.” For someone expecting the sensation of drinking a “fruit bomb” this may be a disappointment, but it isn’t a failure on the wine’s part.
It would be a boring world if all wine was produced with identical results and identical sensations. There is no guarantee that every wine will be to everyone’s taste. But that’s the beauty of wine. It’s ever changing and will meet you on whatever level you’re prepared to go. When it comes to trying new wines, the best way to ensure a great experience is to expand your tastes and your level of adventure. We hope that we’re able to help with that search during our monthly tastings.