Several weeks ago in the post What’s Up With That Wine I Liked? we looked at possible reasons why a wine that tasted good during a tasting might not live up to expectations once we open a bottle at home. We looked at concepts called “carryover” and “adaptation” and how they affect how we taste things including wine. This post will introduce some common wine flaws that can turn a previously enjoyed wine into something quite different.
As background and a refresher from the last post, I’m working my way through Texas Tech’s Oenology certificate program for winemakers and this past summer I took a class called “Sensory Evaluation for Winemakers.” The class was for current and future winemakers to learn various methods (sight, smell, taste) of evaluating their wines to identify flaws, astringency, sweetness, bitterness, different types of oak, and varietal differences. As you can imagine it’s important for winemakers to be able to identify all these characteristics whether desired or not.
If you’ve bought more than a couple dozen bottles of wine, you’ve more than likely run across some “flawed” wine. It could be after tasting something you purchased and found that a bottle or two just didn’t meet your expectations. Or perhaps you have a favorite “go to” wine for parties or social visits and then one time the wine was terrible or wasn’t quite up to par.
This won’t be an exhaustive list but will cover some of the most common flaws and how to pick them out when tasting wine. Hopefully you’ll gain some confidence to bring up a possible flaw to a tasting room server, winemaker, or winery owner.
The first and most common flaw is referred to as “cork taint” or TCA. This will be evident with an aroma described as “wet cardboard/newspaper,” “musty,” or “moldy.” It is caused by a mold in cork, the barrels, or the environment in the winery. Any addition of chlorine into the sanitation process can encourage the growth of TCA. Winemakers should keep chlorine out of their winery and that includes the use of chlorinated water.
My wife and I were at one of our favorite Napa Valley wineries enjoying a tasting of their entry level Chardonnay. The tasting room server wanted us to experience their top of the line reserve Chardonnay and poured us a taste. He was sure that our reaction would be very positive. Right away we noticed the “wet newspaper” smell and the taste was very dull. I flagged down “John” and asked him to take a smell. He knew right away that it was TCA and was very embarrassed to see that the bottle he poured our serving from was almost empty. This meant that several other tasters that day tasted a very expensive bottle of wine and more than likely came away disappointed. Of course, he dumped the rest of the bottle and poured us a taste of a Chardonnay that lived up to the expectation of a reserve wine from this winery. If a wine you’re tasting at a winery seems off, just ask the server to smell and/or taste it. Most times without commentary they will pick up the flaw too.
It should be noted that people have different thresholds of sensitivity to cork taint where some get it with small amounts of TCA. However, individuals not sensitive to TCA often report a loss of “fruit” aromatics but no “mustiness.” If a winery is saturated with TCA, high adaptation rates may make it difficult for winery personnel to detect if their cellar is infected.
Have you ever been wine tasting or opened a bottle of wine at home and the aroma made you think “barnyard” or “manure?” This describes another common wine flaw called Brettanomyces or “Brett.” It should be noted that Brett in some forms adds to character of wine and is considered an improvement. Positive descriptors of Brett are “complex,” “mature,” or “spicy.” If controlled, Brett of these types can improve a wine.
Brett that causes wine to be flawed can have negative descriptors such as “sweaty horse saddle,” “wet dog,” “manure,” “barnyard,” “plastic,” “Band-Aid,” “medicinal,” or “burnt.” There are multiple metabolic compounds that contribute to Brett and singularly or in combination cause different aromas and tastes. Simply put, phenols, acids, and/or differing acids can contribute to Brett. All you need to know is your wine smells or tastes funny.
Early in our wine tasting adventures, we were at a Texas winery and when one of the wines was poured for us I blurted out that it smelled like a “barnyard.” The look the tasting room server gave me told me that wasn’t normal. At the time I didn’t know whether it was normal or what was to be expected. In retrospect, I would have expected the tasting room staff to investigate and open another bottle.
The last common flaw we’ll look at is oxidative spoilage. Like Brett, this is caused by several things such as acetaldehyde, acetic acid, ethyl acetate, and accelerated aging. The simplest descriptor is vinegar (acidic acid) and is usually caused by too much exposure to oxygen after wine is fermented. This is why you’ll hear about winemakers “topping up” barrels post-fermentation. It’s impossible to completely eradicate this type of oxidation.
Other characteristics of this flaw could be a “nail polish” aroma caused by ethyl acetate and its common cause is wild yeasts strains early in fermentation. Presence of acetaldehyde is described by a “bruised apple” aroma and is also caused by some yeasts with acetic acid.
Another experience early on in wine tasting was at another Texas winery. It was a busy wine trail weekend (I won’t say which one) and we were poured a wine at one winery on the trail that was supposed to be one of the top wines at this location. However, as soon as I put my nose in it I thought something was wrong. It burned my nose. No aroma, just a burn. The taste was flat and not good at all. I’m not sure if it was the one bottle or the whole batch but I know that winery was pouring that wine all day. I was “new” enough in tasting wine that I didn’t have the confidence to say something about it, but it would have been good to have one of the staff at least smell the wine they were serving.
The purpose of this post is not to turn loose an army of Texas wine drinkers on unsuspecting tasting rooms looking for wine flaws. It’s a primer to give readers an idea of some flaws in wine they might encounter. It should also give some confidence to “say something” if you think there may be an issue. A simple “would you smell this?” will often lead the staff to come to their own conclusion that there is something wrong with the wine—at least the bottle that’s being poured. Wineries want you to buy their wine or join their wine club and would be grateful to have the chance to pull “bad” bottles out of the rotation so you’re tasting their best wine. Usually it’s just a single bottle and identifying it will allow the winery to put only their best wine on display.