Wine Faults and Wine Storage
How do you know if a wine is bad and what to do?
You are in a restaurant and the waiter pours you a taste of the wine you chose. You take a sniff and recoil at the odor. What do you do?
- a) Pretend it’s fine. It must be me
- b) Look quizzically at the waiter and ask for their opinion
- c) Send it back and insist on a replacement
Any answer can be correct depending on the situation but all are fraught with anxiety and stress. The reality is up to 10% of wines found at retail may be “bad” as defined by numerous wine faults that can happen anywhere along the supply chain from winery to warehouse to cellar. The key is to know the difference between a wine fault and a wine preference .
Examples of wine faults:
- A bad cork allows too much oxygen in the bottle and ages it too quickly. This process, known as oxidation, results in a brownish tinge and an off flavor. It can also allow a mold found in natural corks to leach into the wine: TCA or Trichloroanisole, resulting in a musty, dank basement odor.
- Oxidation can also occur too soon if the wine is stored at an improper temperature, typically too high (45-65 F is suitable and 55 F is ideal). A little oxygen over time is needed to age a quality wine and change the composition of minor ingredients like tannins to smooth them out and reduce bitterness. But too much and it turns to vinegar.
- Sulfur compounds found in several steps of the winemaking process but in excess can cause odors of rotten eggs, burnt matches or garlic/onions. (The story of sulfites, one of these sulfur compounds, deserves its owns blog post)
- Bacteria can cause odors of vinegar (acetic acid), rancid butter (butyric acid), ethyl acetate (nail polish remover), lactic acid (goat or sauerkraut or geranium leaf when reacted with sorbic acid)
- Yeast known as Brettanomyces can cause a sweaty, horsey or medicinal odor, which can infect a winery and find its way into the wine at the production stage. Removal can be difficult as it can get into the walls, floors, and pipes of the winery and requires aggressive cleaning.
If you decide to question or send back the wine, here’s what you can do. Once you decide the odor/taste is off, try to describe it to the waiter or wine merchant and insist on a return or replacement, offering them to taste themselves to confirm. Returning a wine without any of the faults listed above simply because you don’t like it is not a suitable reason. A reputable restaurant/wine store will accept a return. If they don’t, don’t give them your business.
How to store your wine
Say you just took a wine tour from Triangle Wine Country, bought 2 cases and want to keep it for several years to enjoy without it going bad. How? First make sure your wine is age-worthy. Not all wines benefit from aging; many reds and some whites age well. Some wines are meant for immediate consumption and will deteriorate if kept for long periods (Beaujolais Nouveau for example). Ask your wine specialist or merchant if you aren’t sure. Price is a decent indicator: lower priced wines (under $15) typically are drinkable now, higher priced wines typically age for 5 to 10 years or more. Some wines have been drinkable 100 years or more after bottling! Bordeaux and Burgundy style wines are meant to age before drinking. Here in the Willamette Valley Pinot Noirs are made in the Burgundy style and are best kept for several years before they peak in flavor. But proper storage is the key.
Wine refrigerators are the most foolproof way to store your supply. You can dial it to 55 F and, barring a power outage, your wine will be safe. Be sure to check it semi-regularly, though. Last summer my wine fridge stopped working, I didn’t notice for a few days and it reached 80 F! I haven’t tried all the wines but I’m afraid the good ones are now bad. So keep any eye on it, or have a generator handy if you plan to store a lot of expensive wines. If you are lucky enough to have a real cellar you may be OK with a cellar closet, but keep a thermometer handy to make sure the temperature is consistent. You can also build a wine cellar from scratch with a refrigerator unit built in, if you’re handy.
For the casual wine buyer, a cool dark place like a closet may be OK for short periods (around a year), but on the kitchen counter next to a sunny window isn’t, except if you’re consuming it within a few weeks.
How about that bottle you just can’t finish in a night? The fridge is best for a few days (red or white) with a cork or those wine vacuum pumps to remove the air. For red wine remember to return the bottle to room temperature before serving. Some wines may be better after being open for a day or two. The newer technology in wine storage is a Coravin which allows for removal of just a glass from a bottle without pulling the cork. It’s quite pricey (over $100) but a good investment if you want to try an aged bottle to see if it’s ready to drink.
Don’t be afraid to stand up for your rights as a wine consumer! If you aren’t sure about a wine’s quality, ask an expert— life’s too short to drink bad wine. Nobody is perfect and even winemakers can make a mistake or not catch a quality issue. These wine faults are not dangerous, and you can even make ” lemonade”. When I found myself with several oxidized bottles of expensive wine, I made vinegar and gave it away as Christmas presents last year!
Next time: The story of Sulfites, Cork Alternatives and Natural/Biodynamic winemaking