How Can I Tell If My Wine is Off?

How Can I Tell If My Wine is Off?

Written by Claire Paparazzo

LBV Club Member and resident wine expert Claire Paparazzo tells us how to spot an off bottle of wine, and if so, both whether and how to save it.

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Let’s start with the center of our sensory recall; just above your nasal cavity is the olfactory bulb, which is right near the temporal lobe in our brain, where memory is stored. These two live right next to each other, so when someone asks you to recall the smell of a musty basement, first your mind most likely goes to a place you can picture, and then soon you recall the memory of this smell. Our sense of taste is extremely closely related to our sense of smell—when you sense a flavor, much of that actually comes from what you are smelling. As a child, I did not know that my sense of smell was a gift—I could just smell everything. My sense of memory is so strongly connected to smell that just a whiff of something specific from my past can move me to tears. 


Wet newspaper, moist basements, animal, rotting eggs, poopy diapers, burnt fruit—these are all smells associated with wine that has gone bad. The good news is that although these wines taste unpleasant, they aren’t going to make you sick—they just are off. I remember watching my father, a very practical man, look at me in horror when I dumped an entire bottle of wine I had just spent $50 on down the drain. I had to explain “It’s corked, Dad! Nothing I can do about it. Not worth saving”. This may seem shocking, but read ahead and I can explain. 


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Cork Taint or TCA (2,4,6-Trichloroanisole)

Cork Taint is a wild card in the sense that if a winemaker chooses to use natural cork as a stopper for their wine, there are no guarantees that it won’t soil the wine. TCA (2,4,6-Trichloroanisole) is the culprit—the chemical compound responsible for cork taint. TCA is naturally occurring in wood, wine, fruit, soil, and cork. It develops when chlorine and mold, including airborne fungi, combine. The compound can be transferred to the wine through the cork or via the wood the wine is aged in. Corked wine smells musty, like wet newspaper, or a moldy basement. If you are unsure whether your wine has been affected by cork taint, leave it open for a while and check again—exposure to air will either blow off a suspect aroma, meaning the wine is fine, or will develop even more TCA, and then you will know. It is acceptable to return a wine that you suspect having TCA in a restaurant, and, in most cases, your wine store will also take back a corked bottle. 


The use of natural cork is not merely aesthetic or nostalgic—the slight interaction between the cork and the wine over time is key to the evolution of the wine’s aging. The cork expands and contracts with the wine, allowing the bottle to remain sealed with less exposure to oxygen. So what happens if as a winemaker you choose to use a screw cap (stelvin closure) or plastic cork? It will certainly change how the wine ages, and that may be fine for you, especially if you plan to drink the wine young. In such cases, these closures make sense. Recently Bruno De Conciliis (my longtime mentor) and Jack Lewens of Vigneti Tardis commented on their decision to use natural cork. As Jack plainly put it, “either Bruno nor I want anything synthetic in contact with our wines. Simple as that.” This decision is an important one for winemakers to make, because the shelf life of their wine is at stake. 

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photo: © Gourmande in the Kitchen

"The use of natural cork is not merely aesthetic or nostalgic"

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Maderized wine, or cooked wine

Making sure you keep your wine away from light and heat is one of the only ways you can nurture the life of a bottle once it’s in your hands. The best scenario for enjoying wine is to get it directly from the winery, although it’s nearly impossible to accomplish. For a long time, I was lucky enough to be able to make this happen:  Kareem Massoud, the winemaker at Paumanok winery on the North Fork of Long Island, used to hand deliver wine to me in NYC. It went from his winery, to a car with high A/C flowing, to me at the restaurant, and then straight into my temperature-controlled wine room. I could guarantee there would be no fluctuation in temperature during its journey. Imagine a more realistic scenario: Your wine is shipped from France, and it sits on the hot loading dock for weeks before it finds its way to any sort of temperature-controlled vessel. Then it arrives at the distributor before it finally finds its way to you. Your wine can suffer from being exposed to heat—the result is called maderized wine, or cooked wine. The heat can cause the wine to expand, pushing the cork out and breaking the seal to let air in. Cooked wine smells like burnt fruit and looks brown in color. Think of how an avocado or an apple that is exposed to air turns brown. The truth is that the wine isn’t harmful to you if it has been maderized, it just isn’t the ideal expression of the wine. Since it’s not actually going to cause you harm, I would keep this wine to cook with. 

 

photo: via Pinterest

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Brettanomyces & Bacterial taint 

Brettanomuces, known simply as Brett, is a controversial but naturally-occuring yeast. When Brett grows in wine, it is looked upon as a flaw because it can alter the bouquet and flavor of the wine. Most commonly found in barrel aged red wines, it can show its form in many different aromas, from barnyard and band-aid to the more offensive poopy diaper or smelly locker room. Brett is found in beer, and it’s widely accepted in that world. To me, it is actually welcome in some wines, as it can add a barnyard complexity that I quite like, but again, it’s all about your threshold, and if it completely takes over the wine, then it’s a problem. I have seen some winemakers take offense if you even say the word “Brettanomuces” in their winery, like you could possibly summon the yeast to freak out and invade their wine, I was told once that if you have Brett in your winery it is virtually impossible to clean it out. 


Bacterial taint is another story—it can be found in some natural wines produced without any filtration, or without additional Sulfur Dioxide (SO2) before bottling. It has a kombucha-like aroma that can develop into mousy notes. This can be fine in small amounts, but it can also dominate the wine and lose its charm. For me, it’s all about balance. If a wine has overpowering bacterial taint, I would decant it and see if a little air will help mellow out the flavor. 

 

 

photo: by Olivier Mayhall

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Volatile Acidity

Volatile acidity, also known as VA, refers to the amount of acids present in wine. The most common acid in wine is the acetic acid—also the primary acid in vinegar. High volatile acidity can occur when there is too much exposure to oxygen during the winemaking process, and this can cause the wine to go bad. Higher levels of VA can smell sharp, like nail polish remover, whereas small amounts of VA can lend to fruity aromas. I usually compare VA to the experience of drinking lemon juice—there is a specific acidity that collects in your throat and overtakes the experience. But again, with VA, it’s all about the balance. I recently tasted some natural wines that possess this character, and I will see how it develops and changes over a few days. I’ll often let such wines sit as an experiment to see how flaws can develop. Usually, the wine ends up down the drain, but in small amounts, I have seen that after two days, the layers of fruit underneath will begin to show. 

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"With VA, it’s all about the balance."
 

photo: via Pinterest

 

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Reduction

Reduction in wine is what happens when there is a lack of oxygen during the fermentation process—the resulting wine then has a swampy smell, often like rotten eggs or a burnt match. Winemakers can use Sulfur Dioxide (SO2) during the winemaking process as a preservative to ward off these aromas and to protect against unwanted oxidation in wine. Many winemakers are against adding SO2 to their wine, choosing the minimal intervention path of winemaking. Luckily, if you choose the natural path and reduction occurs, you can have your wine and drink it too: just decant it. Most likely, underneath some of these unpleasant notes lies your beautifully constructed wine, and just 20 minutes in a decanter or a pitcher will bring it out. 

 

photo: © DarioM_72 via Flickr


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I am on the side of wine: I want no flaws. As a sommelier, I seek out the possible problems highlighted above to hopefully intercept a bad bottle before it reaches you. When I open your wine, I am not looking at it for my own pleasure, I am playing detective to ultimately get you the wine in its best form in a timely fashion. Ultimately, it is for your pleasure—the wine that is hand delivered from the winery, kept at the perfect temperature, stored on its side away from light and heat, and, finally, uncorked with care to rule out flaws and faults before it’s delivered to you—the guest, the consumer, the fan. It is best to enjoy wine that has been properly processed from the harvest, that bounty mother nature has offered us. 

 

first photo: by Arnaud Pyvka

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