Opinion: Truly Bad Bottles of Wine: Corky & Beyond

Breaking down some of wine's common flaws.



When was the last time you had a truly bad bottle of wine? Not one that you just didn’t like, but one that stank?

“Corked” bottles are the most common today, and bottles that taste “corked” but really went bad for other reasons. It used to be common to open a funky-smelling or stale wine, or a fizzy wine that wasn’t supposed to be sparkling.

Thank god and the world’s winemaking universities that we don’t have to put up with many truly flawed, terrible wines anymore. But it does still happen. In the last few weeks I’ve had a very barnyardy Chambourcin and an otherwise nice Chardonnay that seemed to have a veneer of burnt rubber.

Here’s what I know about telling the difference between a wine that just doesn’t suit you and one that should be poured down the drain. If you buy a bottle in a restaurant or from a retailer that has any of these flaws to a noticeable degree, then you should ask the sommelier to take it back, or return the bottle to the store.


Corked
The most common flaw in wine comes from a defective cork that infects the wine and turns the aroma to a mildewed, wet-cardboard smell and the taste to a flattened, dried-out sensation. The wine is called “corked” or “corky.” You should send it back in a restaurant or ask the wine merchant who sold it to you to exchange it for a good bottle.

TCA infected
Trichloroanisole is the compound that makes the corky smell. But it doesn’t just come from cork. It can grow in a winery on any material made of cellulose, including barrels, wood building parts, cardboard boxes, even rubber hoses, if there’s also chlorine present. Often times we blame the musty smell on the cork, when something else caused the problem.

Brettanomyces
Brett and its cousin Dekkera are undesirable yeasts that are difficult to keep out of wine. Some winemakers and critics like the smoky, leathery aromas that Brett can add in small doses. But when it goes too far you’ve got a pungent problem on your hands. It smells like cow dung or rubber boots and Band-Aids. I think that consumers in general are going to turn against this and demand none of it in their wine in the future.

Oxidized
The oxygen in air makes a good wine go bad in a day or two if an opened bottle isn’t properly looked after. An oxidized wine smells to me like stale bread or weak vinegar (which it’s trying to turn into). This is a particular hazard with wines by the glass at restaurants, where half-empty bottles are often kept on the bar overnight. Refrigeration helps, even for reds. Another preventive measure is pouring the wine into a smaller container like a half-bottle (375 milliliter) with a tight lid so that it fills to the top and excludes any air.

Cooked
Wine can be “cooked” if kept in hot attics or trunks, above stoves or in frugally minded corporate offices where the AC is turned off over the weekends. It’s a slow simmer, but the wine gets ruined before long. It will look brownish around the edges of the glass (whether red or white) and may smell caramelized, like cooked onions. If you also noticed that the cork in the bottle was pushed up and partway out, it’s probably cooked.

Going through malolactic
Winemakers put most red wines and many whites, especially Chardonnay, through a mild secondary transformation in addition to the yeast fermentation. The conversion is called malolactic, or ML. But if a winemaker isn’t careful, the malolactic can happen after the wine is bottled. The result can vary from a mild effervescence to a totally stinky aroma and bizarre flavors. One frequent sign is an unusually cloudy or hazy appearance.

Sulfury
Sulfur dioxide is added to virtually all wines in small quantities (10 to about 100 parts per million) to help prevent oxidation and bacterial growth. That’s why you see the note on the label that says “Contains Sulfites.” Sulfur is a good thing in moderation, but if the winemaker goofs and adds too much, then the wine smells like matchsticks and can prickle the inside of your nostrils. It’s not wise to drink it. Another wrinkle on the sulfur problem is when a wine smells like rotten eggs. This is from hydrogen sulfide that can develop during fermentation and aging.

How often have you encountered one of these, and what did you do about it?

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