In the course of running a wine retail operation and busy wine bar, I sometimes encounter the one thing that all wine business professionals dread; the “bad” bottle. It’s one of wine’s hazards and the cost of doing business. But what’s troublesome is when three out of four times we get a wine back that is in fact not technically flawed at all, but merely due to the customer’s inexperience.
When most people’s wine experience has come from shopping in a supermarket chain or large box store chain, it’s extremely rare that they would encounter a bad bottle. For the most part these types of operations stock wine produced on a large scale with industrial methods, whereby the wines are manipulated, filtered, stabilized and in general robbed of anything that could produce variation. While these wines are consistent, and many times are pleasant and technically consistent, they also lack character and for lack of a better word “soul.” As a wine professional whose goal is to bring my customers the best wines in the world, most of which are produced by artisanal means, this is the furthest thing from my intention. So with real winemaking comes vintage variation, differences in taste and style was well are some byproducts which far from being flaws are in fact indications of a wine’s quality and natural origin.
With wine sales and wine consumption at an all time high in the United States I thought now would be a good time to talk about these byproducts and about what is and isn’t a flawed wine…
“Cooked” Wine – Wine that has been exposed to high temperatures either in storage and handling or in shipping, leaving the wine with a “baked” or “stewed” flavor. This can happen in hot weather if the wine was shipped without temperature control. Often there will be a bitter sediment residue from the exposure if the wine was unfiltered. (Something factory produced wines seldom see) Another telltale sign is wine seepage from the cork and along the bottle neck although this is not 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.
“Corked” Wine – Wine that has a moldy, musty stench reminiscent of wet cardboard or a damp basement, smell and taste. This is caused by faulty corks that have been in contact with a fungus (usually at the cork producer rather than the winery itself) and is commonly referred to as “TCA.” The level of taint can vary to a strong obvious odor to a “dried out” taste and lack of fruit with a slight hint of mold. This is the number one reason for so many wineries choosing to bottle with screw caps, which take this problem out of the equation.
“Oxidized” Wine – 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 too long on the shelf or opened for a long period of time without any form of preservation (nitrogen, argon etc.) Some wines are produced intentionally with this style (Sherry, Madeira and wines from the Jura and Northeastern Italy for example) which was the norm hundreds of years ago. 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.
Terroir – This one’s a little trickier. For those accustomed to drinking new world wines that emphasize fruit and lots of new oak, the first taste of say and Italian or French wine may be a bit different. (This is a good thing.) Many wines tend to be dryer and often times 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. As I often say, it would be a very boring world where every wine produced identical results and identical sensations.
While we value all of our customers and seek to make sure that their experience is a pleasant one, wine styles and flavors vary greatly. There’s 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 to. In my opinion the best way to ensure a great experience is to find a retailer who can work with you, learning your tastes and your level of adventure when it comes to trying new wines.