This is a real change of pace for me. Generally I write about great wines – and highlight the virtues of delicious food and drink, but today we’re going to take a quick detour to discuss a few things that unfortunately occur with some regularity, and don’t taste quite so nice. Assessing whether a wine has gone bad is actually much simpler and more straightforward than you may think. Perhaps it’s the pomp and circumstance of how wine is presented for sampling before it’s poured in a restaurant, or maybe it’s overly technical or non-English words and terms used to describe faults in wine, but many people are intimidated by having to judge whether a wine has “gone bad”.
I’ve had friends tell me that they are nervous about the prospect of declaring a wine is bad, when in reality it might be totally free from technical “faults” per se, and perhaps they just don’t like it. Well, I’m here to tell you that 99% of spoiled wine falls into one of the five categories below, and if a wine suffers from one of the sicknesses, it is neither subtle nor a matter of opinion as to whether it’s “bad enough to send back”. Most often, these five faults will take over in the glass and dominate the sensory experience to the point where there is no pleasure left in the wine.
Corked: Smells Musty + Corky
You can tell a wine is corked by smelling the wine. If the wine smells more like a dull, musty and wet basement than it does of bowl of fresh fruit, you’ve got a bad bottle. Wines develop this fault when they’ve been sealed with a bacteria-infected cork. This bacteria won’t kill you – but it does kill the wine. Wines can be impacted by bad cork taint to varying degrees – some very lightly in a way that just kind mutes the fruit flavours and aromas, and others more severely in a way that imparts a distinct smell of cork in the wine itself.
Oxidized: Appears Brown/Dull + Smells Nutty
Air is a “frenemy” of wine. The process of aging wine is effectively the slow interaction of air with wine; air moves through the cork at a very slow rate and over time changes the flavours and textures of the wine. In this sense, the best wines are enhanced through a long-term relationship with air. However, eventually a wine runs out of aging potential and dies. This same thing can happen if a wine is exposed to too much air too quickly – as would happen if you were to leave an open bottle on the counter overnight without a cork. You can tell that a wine is oxidized if it’s taken on a distinctly brown-ish colour (both whites and reds) or if you notice a distinctly nutty and dull aroma.
Sulfur Issues: Smells Like Burning Match
Sulfites are an additive used to stabilize wine making them less prone to oxidation. If too much sulfur is used in the winemaking process, the resulting wines can take on an aroma similar to a struck match. Like all other faults, this can occur in varying degrees and impacts different wine drinkers differently depending on their sensitivity. That said, if your wine smells like a burning match, it’s a flawed wine.
Acetic Acid: Smells Like Vinegar
Wine contains many different types of acids – most of which are helpful and give the wine a bright and refreshing quality. That said, wines with noticeable acetic acid are flawed wines. If you smell a wine and the first thing you notice is the sort of high tones similar to sniffing vinegar, then your wine has gone bad. The amount of acetic acid in wine generally increases as time passes (even in unopened bottles) so if you have more unopened bottles of the same wine, you can expect this sickness to get worse as time passes.
Re-fermenting: Cloudy, Fizzy + Funky
Alcoholic fermentation is employed in the production of wine to convert sugars to alcohol – with Carbon Dioxide given off as a by-product of this process. That said, there are a vast number of other”types” of fermentation that can – and sometimes are encouraged – throughout the winemaking process. That said, all of these various fermentations should be complete before the wine is bottled, however sometimes they are not. This is an issues that is widely seen with wines that have a bit of residual sugar (or sweetness) that have not been stabilized properly ahead of bottling. If you buy a bottle of wine that isn’t supposed to have bubbles, and it does, this is a sure sign that the wine is re-fermenting.