Wine is an amazing natural phenomenon that keeps us under its spell. The aromas and “flavors” of wine along with its many hues affects us in such ways that many poems and songs have been written about the wonder that is wine. As a consumer, when you go to a restaurant and endure the ritual of choosing a bottle or allow the server or sommelier to guide you through the process, there is an anticipation and excitement that comes with the experience of drinking that bottle with the meal you are about to enjoy. Especially if you have been recommended a beautiful gem that has been poetically waxed on and off about by the person assisting you. The allure of blackberry fruit. The wafting notes of leather and tobacco with hints of rose petals. The crisp grassy aroma mingling with orange blossom and a slight almond flair. Who wouldn’t get excited about something like that? But once the bottle is ordered a certain anxiety may set in. Are all these descriptors correct? Am I going to experience those same wonderful smells myself? We hope. So when the foil has been removed and the cork has been popped and it’s time to experience all of the above, what happens when you don’t? This means the wine is flawed.
Before I get into how a wine is flawed, you should know this: when you order a bottle of wine, or buy one from a shop, you are making a commitment and putting your trust in someone who should know what the wine is like and whether there is something wrong with it. Calling out red flags when you sip a wine that has been described a certain way and doesn’t jive is your right. Don’t feel embarrassed or intimidated about it. Say something. It’s your money. Your experience.
Wine is made up of water, alcohol and other organic material such as phenolics and tannins. It is a living thing. That is the beauty of it all. When drinking a good or great bottle of wine we are communicating with nature herself. And sometimes nature throws us for a loop. Polar Vortex anyone?
A few things could be going on that will indicate that a bottle is flawed. The most common is cork taint or when a wine is “corked.” It is thought that trace amounts of chlorophenols in porous corks, a result of the sanitation process of cork bark, sometimes interact with airborne fungi in the small pocket of air in a bottle between wine and stopper, creating a compound called 2,4,6 trichloroanisole, otherwise known as TCA or cork taint. It only takes a small amount of this stuff to ruin an entire bottle of wine. To make this even crazier, human sensitivity to this flaw varies from person to person. Some people can smell it from a mile away, while others can barely detect it when the wine is in their face. Whatever you sensitivity to cork taint is, if all those wonderful descriptors that sold you on the bottle are not present and instead you’re getting a lean attack of wet newspaper or wet cardboard, say something. If you smell nothing say something.
Another less common and not as disastrous flaw is a temporary one and your server or somm should be able to help out: bottle sickness. Because wine is a living thing interacting with itself and small amounts of oxygen over time, it can sometimes be a bit fragile. Bottle sickness can happen in two ways: the first is because of the cork and the second is because of the bottling process. When bottle sickness happens because of the cork, it’s because corks can be porous, which means sometimes a little bit of wine can ooze out and dry, creating bacterial spoilage, thus resulting in a stinky bottle of wine. The second reason is a tricky business, as you can’t escape oxygen during the bottling process, although winemakers often add a dose of Carbon Dioxide to the wine to prevent oxidation. Sometimes after the first few weeks after bottling the wine can smell a bit like rotten eggs. But the good news is that bottle sickness blows off with more exposure to O2. At this point you may want to ask for the bottle to be decanted or sip on a complimentary glass of bubbly while the wine sets itself right.
So go ahead and take control of your wine experience. If the poetry in the bottle is muted or has a bit of stank, speak up. If it’s a corked wine and you get another of the same and it’s all blackberries and rose petals like you were told then remember that the next time and call it out like a BOSS!
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