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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.
Here’s how to know the difference between a wine that just doesn’t suit you and one that should be poured down the drain.
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. Read more in “Send a bottle back.”
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.
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. 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 that turns them from grape juice into wine. The conversion is called malolactic. 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.
Sulfur dioxide is added to virtually all wines in very 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 and you won’t need me to tell you not to drink it.
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