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How do you know if a wine is “off”?

How do you know if a wine is “off”?

The short answer: if a wine smells or tastes unpleasant then it might be “off”. To be more specific, if you smell things like rotten eggs, burnt matchstick, vinegar, a musty wet cardboard aroma, then the wine may well be “off”.

But the fact is that it can be quite difficult to tell if some wines are “off”. I’ve shared bottles of wine with some of the top winemakers in the world and towards the end of the bottle they have questioned whether the wine is “in condition”. Why? We all have different thresholds for noticing certain smells and tastes. There was a famous incident when a wine critic found an entire batch of wine to be “corked”, but after the winery did a blind tasting with a focus group they decided that the taint was below “threshold” and continued to sell the wine.

Cork taint is the major fault to look for. Corks can sometimes harbor a fungi which can develop into potent organic compounds, notably one called TCA. This can dull the aroma of a wine, make it smell musty, like wet cardboard, and make the fruit taste dried out and astringent on the palate.

One of the other major faults is oxidation, which happens when excessive amounts of oxygen come into contact with the wine. This can start during the winemaking process as soon as the grapes are picked. Just like an apple, the juice can start to turn brown. Sometimes you can tell an oxidized wine just by the color. Look for white wines to have an unusual amber or dull golden brown color. The nose can smell dull, lacking freshness, and with some heavy nutty and caramel notes. Tired and stale are hallmarks of oxidized wines.

There are several other potential faults but in my experience the incidence of faulty wines is decreasing. The good news is that many good retailers in the world will replace any faulty bottles. Just don’t confuse that with a wine you personally don’t like the taste of.

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