A few weeks ago, I had the privilege (?) of tasting a bottle of merlot that a friend had picked up from one of the local grocery stores. Upon opening the bottle and going through the usual swirling, swishing, sniffing, tasting and gulping, we realized that this particular bottle was a little different than other merlot’s that we’d tasted–it was fizzy! Was it a fault in the wine? After a little research, we realized that some wines are intentionally carbonated.
No one wants to offer their guest a drink that contains faults, but sometimes it’s hard to look for specific wine faults if you haven’t had anyone teach about these faults and how to recognize them.
Fault #1 Wine Oxidation
If you hadn’t guessed by the name, the first, and most common fault has to do with oxygen. Oxidation happens when the wine is exposed to too much oxygen and that oxygen then chemically reacts with the compounds in the wine to produce a somewhat “flat” taste.
If you’ve got a bottle that smells like sherry or a brown apple it may very well be oxidized. Whites are more susceptible to oxidation than Reds since they contain lower tannins than red wines.
Fault #2 Sulfur Compounds
In order to lessen oxidation and to act as an antimicrobial agent, winemakers will add a small amount of sulfur. When added correctly, the sulfur flavor is virtually undetectable. The problem comes when too much of the sulfur compound is added.
You can easily detect too much sulfur compound in your drink by what might taste or smell like burnt rubber or matchsticks.
Fault #3 Cork Taint
This particular fault usually has to do with the cork that is used to seal the wine to prevent oxidation although it sometimes originates in the oak barrels where the wine is being fermented. (Funny how it seems that all faults are a result of preventing another fault, huh?). Anyway, this fault usually originates with chlorine bleached corks or barrels.
Wines that smells particularly moldy or musty or earthy is probably suffering from this particular fault.
Fault #4 Heat Damage
Some people would say that this fault is the most common of all, possibly because it often results in oxidation. The ideal storage for wine is usually about 55 degrees Fahrenheit. When temperatures get much higher than that, the pressure inside the bottle will increase, causing faster oxidation. It also often causes the liquid to expand in the bottle to the point of edging around the cork or even pushing the cork out of the bottle. People often attribute the resulting taste to poor quality, when in reality it’s a wine fault.
So what will heat damaged wine taste like? Heat damaged wines will probably have a processed jammy flavor and will be more or a brick-red in color.
Fault #5 Lightstrike
Ever wonder why wines are usually stored in colored bottles? Here’s your reason: to prevent lightstrike. Wine that has been excessively exposed to ultraviolet light tends to develop this nasty fault. Delicate wines, like Champagnes, are at a higher risk for this fault than red wines.
You’ll know that your wine has been lightstruck if the taste reminds you of wet cardboard or wet wool.
While wine fault possibilities are numerous, the best way to notice these faults is to know what the “real thing” ought to taste like. Just like a counterfeit money detector can recognize the flaws because he knows the real thing so well, that’s how you have to deal with wines. We suggest joining a wine club for this very purpose: to help you get to know what “the real stuff” should taste like.
Most of these faults will at worst give you a yucky flavor in your mouth. The more you experience your wine, the easier it will be to know when you’ve got something good and to make a distinction between bad wines and wines that you just don’t like. Take the step, and let us help you get to know your wine.