Your Nose Knows

Have you encountered a bad bottle of wine yet? By bad, I don’t mean you didn’t like it. I mean bad as in spoiled in some way. This encounter, I’ve discovered, creates a lot of angst among some wine drinkers. They are afraid that either they will declare a wine to be spoiled that isn’t or that they will drink a spoiled wine and not notice. From a probability point of view, they probably shouldn’t be worrying about this. Odds are they will never encounter a spoiled bottle of wine.

Encountering spoiled bottles is really pretty rare, depending of course on how many bottles of wine you consume. Now spoiled glasses of wine are another thing altogether. Its very common, too common in my opinion, to be served spoiled wine when ordering by the glass. From my own experience, I’d say 1 in 10 glasses of by-the-glass wine are oxidized, spoiled from pro-longed exposure to air. But oxidation is only one way a wine can be spoiled.

So how does wine go bad. The two most common ways are oxidation and cork taint. Oxidation of closed bottles occurs when the cork fails. The primary reason for a cork is to seal the bottle, keeping the wine in and, as important, keeping the air out. While oxygenating freshly opened wine by decanting or swirling in the glass opens the wine, promoting the creation of the aromatics that create the wine’s bouquet and enhance its taste, prolonged exposure to air will ruin the wine.

The other affliction, cork taint, is much more common, but less likely to be detected. Wine industry estimates are that more than 7% of bottles have some degree of cork taint. Usually referred to as being “corked”, a bottle of wine with cork taint will exhibit a characteristic odor, colorfully described as that of an old sock or a wet dog. This odor can be very pronounced or very faint depending on the degree to which the bottle is tainted with something called TCA, a chemical whose production is promoted by the presence of a naturally occurring airborne fungus and other factors.

It was originally thought that cork somehow caused this taint, thus the term “corked”, but corks only harbor the fungus, as do cardboard storage boxes and other things found in many wineries. By cleaning up the production areas and replacing cork with a synthetic substitute or a screw cap, the industry is hoping to dramatically reduce the occurrence of cork taint. They are willing to go to this trouble and expense because when you get a bottle of wine that doesn’t taste good you may think its just not very good wine, when in fact it might be tainted. With a mild enough case of taint, its hard to tell. Regardless, you probably won’t order that wine again, and the winemaker has lost a customer.

So how do you know if your wine is spoiled? Oxidation is very easy to spot. First, look at the cork. If the cork has failed you may see a line going all the way from the bottom to the top of the cork. That’s the wine getting out and the air getting in. A failed cork doesn’t guarantee a spoiled bottle, but it should make you very suspicious. Second, the wine’s color will have a brown tinge. If it is supposed to have a beautiful plum or ruby color, it won’t. This is very evident in white wines. Third it will taste and smell burnt, some say like raisins. The degree of discoloration, odor and taste deterioration will depend on the degree of oxidation. The longer the exposure to air, the worse it will be. Cork taint is more difficult to detect unless its severe, then its pretty obvious. In either case, your nose should tell you if the wine is spoiled. Wine should smell like fruit. If it doesn’t, there’s something wrong.

Cellar Notes

Its beginning to feel like summer so it won’t be long before you’ll want a good, cold white wine to go with those snacks on the patio. I drink more Sauvignon Blanc than any other of the white varietals. You’ll find Sauvignon Blanc will have more body and exhibit more complexity that the typical Chardonnay or Pinot Grigio. It’s flavor also stands up to cold well, so you can really chill it down for outdoor consumption. Here are three of the many Sauvignon Blanc’s available for under $20.

Sauvignon Blanc
Leaping lizard
Spec’s $10 – $15

BV Coastal Estates Sauvignon Blanc
Beaulieu Vineyard
Spec’s $5 – $10

Fume Blanc (Sauvignon Blanc)
Dry Creek Vineyards
Sonoma County
Spec’s $10 – $15