I’m not talking about the swill we get served at parties or at aunt Edna’s house at Christmas. I’m talking about wine that should be good but has gone bad. Wine usually ends up spoiled for one of three reasons, TCA, oxidation or heat. Here’s a quick test. Fresh picked blueberries, juicy peach, toasted vanilla bean, and wet dog paw; which one does not belong? The first three flavors are great descriptions for wine. The last one describes a bottle contaminated with TCA or that is “corked” as it is more commonly described. Nuances of wet dog, mildew or refinery are an indication of TCA, a mold that infects corks and bottling facilities. TCA contamination starts out as a loss of fruitiness, progresses to a loss of flavor and finally begins to stink.
Exposure to excessive heat, can quickly destroy a wine. This can happen in your home if you store wine in the kitchen near heat sources or anywhere high were heat accumulates. It is quite often a problem in restaurants where storage space is limited and wine is sometimes stored near the kitchen. In summer months prolonged storage by the winemaker or distributor can also lead to cooked wine. The most obvious symptom of a cooked wine will be the cork protruding slightly from the bottle (the capsule may be bulging). Wine may actually have been pushed out of the bottle by the heat. While cooked wine is nice in a Coq Au Vin, you won’t like it in your glass. Cooked wines are dull and lifeless with no fruit in the aroma. Not surprisingly they also tastes cooked.
Last, but not least, is oxidation. We want to expose wine to air immediately before drinking, so we decant or swirl our glasses vigorously. However prolonged exposure to air causes oxidation and will ruin a bottle. Oxidation occurs when the cork fails and large amounts of air are admitted to the bottle. Oxygen is a highly reactive element and chemically changes the wine; and not for the better. An obvious clue that oxidation may be occurring is a deteriorated and/or moist cork. In red wines it will be obvious that wine is leaking around the cork (if wine leaks out, air leaks in) because the cork will be red on top or on the side at the top. Oxidized wines have a brown tint and taste burnt or like raisins. People who don’t like Port say oxidized wines taste like Port.
You can detect all of these faults and avoid the disappointment of drinking a bad bottle of wine, simply by observing the proper etiquette when ordering or opening wine. Inspect the cork. Has it deteriorated? Is it moist all the way to the top? Is there evidence of wine leaking around it? If so, pay close attention to the aroma and color of the wine. When it is poured, look at the color. White wines should be white or yellow, red wines should be garnet in color. Is it browner than it should be? When you swirl and smell the wine, does it smell fresh and alive? When you taste it, does it feel and taste like fruit or berries? And you thought this sniffing and swirling stuff was all for show.
The general rule is, if the wine doesn’t seem right to you, send it back. Retailers and restaurateurs understand that spoiled wine is a fact of life and will gladly open a new bottle without question.