Despite technical innovations, sterile environments, a well trained wine making staff, and state of the art transportation and storage, wines today can still be bad, displaying faults that will ruin any wine lovers expectations. A whole number of things could have gone wrong, and below are just a few of the more common problems.
TCA – 2,4,6 Trichloroanisole “A Corked Wine”
You have probably had a bottle of corked wine if you’ve tried at least 12 different bottles of wine or so. Granted, TCA levels vary, so in trace amounts, you may have thought a wine wasn’t bad, but just displayed earthy or moldy characteristics. In heavier amounts, you probably related the smell to wet cardboard, a smelly basement, or a moldy stench and you knew the bottle was bad. As more wineries have moved to screw cap closures, the appearance of TCA has gone down, but it hasn’t been eradicated since the cause can also come from inside the winery. The beams in the building, barrels, wooden palates, and especially corks, all have naturally occurring organic phenols that react with chlorine and form chlorophenols, which in turn react with mold and moisture and form TCA. I’ve typically found more corked wines when trying a cheaper bottle of wine that was sealed with a cork, but it still happens at any price level.
Acescence or Volatile Acidity (VA)
Balsamic Vinegar – Good, Balsamic Montelena – Bad.
Another fault that you may have encountered is when your wine smells like nail polish or vinegar and tastes tangy and sour. This wine was ruined when bacteria produced high levels of acetic acid, which overwhelm the tartaric, malic, or lactic acids that are wanted and balance the wine. Acetic acid is a naturally occurring by-product of fermentation, and trace amounts are allowed by the government in your wine. It’s when those level get to high (usually above the allowable 0.12g/100ml in California) that the wine has taken on this unwanted profile and is said to have acescense.
Brettanomyces/Dekkera or “Brett”
This is the bottle that overwhelmingly smells like a horse stable, barnyard, leather or even a band-aid. Some wine makers allow small amounts of brett into their wines to add complexity, but when these aromas overpower the fruit profile of the wine, it’s gone to far and the bottle is bad. Brettanomyces is a yeast that usually finds the inside of a barrel a welcome home, and can soon spread through the entire winery if not controlled by proper wine making hygiene. Brett is made up of 4-ethyl phenol, 4 -ethylguaiacol, 4-ethyl catechol, and isvaleric acid and can be very difficult to get rid of once it takes over a winery.
Watch for these traits in your wine, and don’t be afraid to tell your waiter, the retailer, the winery, or your friend that you think there might be a problem. It’s better to discuss the problem then ignore it, and you’ll develop a better palate because of it. If you get a chance to visit Copia in Napa Valley, they have a tasting station where you can smell and identify these faults from controlled samples, which might be a good way to familiarize yourself for future identification.
Remember, friends don’t let friends drink bad wine, and wineries are more than happy to replace your bad bottle, so don’t hesitate to bring it to their attention.