Waiter, WTF is in my wine glass…???

Judging from the unmistakable stench emanating from your freshly poured wine glass, you would think that an angry herd of wild horses that just roared by your table…and, some of them must have relieved themselves right at your table!

Seriously, how can such a good thing sometimes smell so ungodly awful?

When you stick your nose in a glass of wine, most of the time, you smell the aroma of fruit, floral, or spice.  The wine itself may be earthy (in the dirt sense) and may have a pleasing buttery or tropical perfume.  Aromatics such as honey, chocolate, freshly mowed grass, or that delicately delightful scent of a rose garden which takes you all the way back to Grandma’s orchard…Sometimes, it’s the unmistakable odor of vanilla…hmm, cake…or that unique fragrance of butterscotch that conjures happy candy thoughts of childhood.

But what if you smell rotten eggs, nail polish remover, sewer, vinegar, wet cardboard, and yes…even a herd of defecating horses?  What does that mean?

Well, first, it means don’t drink it!  Send it back, pronto.  Your wine is flawed.

This may be shocking but some wines end up being made with contaminated, faulty juices.  Other times, a wine becomes flawed at some point along its life cycle of being made in a winery, during bottling, during shipping or during storage whether it is in your home or in your favourite restaurant.

But how do you know that a certain wine you are savouring does contain any of the many common flaws…or it just isn’t what you like to drink?  Will you take the chance to drink it anyway and perhaps regretting it…in the worse way (yes, bad wine can make you very ill).  Or, you send it back and live with the chance that you may be somewhat brow beaten by the house’s sommelier who will call into question your wine skills because you couldn’t quite tell them which fault their wine was contaminated with.

Well, do not risk your health and do not risk your pride…because a little wine savvy can go a long way.

These are the five most common odor defects you should know…and although the best and most user friendly aroma kits made today, such as the varietal series made by Wine Awakenings, will list twelve “most common” faults, these five are certainly the ones you will find in almost 80% of the offending situations.

First: corked wine.  Here, the wine has been spoiled and smells musty, mouldy, dank cellar, mushroom or wet cardboard.  The most common tainting compound for the spoilage is TCA (2,4,6 trichloroanisole) and is widely believed to form in the actual cork from which it migrates into the wine after bottling.  Important to note that the above listed odors associated with this type of contamination are very obvious at first but then rapidly decrease in intensity.  Therefore, trust your first impression.

Second: Oxidized wine.  Here, the wine smells sweet, stewed fruit, sherry-like, and even nutty.  While these characteristics are considered an essential part of the complexity of sweet wines such as Sherry, Madeira, or Vin Jaune, it is a fault in more mainstream varietals.  Often, the appearance and color will alert to early oxidization problems:  a deeper color than expected in white wines and brick or brown tints in red wines should sound alarm bells.  The most common causes for wine oxidization is caused by string the wine bottles upright, therefore allowing the cork to dry, which allows oxygen in the bottle and…we know that oxygen is the number one enemy of wine.  I once witnessed a patron in a restaurant send back a bottle of wine which he had correctly diagnosed as oxidized and before sending the server to fetch another bottle, he proudly warned him with “…and if your other Merlots have been stored in the same manner…standing up… don’t bother bringing back a bottle from the same section”.

Third: Brett fault.  Popular abbreviation for Brettanomyces genus.  Somewhat of a controversial fault because some people actually love what it does to wine.  Here, you smell barnyard, band-aid, plastic, horse sweat, leather, and even mousy fecal droppings.   Hmmm…  This is yeast spoilage, also found in some Belgian beers.

Fourth: Rotten Eggs.  Dr Gary Pickering a Professor of Wine Science at Brock University’s Cool Climate Oenology and Viticulture Institute in Niagara describes it as “the heady mix of rotten eggs, an open sewer and flatulence rolled into one alluring aroma.”  What more could a wine lover want?   Caused by excessive production of hydrogen sulfide occurring when the yeast have an insufficient supply of nitrogen during fermentation.  Again, repeated sniffings, the odour may appear to decrease in intensity, so stick to your first impressions…and send it back.

Fifth: Vinegar.  This may be the easiest one to diagnose.  It smells like vinegar and vinegar has no place in wine.  The main compound responsible for the pungent odor of vinegar is acetic acid- in wine known as VA, or volatile acidity.  This is a bacteria usually traced back to the winery and can normally be controlled by good barrel hygiene.

It is very important to remember that all wine faults must be evaluated within the context of the wine in which it is detected (varietal, age, expected characteristics, etc) because the presence of “fault” characteristics may be considered as acceptable and even desirable in certain wines and not in others.

So how do you make sense of all these aromatic pitfalls that can make you very ill, embarrass you, or, even worse of all, make you hesitate before engaging in the wonderful complexity of a good glass of vino…???

 First, follow your nose and don’t be fooled into believing that you may actually like the taste of something you don’t like the smell of…  No bull…

Second, and most importantly, invest the time to understand what you like in wines first…before you decide which wines you like.  Spend some quality time with one of many devices now available to guide you in determining your own taste profile while also training your nose to detect and diagnose those nasty wine faults…with authority…and before you get trampled by an angry herd of horses at your favourite restaurant!


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