A short story, by way of introduction:
Yesterday, while I was at the office, typing away like the Very Important Person I am, my boss David called out to me, “Jolan, would you like to taste some wine?”
Why, yes, I would.
David was speaking with a frequent visitor to Vintner’s Circle, a gentleman named Frank. Frank had brought in a case of red Meritage, a red wine blend from California, which had been made at our Hackettstown location the previous year. Frank explained that he tried a bottle from the batch earlier in the week, but was disappointed when tasting it: the wine had an off flavor, slightly sour.
We opened a few bottles, to see if it was the entire batch that was flawed, or simply one or two bottles. (Quality assurance, you see.) We were surprised to find that only some of the bottles were off – the others still had the pleasing characteristics of a young, fresh Meritage. Those that were flawed had muted aromas and a distinct sour taste, centered on the middle of the tongue. If all the bottles were made as one batch, and given equal ingredients, temperatures, and processes, what could cause a few to be flawed and the rest to be good?
Yesterday’s tasting and my ensuing homework (David: “Jolan, bring home these three bottles and taste them.”) got me thinking about common wine flaws, and how to recognize them. Part of our detective work yesterday afternoon involved weaning out possible flaws: cork taint, for instance, wouldn’t be an issue with the bottles, because we use synthetic corks. I’ve put together a short list of the most frequent wine flaws, as a helpful guide to recognizing what, exactly, it might be that’s making your tongue pucker.
Trichloroanisole 2,4,6 (aka TCA, aka cork taint)
Trichloroanisole 2,4,6 is one of the most common wine flaws found in a bottle. I’ve heard statistics that claim TCA is found in three to five percent of bottles – one source even claimed that TCA is in one out of every ten. That may be true, but most of us aren’t sensitive enough to the chemical to actually recognize the faintest of taints. TCA comes from natural corks: many are bleached for aesthetics, and if a cork is not properly cleaned after this process, the chemical compound TCA can occur. TCA causes aromas and flavors of wet cardboard (think of old, musty boxes found in your leaky basement), and results in what we called “corked” wines. TCA can be faint, or strong, but if you can recognize it, your wine is most certainly flawed.
(Note: Wine bottles stopped with synthetic corks and screw tops, or wine in bags, are not susceptible to cork taint.)
Sulfur is an important part of wine making. Sulfur functions as a preservative, and has been used for hundreds and hundreds of years. Sulfur even occurs as a natural part of the fermentation process. However! Too much sulfur dioxide can result in aromas of burnt matches, with bitter flavors. Too much hydrogen sulfide can result in aromas of rotten eggs, with soapy flavors.
Brettanomyces (aka Brett)
One of the more famous quotes in the wine world comes from Anthony Hanson, a British Master of Wine who once said, “Great Burgundy smells of shit.” This is one of the most unappetizing ways of describing wine that I can think of, even if it does refer to one of the world’s most regal and prestigious drinks.
Brettanomyces is a strain of yeast that can occur in wine, both before and after bottling, most commonly due to unsanitary winery conditions. Brett has been hotly debated, because when present in small amounts, it can lend a certain unique complexity, with flavors and aromas of clove, smoke, and leather. (Ever have a really, really good red Burgundy? See the above quote.) When too intense, however, Brett can cause wine to reek of barnyards and dirty socks. Definitely a good reason to send a bottle back, and try again.