We’ve all been there. After carefully examining the wine list and maybe even chatting up the sommelier for a few recommendations, you put in an order for a nice bottle of wine. The sommelier returns and presents you with your selection. You confirm it’s the correct wine by checking the label and then sit back, as the sommelier opens the bottle and pours your taste. You sniff and sip, anticipating delightful aromas and tastes, but … something’s off.
Maybe it’s the smell or a distinct lack of character. Whatever the reason, you’re disappointed. It could be that the wine just didn’t meet your expectations but it could also be that the wine has a fault, a defect resulting from poor wine-making or storage conditions.
While some wine faults are more common than others, there’s a good chance a regular wine drinker will experience at least one or more of the faults detailed below. If you encounter one of these spoilers, alert your sommelier or server and request a new bottle.
1. Your Wine is “Corked”
This isn’t a clever way of saying someone has had too much to drink. A wine is considered corked when a chemical compound called 2,4,6-Trichloroanisole – or TCA for short – finds its way into natural cork, resulting in cork taint. Looking at the cork won’t give you any clues about whether your bottle is corked, but smelling the wine definitely will.
Cork taint imparts a musty or moldy smell that overpowers other aromas – think damp basement, wet newspaper, or wet dog. In addition to the smell, corked wines will lack fruit characteristics and may be dominated by “off” flavors when tasted.
2. Your Wine is Oxidized
Remember that time you took a bite of an apple and left it on the counter for a while? The brown color and dull taste that resulted can also happen to your wine. Too much exposure to oxygen will leave wine tasting lackluster and bitter, with little or no fruit characteristics. Even the color can be affected. Red wines can develop a brown or dull brick red color, while white wines may develop a golden brown or orange tinge. If left continually exposed to oxygen, red wine will eventually turn into vinegar.
Sealed bottles can become oxidized if too much air seeps through the cork during the ageing process, but most people will encounter this fault from wines offered by the glass that haven’t been stored properly after opening.
If you suspect wine is a bit off due to the bottle being open too long, let your server or bartender know and ask if they can open a fresh bottle.
3. Your Wine is “Cooked”
Extreme heat fluctuations can make a wine taste flat, dull, or even like stewed fruit, if exposed to heat for an extended period of time. This type of damage can happen in transit – maybe a shipment of wine was left sitting in the hot sun on a loading dock – but it can also result from poor storage in the restaurant or store. That spot right next to the stove, or the window display with loads of natural light? Not great locations for wine storage.
Another sign that your wine has overheated is a slightly protruding cork, indicating the contents have heated and expanded. Wine seepage around the cork can also be a sign of overheating. Depending how much heat exposure the wine has had, the effect may not be altogether unpleasant. But if the overwhelming aromas are of a raisin-y, stewed fruit nature, ask for a different bottle.
Storage at consistent temperatures, generally around 55 degrees Fahrenheit but no more than 65 degrees Fahrenheit, is ideal for keeping your wine happy.
4. Your Wine Became Attached to the Wrong Sulfur
Sulfur has a complicated relationship with wine. One particular type, sulfur dioxide, is added to almost all wines as a stabilizer and natural preservative to keep bacteria away. But sometimes your wine gets a wandering eye and becomes attached to other types of sulfur, such as dihydrogen sulfide, which can lead to rotten egg, flatulence, burnt rubber, or skunk, aromas no one wants associated with their wine.
5. Your Wine Changed Its Name to “Brett”
Brettanomyces, also known as Brett, is a type of yeast that likes to hang out in wineries, especially in barrels. Brett can be tricky to identify, as certain strains of the yeast can impart earthy or meaty aromas that some people find appealing in small amounts. However, if your wine smells primarily of barnyards, rotten meat, or adhesive bandages, you should consider sending the wine back.
6. Your Wine Got Hungry
If your wine has tiny bubbles when it shouldn’t, it’s possible the wine went through a secondary fermentation. This can happen when small amounts of both yeast and residual sugar are left in the wine at the time bottling. The yeast, being the hungry beast that it is, will naturally start eating the sugar, producing alcohol and carbon dioxide, the by-products of fermentation.
Since the bottle is already sealed, the carbon dioxide has nowhere to go, leading to a slightly fizzy and off-tasting wine. Some wines, such as Vinho Verde or some Gruner Veltliners, will purposely be put through a secondary fermentation to add some zip. The difference in these cases is that the flavor of the wines should remain fresh and bright.
7. Your Wine Just Isn’t What You Expected
If there’s an obvious fault with your wine, such as one of the above examples, there shouldn’t be any question about the restaurant replacing the bottle. What to do when the wine you ordered simply is not what you expected can be less clear.
Even when you’re familiar with a particular grape or producer, a wine can still be disappointing for a number of reasons. Perhaps the producer used different production or aging methods. Maybe the region where the wine was produced experienced unusual weather during the growing season or harvest.
In most cases, a restaurant will understand that the wine did not meet your expectations and offer to help you find a more suitable bottle. For expensive bottles, this approach is more difficult to justify if the wine is otherwise without fault, which could leave you footing the bill regardless if you drink the wine or not.
Here is where being direct with your sommelier or server about your preferences right at the start will help. Don’t be afraid to take your time with this discussion. Use your own words to describe what you like and don’t like, or give an example of a bottle you often buy for yourself. If you’re not sure how to describe the wines you like, don’t hesitate to ask for a taste of something offered by the glass to guide your decision.
Remember that the sommelier or server is on your side! The restaurant is most interested in ensuring you are satisfied with your selection, even if you have to taste two or three wines to get there. You might even find your sommelier will relish the challenge of finding something you’ll enjoy. If your sommelier or server does go the extra mile to find you the right wine, be sure to tip accordingly for the effort.
At the end of the day, even wines that don’t meet your expectations impart valuable knowledge. The best way to learn more is to keep on tasting!