Guess what: You’re probably making mistakes with your wine that lead to big disappointment once the bottle is opened. Don’t worry, you’re not alone. Virtually everyone has popped a bottle of wine only to find with the first sip that something is horribly, horribly wrong (at least it was in a perfectly polished wine glass). Wine faults are a fact of life. As a sommelier, I’ve learned to be able to pick out a wine’s faults and the vital steps needed to help stop wine from going off. I’ll share the how-tos and what-to-dos for those moments when your bottle seems like a lost cause.
Your Wine Is Oxidized
It’s Friday night and you’re about to start a casual wine tasting with friends. You pop open your wine and fill your glass only to notice that it doesn’t look right. Instead of its typical brilliant hue, it looks a bit brownish. As you bring the glass to your nose to inhale the aromas, you immediately notice the wine has lost its freshness and smells more like bruised fruit, or worse, vinegar. The culprit? Oxidation.
Some styles of wine are deliberately oxidized. The most famous example is sherry, but you can find plenty of examples in other corners of the wine world. And while a little oxygen can be a good thing—it’s the reason we let our wines breathe—too much can spell disaster. Both red and white wines can fall victim to oxidation, but white wines are slightly more prone. Put the brakes on oxidation by storing your wine on its side so that the contents keep in contact with the cork. If it’s too late, you can always make a tasty vinaigrette.
Your Wine Has Been “Cooked”
Maderization takes its name from the Portuguese fortified wine, Madeira, which is heated to create its unique flavors. While delicious for Madeira, when your standard table wine meets too much heat, the results leave something to be desired. Also known as cooked wine, this is what happens when a wine has been subjected to high temperatures. Look for jammy, cooked fruit, and nutty aromas. Again, prevention is key. Keep your wine in a dark, cool room free from dramatic temperature fluctuations. This means that kitchens, attics, and the trunk of your car are all off limits.
Your Wine Smells Like Matchsticks
Sulfur is used during winemaking to help keep the wine from oxidizing and to kill off any lingering yeast and bacteria. It’s a food preservative found in many of the things we enjoy and helps keep our food fresh and unspoiled.
We’re in luck here because this issue is pretty darn simple to fix. The easy way to make wine taste better in this situation is to decant. Pour your wine into a decanter and gently give it a quick swirl or two. Let the wine stand for a few minutes, then go ahead and pour it into your glass. By now, any sulfur-derived odors should have blown off and you can carry on drinking as if nothing ever happened.
Your Wine Smells Like a Barnyard
Considered a boon to some and a bust for others, Brettanomyces can make your wine smell like something straight off the ranch. Often abbreviated to “brett,” Brettanomyces is a type of yeast which can infiltrate your wine and make it, for lack of a better word, a bit funky. Barnyard, horse blanket and mouse are some of the common ways folks describe it.
Unlike most of the other wine faults on this list, brett can sometimes be a good thing. In certain wines, it can add complexity to the overall flavor and aromas in your glass. In a nutshell, it really depends on the style of wine being made and what you as a wine lover prefer to sip on. These wines are killer with game dishes.
Your Wine Is Corked
Oh, the dreaded cork taint. Is there anything worse than bringing home a bottle of wine only to open it up and discover it’s corked? Talk about one way to ruin an evening. Cork taint is caused by a chemical compound that gives off an unmistakable odor: the telltale wet cardboard scent. Other red flags include muted fruit aromas and flavors and a general musty character. Don’t worry; it’s safe to drink. It just won’t taste very good. And good news: This wasn’t your fault.
There’s not much you can do to fix a bottle once it’s corked. While most believe only 1-3 percent of all bottles sealed with a natural cork are tainted, the best way to avoid the problem is by seeking out wines which use a synthetic cork or are bottled under a screw cap. If you do find yourself with a corked bottle on your hands, stuff the cork back in the neck and return it to the store where you purchased it.
Unfortunately, there isn’t much you can do about many wine faults. The best chance you have for making sure your wine is the best it can be is prevention. Store your wine the right way and always buy from a wine merchant you trust. When in doubt, always have a backup bottle on hand! If you decide to go the boxed wine route, here are our top picks.