Friday night means three things in my home: quality time with my wife, our weekly Shabbat and the ceremonial opening of the week’s “nice” bottle of wine. As cash strapped young professionals, we treat ourselves to this luxury to remind us of the nice things we’ll be able to afford someday. Hopefully.
As I poured last week’s chardonnay, I was immediately taken aback by the dark yellow color. I dismissed it as the byproduct of long oak barrel aging. That is, until I smelled it. The powerful scent of maple syrup and hazelnuts smacked my olfactory receptors.
“Interesting,” Natali said with a quizzical look on her face, “It’s different. Kinda reminds me of the sherry we had in Spain.”
“Yeah,” I said, my heart falling, “it’s not supposed to taste like sherry.”
“No sweetie,” she said, rubbing my back reassuringly, as if I was personally responsible for the spoilage of the wine, “it’s not that bad.”
But it was. It was really, really bad.
Depending on what statistics you look at, anywhere between 3 and 7 percent of all wine produced around the world ends up spoiled in some way by the time it reaches the consumer. Although there are as many ways for wine to spoil as there are ways to make it taste good, two major types of spoilage are the most common to look out for.
The first is oxidization. If you open a bottle and smell something that is overly nutty, tastes woody or acidic and, in the case of white wine, is much darker than you expected, your wine is oxidized. If you’ve ever decanted a young red wine, you know that exposing it to air lets the oxygen soften the wine, making it less tannic. Unwanted oxygen, however, will age a wine prematurely and turn it into a sherry-like liquid or, worse, vinegar. The way to combat this problem is proper storage. Always keep wine stored on its side, so the cork is constantly moist. Also, the area it is kept in should be at a constant, low temperature (around 55 degrees Fahrenheit). If you are keeping the wine for more than a couple weeks, make sure it is also kept at a higher humidity. Fluctuation in temperature and humidity makes the cork expand and contract, and slowly but surely lets air leak in.
Another common cause for spoilage is what is referred to in the wine industry as “corkage” or a “corked wine.” If your wine looks normal, but when you put it to your nose you are assaulted by the scent of wet basement, dirty gym socks or damp dog, your wine is corked. Corks are washed with a mild solution that contains a very small amount of bleach. After they are sterilized, the corks are rinsed of this solution and placed in their bottles. If, however, even the most miniscule amount of this cleaning solution remains on the cork, the chemical will react with the wine and create a new compound called trichloranisole, or TCA. This is the chemical that changes the flavor and scent of your Bordeaux into that of a root cellar after a rainstorm. It is important to note that, while offensive to your nose, TCA is harmless to your health.
In any circumstance with a wine that has spoiled, you, the consumer, have the absolute right to return the bottle to the store for a new one or a refund. Don’t feel bad for the wine storeowners, either. The bottles are returned to the distributors and importers and the store receives credit for these bad bottles. It’s a hassle, but one that is de rigueur in the wine industry.
As for our foul bottle of chardonnay, we took it back to the store and picked up a bottle of sherry instead. The spoilage had inspired us to sip a wine that is oxidized on purpose. But that’s a subject for another column.