Have you ever spent a small fortune on a bottle of wine, whether at a restaurant or at a bin auction, or even at your local store, and it just tasted… off?
I recently had the amazing opportunity to try a 2009 Hermitage by E. Guigal (Hermitage = Syrah grapes). By looking at the wine, I knew it was an oldie – it was a slightly turbid garnet with a bricked rim (got lighter and lighter towards the edge), so I excitedly gave it a whiff.
It was pretty closed i.e. not super aromatic. Wouldn’t you be all cramped up after being in a bottle for 20+ years? I can’t handle more than an hour in an airplane seat. However, the “problem” with the wine was a vinegar scent and astringent taste. Was the wine faulty? I had never had the privilege of drinking such an old Hermitage so I didn’t want to jump to conclusions because it didn’t fully fit in any of the wine fault boxes.
We decanted it (as many, but not necessarily all, old wines should be) to see if it would open up and the fruit notes would return. After about an hour it was still the same. Another half hour we poured it in our glasses and I let mine sit for a while more. It did soften slightly, so something was definitely helping to lift that wine out of its 21 year slumber, but it still had that sour note. In hindsight, I think we could have let the wine sit for 2-3 hours at least, but pouring it into glasses and letting it sit there also increased the exposure to oxygen, thus speeding up the decanting process slightly.
It’s not uncommon, according to Wine Folly some high quality winemakers can use Volatile Acidity (aka V.A. aka acetic acid) to impart specific flavors in their wines like Balsamic Vinegar. Furthermore in the Rhone wines are known for having some extra “funk”. This wine was drinkable, but it wasn’t fruity or earthy, it had the depth and body of a Syrah, but none of the black pepper or fruit notes. Maybe it was just past its prime. Or maybe, that’s exactly how it was supposed to taste. We drank it, and it was fun to discuss the possibilities of faults and winemaking techniques. So, at the end of the day even if it wasn’t the greatest bottle we’ve ever had, it was a fun experience – which is exactly what wine should be.
However, it is important to know wine faults so that they can be properly identified when they come up. They won’t come up often, but when they do you can at least enjoy the bottle for what it is – a learning experience. Most suppliers will also refund your purchase and give you a new bottle (if possible) to try.
Rather than discussing all wine fault categories (as that’s a lot and can be daunting) I’ll list the three that are most common and the three I thought possible in this case.
Here’s the biggest thing you need to take away though – If you like the wine, drink it. If it’s not enjoyable, get a new bottle and be done with it. Life is too short to drink wine you don’t like!
General sensibilities and even thresholds of perception for various foul-smelling compounds in wine can vary from person to person, and some compounds regarded by modern drinkers as faults have been historically associated with terroir.
Beyond cork taint—a fault at any perceivable level—all of the following faults may give pleasure to some and cause others to recoil, depending on their relative concentrations in the wine.GuildSomm.com The Science of Tasting
Have you ever heard someone refer to a bottle of wine as “corked?” Cork taint (also known scientifically as TCA short for 2, 4, 6, Trichloroanisole) happens when the cleaning chemicals used to sanitize barrels, winemaking equipment and anything else can can come into contact with the wine, interact with it and create TCA. It’s harmless if you drink it, so don’t worry about getting sick, but it does negatively impact the taste and aroma of your wine. So what does this do to wine?
- Muted taste, in other words the flavor will be dull or it won’t taste like much.
- Bitter Taste (like sour fruit, more so than straight up vinegar)
- Moldy/musty odor – but sometimes winemakers like a musty odor, so that isn’t always a bad thing. It’s bad when it get’s overwhelming and unpleasant.
TCA and TBA are haloanisoles, containing chlorine and bromine atoms, respectively, produced by the degradation of halophenols by fungi and bacteria… the [otherwise harmless] effect is the same: suppressed fruit, bitterness, and odors likened to wet newspapers, damp basements, and mold. From a business standpoint, “corked” wines should be rejected, and returned for full credit to the supplier.GuildSomm.com The Science of Tasting
Volatile Acidity (aka V.A.)
This simply implies a fault that causes wine to smell (and taste) like vinegar. Typically you’ll find this has happened with a bottle you opened a few days ago. You see – volatile acidity needs oxygen. So it’s not typical to find this sort of fault in a newly opened bottle. Which was also why I didn’t think the 1999 Hermitage could have been effected by V.A. as it was opened that evening.
However, after doing further research, I found that acetic acid can grow in barrels that are infrequently opened, or it could grow in bottled wines with faulty closures. In the past, I’ve gotten bottles with corks that have crumbled when I’ve opened them. That’s an example of a faulty closure. I looked at the cork for the 1999 Hermitage and it seemed to be sound, there was minimal staining on the bottom and the cork had not rotten in any way.
Perhaps it’s the barrels in the winemaker’s warehouse? I checked out E. Guigal’s website. Their database online does not go as far back as 1999 so I could only find the 2015 vintage. It didn’t say anything other than oak aging 50% new for 36 months. This could be a possibility for the sour note we were noticing, but it’s not very convincing to me.
That only left one other possible conclusion, if this wine was indeed faulted.
This happens due to heat exposure. When wines are not stored properly and get too hot (it doesn’t take much! 80 F is way too hot for a bottle of wine, get it down to 65 and it’ll stay alive!) they can become maderized. Some experts say that this is a “cooked” taste, whereas the fruits are cooked, think raisins as opposed to fresh ripe grapes. Some even say there can be a nutty characteristic, like Sherry has, from heat exposure.
Here’s the problem with this theory too – there were NO raisins or cooked notes in this 1999 Hermitage. So what gives?
Sometimes Old World (European) winemakers like earthy, savory, and game-y notes in their wines. Rhone especially have a lot of “sanguine” (blood?) and tar notes (sounds appealing, doesn’t it?). However, I’ve had some of these wines that are off-the-charts incredible! And those notes that sound not good? Trust me – they blend so well with the fruit and herb notes in the wines.
I suppose we’ll never know for sure about that wine.
If you are ever in this situation, I recommend you decant it for at least 1-2 hours (so if you know you are going to be serving it, open it early) if after that time it’s improved but still not 100%, continue to decant it and have other bottles open as options until that wine is ready. If after 3 hours you find it’s still not there – best to move on and enjoy your other wines.