You've scanned the wine list to find the perfect match. One of them catches your eye. The description sounds perfectly delectable and you know this varietal is your type. Your waiter presents the bottle to your table. Your friends all nod in approval. The wine is poured; you lean in to your glass hoping to catch the lovely aroma and instead get a whiff of something that reminds you of when it rained on that pile of newspapers you were going to recycle or your grandmother's old musty basement. Your wine has a flaw that will not pass muster with you or your friends. It seemed like the perfect choice. How did this happen?
Despite the winemaker’s best efforts, occasionally you will run into a wine that is flawed. There is a practical reason for why you try the wine before you commit to the bottle. In the case above, your wine had been infected with trichloranisole or T.C.A. Your wine is "corked", meaning a fungus has managed to set up camp in your unsuspecting wine’s cork. However, simply saying "This wine is corked" to your waiter will be sufficient. Despite the best sanitary processes this is a common flaw that can impact anywhere from 5- 15% of wines that use cork closures. This percentage depends on whether you are talking to wine tasting experts or cork producers.
Other flaws you may encounter are brettanomyces and volatile acidity. Depending on your own sensitivity, you may or may not find this offensive. At low levels, both can contribute to the “complexity” of the wine. Brettanomyces, commonly referred to as Brett, is wild yeast that can get into wine and leave its calling card. At more noticeable levels, your wine will smell like a barnyard and not the good earthy aspects. Specifically, it will smell like a horse's stall or even a manure like scent. Brett will also tend to have a sour acidity upon tasting. It is a flaw that typically impacts red wines.
Your chosen wine does not smell like a dank basement or a barnyard but instead reeks of vinegar or nail polish remover, blame Volatile Acidity (V.A). Acetic acid bacteria can contaminate a wine and produce vinegar in the wine. Wines impacted by VA can taste vinegary and will have an unpleasant lingering aftertaste. If the acetic acid, (vinegar), has reacted with the alcohol in the wine, the wine will smell of acetone or nail polish remover and will be very unpleasant to drink. This smell is hard to miss if you have ever gotten a manicure.
Some things you might notice about your wine are perfectly acceptable. If you notice that the end of the cork that was exposed to the wine is crusty, there is no reason to be alarmed. The crust is tartrate crystals that formed from the tartaric acid in the wine. Sediment in wine is perfectly natural as well. Don't dismiss your wine if you notice these things. Wine is alive and evolving and sometimes it leaves evidence.
This concludes the WCWC PSA for the season. Back to our restaurant scenario. You could not help but notice one of the above flaws with your wine. The self doubt kicks in and you start to dread having to make a fuss. It is time to have "the talk" with your waiter. Life is too short to drink bad wine. Do you want to celebrate with Moldy Merlot or Cuvee Barnyard Blend? If the wine is flawed, you should feel comfortable sending the wine back or returning it to the store. If you still feel unsure ask your server to taste the wine to confirm. There is no reason to feel guilty. The restaurant gets reimbursed from distributor for flawed wines. Wine stores also get reimbursed from the wholesaler so just be sure to bring back the wine and not just a receipt and a great story.
If you want to learn more or find examples of these flaws, visit Copia in Napa Valley. They have an interesting twist on the wine automat machine. One machine's theme is "Finding Faults with Wine" The machine will dispense for you examples of TCA and Brett and other common flaws in wine. Amazon also has this kit, for "entertaining" sniffing Le Nez du Vin Wine Flaws The Nose of Wine Essence Kits