Modern techniques produce more quality wine than ever before. Alas, things still go wrong.
Here’s what to look for, likely cause, what to do about it.
• Corked. Smells like moldy newspaper or damp basement. Found only in cork-closure wine, usually blamed on sanitation problems at cork manufacturer. Problem was much worse a decade ago, giving boost to synthetic closures and twist caps. At a restaurant, return corked wine. At home, pour down the drain if you can’t drink it.
• Brett. Smells of “barnyard,” manure, wet dog. Caused by brettanomyces yeast. A little brett is considered good for some wines, including pinot noir. It adds “complexity.” Decanting can help. Unless it is flagrant problem, not a return-the-bottle issue.
• Sulfur. Smells of matches, tire rubber, rotten eggs. Caused by errors in sulfur dioxide use during bottling. You may be able to return bottle to store; reject at restaurant.
• Volatile acidity. Smells of vinegar, nail polish. Caused by acetic bacteria and poor winemaking. Decant, allow wine to breathe and odor to blow off. It is a lost cause if it doesn’t improve in half an hour or so. Don’t buy maker again.
• Oxidation. Amber-brown color, smell of old nuts, old apples. Caused by exposure to air because of cork flaw or because bottle open too long. If it is young wine, reject at restaurant. If it happens because you opened bottle four days ago, live and learn.
• Lightstrike. Smells of wet cardboard or wet wool. Caused by long exposure to ultraviolet light; happens most often in delicate wines. Reason wines are bottled in colored glass, and why you store wine in dark environment. Bigger problem in beer, by the way.
Good news: you can drink a whole lot of wine and never encounter these issues.
• Montes Colchagua Valley Malbec 2011. Simple, easy drinker; juicy cherry, raspberry; soft tannins; not wow wine, but clean Chilean value. $8
• Famille Perrin Côtes du Rhône Villages 2010. Dense crimson; blackberry-cherry-plum, licorice; silk tannin; easy-drinking, everyday delight. $14
• Bodegas Bilbainas Viña Zaco Tempranillo 2008. Dark fruit, cherry candy, plum, mint hint, earth; rustic, straightforward, basic Rioja. $14