Wine ‘Falls Apart’

ageingWine is a living thing; just like the people in the picture above (thanks to all-free-download.com), it has a youth, a middle period when it’s in its prime and an old age. And, depending on the wine, that lifespan can range from as little as a year, as in a Beaujolais Nouveau, to several decades or even longer for a fine Bordeaux or Rhône.

But, once you open a bottle, the wine will start to change – for better or worse – as a result of the wine coming into contact with the air. So, a very old wine may have become quite fragile over its lifetime and will only show its character for a few minutes once uncorked and poured into your glass before moving to a sad, vinegary end. At the other extreme, a young, tannic red may be completely ‘closed’ at first – lacking in any smell or much taste – until it is decanted, which exposes it to lots of air and brings out the flavours that were initially hidden. In a few cases, like some Portuguese wines, this process may take up to 24 hours, but it’s worth it.

But a young white I opened recently surprised me. At first, it made pleasant, easy drinking as an aperitif and continued very attractively accompanying our meal. But, there was some left in my glass at the end of dinner that (unusually) I forgot about and, when I went back to it a couple of hours later, the wine had noticeably darkened in colour and, in my wife’s words, ‘it has fallen apart’. This described perfectly what we were now tasting: the wine had become oxidized, with that distinctive sherry-like taste, the acidity had become far more prominent and sharper and, although alcohol has no actual taste, you could clearly detect the alcohol on the wine that had not been noticeable earlier.

The reason for the change? I suspect a spoiling bacteria called acetobacter – the same rogue I mentioned earlier responsible for turning an old wine into vinegar. But, it is very rare for this change to happen so quickly in a young wine. Although the winemaking may have been at fault, acetobacter thrives in high temperatures and, more likely is that, somewhere on its way to me, this bottle had been kept in an overheated warehouse. A disappointing finish, but most of the bottle was very drinkable.

Nasty, smelly wine!

Ians mugshotYou open a bottle of wine and instead of the lovely, fresh appealing aromas you were hoping for, a nasty smell hits your nose. Something is obviously wrong, but what? – and what, if anything, can you do about it?

It depends on the smell. Perhaps the most likely is a musty, mouldy smell. This suggests a ‘corked’ wine. Corked wine is nothing to do with bits of cork floating about in the glass, which are harmless (take them out with a spoon or your finger and be more careful opening the bottle next time) – but is the result of a problem in the cork production process which has tainted the cork, which, in turn, has spoiled the wine. Nothing you can do except take the bottle back for a replacement or refund.

Another possibility is the wine might smell a bit like sherry or vinegar and a white wine might also be an unduly dark colour. This wine is oxidised – oxygen will, somehow, have got into the bottle and ruined the wine. This happens at times with plastic bottle stoppers that don’t fit properly or with poor corks or poor storage and, again, there’s no remedy – just take it back for a refund.

The opposite of oxidation – where too little oxygen is present can also be a fault. It is usually called ‘reduction’ (and that’s a useful shorthand, although I know that some scientists think the term is misleading). Reduction is most often – but not exclusively – found in screw-capped bottles and shows in a number of ways: smells of sewage, manure or rotten eggs are common. Happily, this problem is not always terminal; introducing some oxygen to the wine by, for example, decanting or simply leaving it in the glass for a few minutes, can revive the wine but, if it doesn’t, your remedy is as before.

There are other faults that are less common, but sometimes even wines in good condition can have unusual and unpleasant smells; one winemaker used to say that “good Burgundy smells like s**t!” So, how can you tell if there’s a problem? Perhaps, only by experience, and, in fact, even experts often argue whether certain smells represent a fault or are a characteristic of the style of wine.

I should say that none of the faults I have mentioned would actually harm you if you drank the wine. But you wouldn’t enjoy it, so my advice is, if you’re unhappy with how a wine smells, then reject it. Most wine waiters, wine merchants and supermarkets are keen to please their customers and will usually exchange or refund quite willingly. But you do need to ask – and sometimes be persistent!