Lauren Friel on August 10, 2016 0 Comments It’s a moment every wine lover has had at least once: pulling a coveted, fussed-over bottle from the wine cooler, we anxiously anticipate its slow expression in the glass. We ceremoniously open and pour the wine for our guests while espousing its great lineage, closing our eyes, putting our nose in the glass, inhaling deeply, thrilled to finally smell the sweeping, lilting aromas awaiting us. Those sweeping, lilting aromas float out of the glass, and we are struck with the unmistakable, unparalleled aroma of…wet dog. We take our nose out of the glass. We put it back in. We take it out again. We put it back in. We think maybe someone’s coat is damp, but it’s July, and we live in Nevada. Perhaps it’s the glass. We get another. It’s not the glass. We close our eyes, and this time, we are forced to accept the truth: the wine is flawed. There is perhaps no greater tragedy in the world of wine and winemaking than a flawed bottle. Unfortunately for us, there are a multitude of potential bacteria, molds, storage issues, production mistakes and wild yeasts that threaten a wine’s expression at every stage of its life. Some winemaking flaws are the result of human error. Some winemaking flaws are unavoidable curses from nature. Many don’t show themselves until well after the wine is bottled, making it difficult to predict perfection when investing in a cellar. Fear not, friends. There’s hope in this dire scenario. As it turns out, some winemaking flaws aren’t so black-and-white. Some are avoidable. Some are correctable. Some aren’t, but then, they’re part of what makes wine a great adventure. Read on to learn how to tell the good and the bad from the ugly, and what to do when they show up at your dinner party. Click Here to View All Home Winemaking Equipment The (Debatably) Good 1. Oxidation What it is: Oxidation is the result of extended exposure to air at some point in the wine’s life, usually post-fermentation. The same process that turns a cut apple brown when it’s forgotten at the table, oxidation can change a wine’s molecular structure and result in drastic differences in expression. Some wines – like sherry, vin jaune, and other hyper-regional and traditional examples – are intentionally oxidized, and low levels of oxidation in orange wines are what help lend depth and complexity to their hallmark rustic style. Additionally, slow oxidation over time is what gives aged wines their rich array of secondary and tertiary aromas; however, signs of oxidation in young wines mean something went wrong. Oxidation can occur during maturation in barrel or tank, or it can be the result of a faulty closure; a dry cork will allow air to creep into the bottle, for example, which is why it’s important to store bottles on their side if you plan to age them over a period of several years. What it smells/looks like: You can spot oxidized white wines and rosés by their golden, orange or copper color. They’ll often have a nutty aroma and feel flat on the palate, with pronounced acidity and few fruit notes. Reds will have a brickish or brown tinge and a “dried-out” nose of leaves or dusty books with little fruit expression. Again, these savory notes and deeper colors can mean complexity when they’re developed intentionally or over time, but when you discover oxidation in a Chablis or a young Napa Cabernet, for example, it’s a flat-out flaw. TIP: You can often spot potential oxidation without even opening the bottle; if the fill level is lower than an inch or so below the cork or there’s evidence of leakage, there’s a good chance a faulty closure is allowing air into the bottle. Can you save it? Sadly, no. Oxidation is forever. 2. Brettanomyces What it is: Brettanomyces (or “Brett,” as it’s lovingly called) is historically one of the most-debated winemaking flaws in the wine world. Resulting from the presence of a yeast strain of the same name, Brett gives Bordeaux wines their distinct expression, and at low levels it produces earthy, savory aromas and flavors that many wine drinkers prefer, but an overpopulation of the yeast can empty a room and make a wine unpalatable, especially when it’s found in lighter-bodied and aromatic reds (it can occur in whites, but it’s mostly the scourge of red wines). It’s a wild, hearty yeast that tends to hang out in warmer Mediterranean climates, and once it’s in a winemaker’s cellar, it can be difficult to control. What it smells/looks like: Brett is impossible to see, but boy can you smell it. Aromas of barnyard (and all of the other polite euphemisms we can conjure up here), leather, sweat, Band Aid and wet soil are the most common. In small doses, Brett just kicks a wine’s masculinity up a notch, and some wine lovers have a higher tolerance for its expression. When it runs amok, there aren’t enough euphemisms in existence to describe the funk. Can you save it? A hard or extended decant can sometimes ameliorate Brett’s strength, but there’s nothing you can do to remove its presence in the wine. 3. Volatile Acidity What it is: Volatile acidity (or “VA”) is also known as “vinegar taint”. It’s the result of higher-than-normal levels of acetyl acid in the wine and usually occurs during an unstable fermentation, though poor cellar hygiene and storage conditions can contribute to its occurrence. Like Brett, low levels of VA are acceptable and preferred by some winemakers, but high levels of acetyl acid are a true flaw. What it smells/looks like: VA is generally most obvious on the nose, causing the wine to smell like vinegar or acetone when the levels are high. In low doses, it can lend a pleasant floral or citrus aroma. Can you save it? Maybe. In extreme cases – when the acetyl acid levels are so high it feels as though your mucus membranes are being set on fire when you put your nose in the glass – probably not. In low levels, extended exposure to air in a decanter can sometimes calm it down a bit. TIP: VA sometimes decreases over time, so don’t give up on a whole case if you get one volatile bottle – set the rest aside and check back in after a few months. The Bad 4. Reduction What it is: Reduction is generally accepted to be the result of an unstable ionic compound that often develops when wines are fermented in anaerobic vessels like stainless steel tanks. There’s still some debate as to the how and why of it all, but it seems to be most common in cooler climate wines – Austrian Zweigelt often falls prey to reduction, for example. What it smells/looks like: Reduction will give both white and red wines a sulfuric smell; burnt match, rubber and rotten eggs are all indications of reduction. Can you save it? It depends on how extreme the reduction is. If it’s completely obscuring the rest of the wine, it’s probably too far gone. If the reduction is mild, however, introducing a piece of copper into the decanted bottle can sometimes help stabilize the wine (a pre-1980 penny can do the trick – as long as you wash it first). 5. Mousiness What it is: Sometimes a byproduct of too much Brett, mousiness is a winemaking flaw more often caused by a strain of bacteria we otherwise know and love: Lactobacillus. The same biological wonder that gives us digestion and yogurt can wreak serious havoc on wine, and its fickle expression can change from bottle to bottle – and even from day to day. What it smells/looks like: Mousiness tends to be most obvious on a wine’s finish, and though it’s named for the smell of mouse droppings, a more relevant descriptor for our modern (not mouse-infested) world is cereal milk. That toasty flavor left in the milk after your bowl of Wheaties is pretty close to how mousiness expresses when it infects your wine, and it can range from slightly unpleasant to downright overpowering. Can you save it? Nope. Unfortunately, mousiness has a tendency to progress rapidly once a bottle is opened, and there’s nothing you can do to stop its runaway train ruining of your wine. 6. Secondary Fermentation What it is: Secondary fermentation is not – as we might hope – a second, better fermentation. Instead, it’s an unintentional reawakening of yeasts after a wine is bottled, resulting in a second fermentation and the presence of carbon dioxide gases. Generally, it happens when wines that are bottled with few preservatives are stored in an environment that’s warm enough to activate any remaining live yeast cells still present in the wine. Not to be confused with various traditional sparkling wine production methods that produce the hipster darling pét-nat wines, secondary fermentation occurs in bottles that are intended to be still wines. What it smells/looks like: Secondary fermentation doesn’t really have a distinct “off” smell, but you’ll know it by the soft fizz in your supposedly still wine. Can you save it? Maybe. Put the cork back in, hold your thumb over it for safe measure, and give it a good shake. You might be able to release some of the CO2 this way. Also, if it turns out you don’t mind a fizzy Syrah, no harm no foul – it’s perfectly safe to drink. The Ugly 7. Cork Taint (TCA) What is is: Cork Taint (or 2,4,6-trichloroanisole, if you want to get geeky) is the winemaking flaw to end all winemaking flaws. An estimated one in ten bottles of wine produced are infected with the chemical compound, and it’s responsible for devastating wines in every region around the globe. TCA is particularly insidious, because mere nanograms of the stuff are enough to take down a bottle, and once it’s in a winemaker’s cellar, it’s extremely difficult to root out. TIP: Cork taint does not, as is commonly assumed, occur only in wines with natural cork closures. If the compound has taken hold in a cellar, it can infect barrels, equipment and storage areas, meaning wines are susceptible at every stage of their winemaking process. What it smells/looks like: Sweaty socks, musty basement, wet newspaper, wet dog – none of the things you want to sip on. Can you save it? There’s a hopeful home remedy involving pouring the wine over a sheet of plastic wrap, but TCA affects the molecular structure of the wine it infects, so even if those off notes “stick,” the wine won’t be the same.