A Sad Story of Three Bottles Gone Bad

Last night all we wanted was a decent glass of red wine to enjoy while bundled up inside, watching the snow fall outside. But it didn’t work like that… instead, we ended up opening three bottles of wine. Not because we are lushes, but because every bottle we opened had a wine fault. 

Instead of viewing our night as a disaster, we decided to view it as an educational moment, comparing the three wines against one another and discussing the various off notes we were getting. 

I’m not going to reveal the name of the wineries that produced these wines, because, honestly, faults occur and in many cases it isn’t because of the winery. The bottles may have been stored incorrectly at the wine shop being left in the light or upright when they should have been laid down; the corks may have been tainted- something that occurs randomly in even the most clean and highest quality wineries; or the buyer may have aged it for too long in the incorrect conditions. 

Not So Bad: Wine #1

The first wine was one that wasn’t so wrong, in fact, the fault could be considered a positive in some breweries and wineries. The wine came in a classic brownish green 750 ml wine bottle with a cork; we purchased it from the winery in 2016 and stored horizontally in our basement.

Varietal: Cabernet FrancS

Smell & Taste: Initially we got a big whiff of forest floor, wet leather, and barnyard with just a few hints of cherry. As the wine opened, the barnyard and manure smells increased and overtook every other smell. The taste was of black cherry and green pepper with a slight hint of smoke. 

Possible Fault: Brettanomyces or Brett, a yeast genus that gives off earth aromas, and can smell like anything from wild game to rancid cheese. We think the wine had this fault because while the smell was off, the taste was still fine, and some of those “off notes” were kind of interesting and fun. This was the only wine that we kept drinking. Another possibility is that the wine was reduced- a lack of oxygen during the winemaking process- but that produces more mushroom and cabbage smells which I didn’t get as much. 

Getting Worse: Wine #2

The second wine we had purchased from a large grocery like store, and it came in a brown 750 ml bottle that was sealed with a screw top. This was purchased in 2018 and stored upright in our basement. 

Varietal: A red blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc

Smell & Taste: Upon opening it, we were assaulted by the smell of rotten, old cherries and bruised fruit. While the wine was colder, the smell wasn’t as bad, but as it warmed it increasingly moved to more bruised and rotting fruit smells. The taste was of raisined fruit, like dried out cherries, and still wasn’t pleasant. 

Possible Fault: Oxidation is the most likely culprit, and is probably due to a faulty screwtop. Oxidation occurs when too much oxygen gets into wine- you can most easily notice it when you don’t finish off a bottle of wine fast enough and it has raisin or old fruit notes. Screw tops are supposed to help prevent this flaw, but it can still happen especially if the screw top isn’t put on correctly or if it was transported poorly (this wine did do some traveling with us, so it’s possible the top got damaged). 

Totally Wrong: Wine #3

The final wine was in the classic green 750 ml wine bottle sealed with a cork; we had purchased it from the winery in 2016 and stored it horizontally in our cellar. 

Varietal: Red blend, unsure of the specific varietals but pretty sure it included Merlot and Zinfandel

Smell & Taste: This smelled like pure alcohol and as it opened shifted towards paint thinner and vinegar. Honestly, I’ve never smelled a wine that was so bad. I didn’t even want to taste it. 

Possible Fault: Volatile acidity is something I hadn’t run into before, and I hope I don’t again. Volatile acidity is mostly caused by bacteria in the wine created when it is exposed to too much oxygen in the fermentation process. It leads to smells like nail polish remover and paint thinner. Gross. 

Final Thoughts

On the one hand I’m bummed I didn’t get my glass of red wine, on the other it led to a really interesting discussion in our house. 

A huge thank you to Allison of Allison Uncorked for sending me a copy of Wine Folly’s new Magnum Edition Master Guide. The book has a great page on wine faults, and it was because of it that we were able to make these deductions and have a fun night regardless. 

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