When good wine goes bad

corks

Sometimes it's difficult to know if the wine you bought is really bad, or if it started out good but became flawed. This recently happened to me when I was celebrating with colleagues at an Italian restaurant. Because I mentioned that I was a fan of Italian reds, I was given the assignment of ordering the wine. I'm no oenophile, which I was quick to point out to our group, but I felt comfortable enough with the wine list to make a competent selection. I spotted a Barbara d'Alba from a well-respected producer. I'd read good reviews about this producer although I hadn't yet tasted any of its wines. So, fairly confident in my selection, I ordered a bottle for the table.

When the wine arrived, I took a sip from the obligatory tasting pour. It was a bit funky, but I was immersed in conversation and thought perhaps the wine just needed to breathe a bit, so I accepted it. Everyone else had their pours and began to sip. I didn't take a second drink until I noticed the looks on my coworkers' faces. To my horror, the little bit of funk had morphed into a mouthful of unpleasant barnyard. But by this time I felt uncomfortable sending the wine back because I had accepted it and we'd all had several sips. I was mortified and left to wonder if this bottle of wine was bad, or if I really knew that little about wine and completely misread the reviews. When I got home I reread the review, which noted this wine to have "pleasing, long-lasting flavors of plums and spices." That was not at all what we were served.

After reading a Wall Street Journal article on the ways in which wine can go bad, I feel a little better. I'm now convinced that this bottle was "bretty," a term with which I was unfamiliar until now. Most of us have probably heard the term "corked," which can result in wines that, at their worst, "smell like wet basement or damp newspaper."  A corked wine is infected with TCA, a nontoxic chemical compound that is often found in corks and can destroy or diminish a wine's character and flavor. Sometimes a corked wine will only be mildly affected, and many people won't even know that the wine is corked (not exactly confidence-inspiring for a novice wine drinker).

Wines can also suffer from exposure to too much or not enough oxygen ("reduced" and "oxidized," respectively), or afflicted by volatile acidity or by brettanomyces, a non-spore forming yeast often simply called "brett." (Brett is not always bad; it can be used to produce excellent beer.) These flaws are very different from each other, but all are the result of various winemaking practices. The WSJ article explains how these flaws can affect a bottle of wine, but I was struck by the description of a high concentration of brett, where the wine can have notes of "sweaty saddle all the way up to scents of 'pig sty.'" That exactly describes the wine we were served at our celebratory dinner.

I hope the WSJ article can help you avoid the unpleasantness that I encountered. To end on a more positive note, here are some recipes from the EYB library to use up your "leftover" wine (a circumstance I rarely encounter):

Lentils braised in red wine from Nigella Lawson
Farrotto with sun-dried tomatoes and saffron from The New York Times
Daube de Boeuf from Great British Chefs
Various recipes for Coq au vin
Biscotti di vino from Food52
Red wine chocolate cake from The Guardian

8 Comments

  • Christine  on  3/2/2014 at 5:05 PM

    I don't often have leftover wine either, but have made a delicious red wine risotto -- yum!

  • Rinshin  on  3/2/2014 at 5:30 PM

    Very interesting. I go through ahem about 4 bottles a week on average and only encountered VA wine once in my collection. I suspect it was past it's prime. I should have opened it earlier but it was one of the first good bottles I started collecting and wanted to keep it going. I ended up making it to a vinegar since it was already heading that way.

  • Rinshin  on  3/2/2014 at 5:30 PM

    Very interesting. I go through ahem about 4 bottles a week on average and only encountered VA wine once in my collection. I suspect it was past it's prime. I should have opened it earlier but it was one of the first good bottles I started collecting and wanted to keep it going. I ended up making it to a vinegar since it was already heading that way.

  • Cubangirl  on  3/2/2014 at 7:15 PM

    I too I far from an oenophile, but enjoy good wines. I seldom order bottles unless I've tasted that particular wine (including year) before. I do always ask for a taste if possible. Apparently I have a very expressive face, because more than once I've had waitpersons make suggestions for alternatives before I can say anything. My husband prefers reds and I prefer non-oaked whites, so we always have an opened bottle. Since I started using the foodsaver wine stoppers, we've been able to keep the wine as new till we finish the bottle. If the mine was just meh, I will often add it whatever I'm making even when the recipe does not call for wine or calls for a different color. Good experiences with that so far.

  • FuzzyChef  on  3/2/2014 at 11:27 PM

    Personally, I'm never afraid to send a wine back. They're charging 350% of the wine store cost of the wine, the can afford a few lost bottles. Also, I find that probably 1 out of 9 bottles of wine I buy are ruined in some way; on occasion, I've had an entire case be bad, and I've stopped ordering wine from Devitt in Oregon because their corking machine is clearly infected with TCA. So from the restaurant's perspective, a bad bottle of wine is a common occurance and isn't a big deal for them, so it shouldn't be for you. HOWEVER, some wines are slightly bretty on purpose, which means that they're not for everyone. I have a couple bottles of 100% Charbono in the closet and that's a chronically bretty wine. Barbera D'Alba isn't one, though, so if you're getting any taste of brett (or of mold), it's ruined, send it back.

  • boardingace  on  3/3/2014 at 7:52 AM

    I had no idea this could happen; thanks for letting us know!

  • TheVinoDiva  on  3/3/2014 at 1:55 PM

    I'm not a fan of brett either (I've heard it referred to as "barnyard") although a little can make for an interesting wine. I've read that as many as 10% of wines have some sort of flaw, and it was unfortunate for you to encounter it in a restaurant. One approach if you've already accepted the bottle is to ask the sommelier/wine steward/ waiter to taste it as you've noticed that a funk has evolved since it was first opened. A good wine professional will both do so and replace or refund the bottle - they really do want you to be happy with the wine.

  • FuzzyChef  on  3/4/2014 at 5:02 PM

    Mind you, I have had waitstaff actually *argue* with me, which I found offensive (and I've never been back to that restaurant). This led to the following completely inane conversation: "It's fine, it's supposed to taste that way." "Did you taste it?" "I don't drink wine." "Then how do you know it's good?" In general, I think Americans are afraid to send stuff back even when a restaurant blatantly screws up, and incompetent restaruant staff count on this.

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