GEORGE BALLING: Wine flaws: How to detect them and what to do then

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In the more than seven years of writing a weekly wine column I always try to come up with original material and avoid repeating a column. Some though, like this one educating on wine flaws should be repeated. Making the “rerun” more pressing is we have had many customers recently discussing wine flaws. So with some minor changes here is what to watch for when you find a not so good bottle.

Why is it that sometimes your favorite bottle of wine just does not measure up? The thoughts you have range from, “I wonder if the winery has changed hands?” to “Maybe the winemaker has lost it.” to “Was 2013 a bad vintage in California?” The truth is it may just be one of the many flaws that can happen in the winemaking process that ought not to reflect on the winery, winemaker, vintage or any of the controllable factors. Here are a few of the common flaws.

A “corked” bottle occurs in about 5-10 percent of all bottlings that are sealed with natural cork, and is one of the major driving forces behind the movement to screw cap and other synthetic closures. The flaw comes from the presence of TCA or trichloroanisole in the cork. The flaw is detectable both in the aromatics of the wine, thus the need to smell the wine before a full glass is poured, and on the palate, and can vary in intensity. The aroma is very distinctive and will smell like wet newspaper or wet cardboard. While unpleasant the impact on the flavor of the wine is far worse. The TCA will strip the fruit off of the wine leaving you tasting nothing but the flaw and alcohol. While tainted corks are the most common cause, the taint can also come from oak barrels; unfortunately there is no effective screening method to detect TCA. Finally corkiness will never go away once it is present the wine is ruined, you will also find it becomes more detectable the longer the wine is opened.

VA or volatile acidity happens less frequently but is no less off putting. While VA can comes from a variety of sources it is the result of acetic acid bacteria being exposed to excessive oxygen in the winemaking process, enabling the bacteria to flourish. Once it develops in the wine it will not go away with age and cannot be eliminated. You will detect VA by the very strong nail polish remover aromatic. While the bacteria can be eliminated by strict topping off of barrels during winemaking, and a strict regimen of keeping wine making equipment clean, it does at times just occur naturally outside the control of the winemaker.

Bottle variation is a common flaw caused by insufficient blending of different barrels, or “racking” during the winemaking process. As wine ages in the barrels winemakers will typically pump the wine out of all of the barrels into a large stainless steel tank, and then from there back into the barrels. This exercise produces a consistent wine even though individual “batches” may taste quite different. This undertaking is always performed prior to bottling. Bottle variation can occur too when a bottle is one of the last filled during the bottling process or because of a dirty bottle. At times though bottles still don’t taste the same, leaving one to question their prior judgment of the wine.

Smoke taint is a flaw to watch for in coming years with all of the fires that burned the last year in Oregon and California. Once the grapes have gone through veraison turning from green to purple the skins are quite porous, if there is a fire burning in the area the smoky smell will be absorbed through the skins only showing itself during fermentation. Chances of removing the smoke taint once it is present are slim. Normally when winemakers detect smoke taint they will sell the wine in bulk prior to bottling to any of the large retailers trafficking in private label wines which is reason enough to be careful when buying private labeled bottles from large chains.

Here is the good news for all of you as wine consumers and for all wine professionals. Wineries and distributors will stand behind their product and refund retailers or restaurants for these flaws. As a consumer therefore always return a bottle that you find to be flawed with these or any other problems. Most wine professionals when you bring it to their attention will be able to detect the same problem you have found just by smelling the wine, and trust me we would always rather replace the bottle than leave a customer with the impression that they no longer like a wine they have enjoyed in the past.

If there is a topic you would like to read about or questions on wine you can email George@thedinnerpartyshop.com or make suggestions by contacting the Healthy Community section at the Coeur d’Alene Press.

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George Balling is co-owner with his wife Mary Lancaster of the dinner party a wine and table top décor shop in Coeur d’Alene by Costco. George is also the managing judge of The North Idaho Wine Rodeo, and writes frequently for the online version of Coeur d’Alene Magazine at www.cdamagazine.com. His articles can also be found on the blog at www.thedinnerpartyshop.com.

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