Gristle in that last bite of steak. Biting into a mealy, mushy apple. Low-fat Mac & Cheese. There are few things in life more disappointing for a gastronome. But perhaps the most disappointing thing of all is pulling the cork on a bottle of wine, only to discover the wine is spoiled. Whether it’s a bargain bottle or a prize vintage, a spoiled wine can put a damper on an evening.
Perhaps the most common form of wine spoilage is cork taint. Cork taint, also known as “corked” wine, results from exposure to TCA, or 2,4,6-trichloroanisole. This chemical can occur in natural corks, and even at very small amounts, can ruin the wine in the bottle.
Studies have found that cork taint affects up to 15% of cork-sealed wines, although the actual percentage is open to debate. The cork industry estimates only 1-2% of corks are affected.  The degree of cork taint can vary; mild taint mutes the aromas and flavors, and leaves the wine tasting flat. At greater levels, however, corked wines have been described as smelling like sweaty gym socks, wet newspaper, or wet dog. I’ve been fortunate. I’ve tasted more than 200 wines in the past year, and only encountered 2 corked bottles; less than 1%. If you’ve never experienced this, consider yourself lucky. It’s an experience you’ll never forget.
The obvious solution to eliminate tainted corks is to switch to alternate closures, such as screwcaps. Screwcaps are gaining in popularity, but face opposition from purists, and questions about long-term aging under screwcap. However, the cork versus screwcap debate is fodder for a future blog post. This post is about bad bottles.
Oxidation is another form of wine spoilage that can occur under any type of seal. Although most common with corks, if a screwcap does not properly seal on the bottle, oxygen can leak in and, worse yet, wine can leak out. It’s never happened to me, but I know people who have received a case of wine only to find a faulty screwcap has leaked wine all over the inside of the box.
Oxygen can be good for wine, in limited quantities. Oxygen opens up a wine, releasing the aromas and flavors we long for. However, over exposure to oxygen can “turn” a wine. Have you ever left an open bottle of red wine on the counter for 3-4 days? That’s what an oxidized wine tastes like. Overly ripe, stewed prune or raisin aromas; flat, bitter flavors; and a brownish-brick color are indicators of an oxidized wine.
Last night I opened a $10 Rioja Crianza, only to become disappointed. As soon as I pulled the cork, I knew something was wrong. The discoloration on the cork is from the wine leaching into the cork. Wine leaching out means oxygen can leach in. One sniff confirmed my fears. The freshly opened bottle smelled and tasted like it had been left out over the weekend. Sure, it wasn’t a high-end bottle, but I was really looking forward to this wine. Besides, 10 bucks is 10 bucks! Fortunately, although I didn’t have another bottle, or even another Rioja, I had plenty of options for other bottles to open and enjoy with dinner.
So what to do when you get a bad bottle? Any retailer worth their salt will exchange or refund your bottle, no questions asked. If they won’t, don’t shop there again. A replacement bottle is ideal, but what about Internet wine retailers? Earlier this year, I received a corked, $42 Pinot Noir from Underground Cellar, an online retailer featuring limited-time offers. Since they didn’t have any more in stock, they couldn’t replace the bottle, but they generously gave me a $50 credit for my troubles. Return policies will vary. The best I know of is NakedWines.com, where they will credit your account for any wine you don’t like – even if there is nothing wrong with the wine itself.
If you think you have a bad bottle of wine, don’t hesitate to return it or contact the retailer. They want you to be happy!