Aug 2, 2022
Wine is a product of nature, human intervention, chemistry, and
it’s subject to many outside influences – storage, transport,
handling – that can do a number on what’s inside the bottle. In
this episode, we cover the main things that could go wrong with
wine, how they got there, and what to do about it (where
Shout out to Jamie Goode, the outstanding
scientist and wine writer who makes so many complex science
concepts so easy to understand. Here is the link to his book,
“The Science of Wine from Vine to
Glass,”* from which some of the reference materials
for the pod were taken. Also to “Sotheby’s Wine
Encyclopedia,” * who (always with the humor of
Tom Stevenson) brings up a number of very real faults that a lot of
the mainstream wine press forget to mention (sauerkraut, anyone?).
Other sources are below!
Here are the show notes:
We start with defining what a flaw is in a wine, versus a taint,
as defined by Jamie Goode. Then we talk about
just plain old sucky wine.
Flaw v Taint:
- Flaw is endemic to the wine, it happened in winemaking or
- Taint is from outside winemaking, like from packaging or from
- We discuss the Japanese concept that talks about how small
flaws can accentuate beauty (it is called Wabi-Sabi, the art of
imperfection). Not all technical flaws are bad!
NOT FLAWS: Next we tackle things that need to
be dealt with, but aren’t flaws or taints:
- What is it? Tannin chains combining and
falling out of solution. Looks like your coffee filter threw up or
there are brown flakes in the wine.
- What do you do?
Decant, get a filter
Sediment on a glass from Canva
- Cork floating in your wine:
- What is it? User error or an old cork. If you
break the cork when you take it out, it may drop some flakes into
the wine. If it’s an old cork, this is even more likely!
- What do you do? Fish it out with you finger, a
spoon, or get a filter
- Film/oily looking stuff on the surface:
- What is it? Most likely it’s dishwashing soap
residue from either glasses or decanter
- What do you do? Clean your glasses of the
residue, send the glass back if you’re in a restaurant. At home,
warm water is often good enough to clean wine glasses as long as
you have a good brush
- Bubblegum, pear drop, nail-polish like aromas:
- What is it? These aromas come from carbonic
maceration, a red winemaking technique where the winemaker ferments
the grapes with no oxygen or yeast. Instead they use carbon dioxide
to promote the conversion of sugar and malic acid to alcohol.
Byproducts of this process are these aromas, and more to boot.
Overly cool fermentations can also cause these types of
- What do you do? If you hate this, chuck the
bottle or give it away and remember you don’t like wines made with
carbonic maceration. Never buy Beaujolais Nouveau!
- Tartrate crystals:
- What is it? Crystals appear either on the side
of the cork that was in contact with the wine or, often, at the
bottom of the glass in white wines. Tartaric acid was not fined,
filtered or stabilized out so tartaric acid crystals formed and the
wine cleaned itself up naturally!
- What do you do? Dare I say it again? Get a
filter and get them out if they are in your wine. If they are on
the cork, admire how pretty they are and enjoy the wine.
- Earthiness, green pepper notes:
- What is it? Just normal wine flavors. The
earthiness could be from terroir or it could be the grape. Green
pepper is from a compound called methoxypyrazine that is common in
Cabernet Sauvignon and its parents, Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon
- What do you do? If you love it, drink wines
with those profiles. If not, there are plenty of wines without
Before getting into the major faults, I discuss one that is on
- Cloudy/Hazy wine: If it’s not sediment causing
the problem, it could be protein. It may settle out or it may just
be part of the wine. Natural wines and unfiltered wines have haze
often. Just proceed with caution if you see it. It could be fine or
indicate a flaw to come.
Then we hit the hard-core flaws
1. Cork taint
- What is it? It comes across as musty, wet dog,
wet wool, cardboard or, at lower levels, as a wine with acidity and
bitterness but no fruit flavor. It is caused by a molecule called
TCA, which lives in the pockets of corks but also barrels,
cardboard, wood cases, and corks (so yes, screw cap wines can have
- What do you do? About 1-3 bottles in 100 have
TCA taint, since cork is better chosen and sanitized now. People
also use cork alternatives – plastic corks, screw caps, etc, but
event those aren’t foolproof. If you get a corked wine, return it.
There’s no fixing it (although occasionally if the wine is just
musty, a good swirl and some time will bring it back)
- What is it? When too much oxygen enters the
wine in production, bottling, or storage (the cork or screw cap
wasn’t affixed properly), the wine can be exposed to too much
oxygen. Oxygen is important to making a wine taste great when it’s
in your glass but if it has too much oxygen before you are ready to
drink it, it can make white wines a little brown/tawny, reds a
little orange/brown. They will have Sherry-like notes, which
shouldn’t be there and they will acquire nutty, smelly caramel
notes in reds or, if it occurs with Volatile Acidity – vinegar
notes. Oxidized wine can also be flat in flavor and aroma
- What do you do? If it tastes ok to you, drink
it! It won’t get better so if you hate it and it’s oxidized, bring
3. Volatile acidity (VA)
- What is it? When acetic acid or lactic
bacteria is present on the grapes or in the winemaking and has
these substances have sufficient oxygen to grow, the wine will
taste like vinegar, or nail polish remover. At low levels, VA can
present savory and sweet notes that taste good, but at high levels
the wine is undrinkable.
- What do you do? Bring it back for an exchange
5. Reduction/sulfur issues
- What is it? If you make wine in a reductive
fashion – with very little oxygen and utilize too much sulfur,
things can go wrong. Yeast make volatile sulfur compounds and
things go bad quickly. Hopefully the winemaker catches it before
bottling. If not, your wine will smell like burnt rubber, skunk,
onion, garlic, rotten eggs, and smelly drains. These are ethyl
mercaptans and they are so gross.
- What do you do? If any of the above listed
smells are in your wine, return it. There is one related thing,
however, that may be ok: the smell of matchstick or flint. You may
find those aromas in wines that have been made in a reductive
fashion. If you swirl or aerate the wine, it will blow off. If your
wine has a struck match aroma, rather than a burnt one, give it a
few minutes before you issue a verdict and return it.
Reductive wines can smell like skunk! Photo:
5. Maderized wine
- What is it? The wine has been cooked from poor
storage or transport. Often these wines are also oxidized (bonus!).
They taste like stewed fruit, burnt caramel, and jam. If you look
at cork you may see wine leaking out, and when you remove the cork,
there is often wine up and down the sides
- What do you do? The wine is toast. You can’t
save it, so return it.
6. Bubbles in a still wine:
- What is it? Carbon dioxide has infiltrated the
wine. It could be added for texture and style fizz like in Vinho
Verde, some Austrian and German wines. OR, and this is the flaw,
the wine was bottles with too much residual sugar after
fermentation, and yeast were still alive. That fizz is an unplanned
secondary fermentation happening in the bottle: re-fermentation has
- What do you do? If it’s intentional, it’s
great. You can swirl to get the bubbles out and that sometimes
works if you don’t like seeing bubbles (or you can just make peace
with them)! If it’s frothy from secondary fermentation – it’s
spoiled, bring it back to the shop.
- What is it? Ultraviolet (UV) and blue rays
from artificial lights and the sun break up amino acids in wine and
cause it to stink like cabbage, cauliflower, farmyard/poo skunk,
and cardboard. This fault happens most often with whites and wine
in clear bottles. According to San Francisco retailer J.J. Buckley,
clear bottles block only 10% of light, amber bottles block 90% of
light, and green bottles block 50% of light. That means whites and
rosés in clear bottles are especially susceptible.
- What do you do? The bottle is ruined, return
Cabbage smelling wine is often from
- What is it? Metabolites produced by yeast
called Brettanomyces bruxellensis – (shortened to
brett in wine parlance), wait around until AFTER
fermentation, then they consume the residual sugar saccharomyces
cerevisiae (normal yeast) have left. The byproducts are flavor
chemicals that can lead to manure, horse saddle, band aid,
medicinal, and metallic notes. This happens mostly in red wines, as
white wines have acidity to protect them.
- What do you do? How you view the wine is
really based on taste. Flavors vary based on the strain of brett,
and the level of it in the wine. At low levels it adds gaminess,
earthiness, spice, and savory notes to the wine. It can be hard to
pinpoint in a wine. If you like these types of flavors, you likely
enjoy brett. If not, stick with more New World wines from larger
wineries, as they really try to eliminate all traces of the
- What is it? In wines without sulfite
protection, mainly natural wines these days, the wine has a few
molecules that smell like a mouse or mouse pee. The wine can seem
fine when you open it but then the aroma and flavor can appear as
the wine is in the glass. Often it just stinks right from the
- What do you do? Sensitivity varies. Some
people hate it, some are ok with it. Some can really detect it,
others don’t notice it. Again, it’s down to personal choice whether
or not you return the wine for the flaw or accept and like it.
10. Smoke taint
Fires in California have caused smoke taint.
- What is it? A direct result of nearby
wildfires. According to Australian research, grapes are most
susceptible to smoke, ash, ashtray, singed, and cured meat notes if
fires are near the grapes from the period after veraison (when
grapes change color, the last stage of ripening) through harvest.
Flavor compounds permeate the skins, especially and the result is
red wines that are nearly impossible to save. Whites from wildfire
vintages are usually ok, as there is no skin contact necessary and
the pulp is protected by the skins, but red wines can’t be fixed
without affecting wine quality, for now.
- What do you do? For now, there is no solution
to smoke taint. If you see a wine is from a vintage and an area
that had wildfires, caveat emptor. Some wineries will release a
wine even if it’s like choking on an ashtray. Better to stick with
whites from the area, if you can.
Other stuff not always on the taint list!
Soapiness: Happens when acids produced by yeast
are like salts: Caprylic acid salt (decanoic acid), and leave a
soapy taste especially in white wines. They smell like soap but are
fruitier. This note is common in high-alcohol wines. (Source:
the "Le Nez Du Vin" wine faults kit and Sotheby’s Wine
Encyclopedia). Like everything, a small amount is tolerable, a
larger amount is a fault (and of course, make sure that soapiness
isn’t from actual soap, as previously mentioned)
Soapiness is a fault in a
Cheese: If it’s subtle or in an old Riesling,
cheese notes are usually good and integrate with the wine’s
flavors. If it’s more like stinky cheese, it’s from ethyl butryrate
and the wine is done: Take it back
Geranium notes in sweet wines are from sorbic
acid or the degradation of geraniol aromas. It is considered a
flaw, as are the phenol off-flavors of Carnation
notes. Whether or not you like the wine is a matter of taste, but
in high concentrations, it is gross and a flaw.
Sauerkraut notes are a bridge too far beyond
sour milk or sour cream and are from too much bacteria in the
malolactic fermentation. Yuck! This is a definite return to the
This is by no means a total and complete list, but we did the
best we can and hopefully it will help you ID what is a flawed or
tainted wine and what is just a wine that is poorly made and
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