How to Taste Defective Wine

December 6, 2010 at 2:00 am Leave a comment

By Chad Upton | Editor

If you order wine at a fine restaurant, it can be expensive. So, you don’t want to pay big bucks for a bad bottle.

At some restaurants, the wine waiter or sommelier will usually pour a small sample and pass you the cork. Both of these gestures are done for the same reason, but not everyone knows what to do.

Basically, this is your chance to determine if the wine is faulty. It’s not a matter of whether you like it or not, it’s about if the wine has spoiled. It is estimated that 5% of wine is defective, so you’ll come across a bottle sooner or later.

There are a few things that can caused a wine to spoil before it’s opened.

  1. Oxidation
  2. Heat
  3. Sulfur Dioxide
  4. Cork Taint

Some people smell the cork, but the idea is actually to feel the cork, to ensure that it is moist all the way around the bottom (the end that was inside the bottle). The cork, or a synthetic material with similar properties, is meant to protect the wine by sealing it from outside air. Wine should be stored on its side, so the cork stays moist and doesn’t dry out. If it dries out, the air tight seal can be broken and the wine can be ruined.

Corks naturally allow a small amount of air to interact with the wine to aid in aging. But, too much exposure to air results in a vinegar like taste. This is because the oxygen promotes bacteria growth, effectively turning the wine’s alcohol into acetic acid.

According to, if a wine gets too hot on its journey from bottling to table, it will taste “cooked.” The heat can also push the cork out of the bottle slightly, which can allow air in and cause oxidation too. Look at the cork before it is removed to ensure it hasn’t breached the crest of the bottle.

Cork taint is one of the more common problems when a natural cork has been used. For this reason, among others, some bottlers prefer to use synthetic corks or other capping solutions instead of natural corks. Corks may contain or allow the passage of 2,4,6-trichloroanisole, known as TCA, an agent that can give the wine an odor comparable to sweaty socks or damp newspaper. More recently, bottlers have found a way to remove TCA from cork, making natural corks more reliable than before.

Another factor that can contribute to bad wine is sulfur dioxide content. Some wine makers may use a small amount to balance the wine, but when too much is present, the wine can have an awful burnt flavor.

If all this is too much, you could just order a round of whisky.

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Photo: Jeff Smallwood (cc)

Sources: Popsci, Wikipedia (cork, TCA),

Entry filed under: Food and Drink. Tags: , .

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