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Ask DJ: What's Wrong With My Wine?

Let’s face it, we all have those questions that we’re embarrassed to ask. The wine world can be complex and more than a little bit overwhelming, and it’s easy to get lost in the vines. But help is just a message away!
I’m DJ Kearney, and I’d like to think I know a thing or two about wine and culture. After travelling to all corners of the wine world, and teaching countless sommeliers as well as thousands of wine enthusiasts, I can tell you there are no stupid questions. Send me what you've always wanted to ask, and I'll be here with the answers. You’ll look like a pro in no time!

Think you can stump me? Bring it! There's a prize in it for you if I really like your question. Send all Ask DJ questions to [email protected]!

Dear DJ: My favourite wine is smelling and tasting a little strange. It smells really unpleasant, like musty, mouldy newspapers. It tastes lifeless and bitter. What's wrong with my wine?! Can I return it? 

-Barbara, RICHMOND B.C.

Dear Barbara,

Your question is one of the most frequently asked. Yes, wine can be ‘sick’. I’m going to assume that your favourite wine is a bottle sealed with a cork, and the problem is something called cork taint. Put the cork back in and return the bottle to the store where you purchased it. They will be happy to replace it. By the way, the incidence of flaws in wine is low – no more than a few percent of total production. 

A little bit of knowledge is a very good thing. Here we tackle two wine faults, what they are, and how to recognize them. Then you can look like a pro.

Here’s the truth: we live in the golden age of wine. More wine is being made in more regions than ever before. And it’s better than ever. But wine is a natural product, and things can go wrong. 

Sometimes this can happen at the winery, despite every effort to ensure it doesn’t. And often wine that is perfectly sound when it leaves the winery is compromised in some way during its long and winding journey through the supply chain that transports it from its place of origin to your dinner table, so that it arrives in less than perfect condition. 

This unwelcome happenstance is easily fixable – vendors will always cheerfully replace flawed bottles that are returned promptly. But it is useful to know what can go wrong. So here’s a brief summary of two faults in wine, and how to spot them.

By the way – flawed wine is STILL SAFE TO DRINK. Because wine contains alcohol, no pathogens can survive. Usually flaws are recognized by just smelling the wine, but the flavour is affected too.

  1. Cork taint - wines that are said to be ‘corked’ have an unpleasant aroma of wet cardboard/damp mouldy basement/rotten mushroom caused by the chemical compound TCA - Tainted corks are the most common cause, but there are other sources including barrels and even wood fixtures in wineries. Wine cork - which is harvested from living oak trees – is often treated with chlorine as a sterilant, which is where the trouble starts. Once in the bottle, the tainted cork imparts the taint to the wine, spoiling it.  Weirdly, the very effort to sterilize the cork makes it highly attractive to TCA.  We humans can sense TCA at ridiculously small concentrations, like 2-6 parts per trillion. Cork taint becomes worse with exposure to oxygen, so the bad smell will amplify; and the taste is not good, with flat fruit and an acrid note to the finish.
  1. Brettanomyces (say breh-tan-oh-my-sees), often shortened to ‘brett’, is a highly undesirable band aid, horsey, gamey, fecal aroma that is usually referred to as ‘barnyard’. Brettanomyces is considered to be a spoilage yeast, and exceeding the sensory threshold can unleash the poop-y aroma in wine. For many wine lovers, a tiny hint of brett can add complexity and interest to wine. This flaw is more common in red wines, because brett likes phenols, and red wines contain more phenols, like tannins, than whites. Interestingly, Brett can be highly desirable in Belgian beers when it is included intentionally.

Trust your nose and taste buds. If the wine smells like you don’t want to put it in your mouth, there is likely a problem. And a tip: always buy your wine in multiples so that you never face the dilemma of being wine-less if your bottle is sick.


Sincerely Yours,

DJ Kearney

New District

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