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August 2, 2022

Wine faults: What they are and how to detect them

Is your wine supposed to taste like that? Here’s how to tell

You take the time to select a bottle of wine to enjoy with dinner, or on the deck with friends, and you pop the red wine cork to the smell of wet newspaper, or the crisp white chardonnay is looking yellow. Why? And what can you do about a wine that does not meet your expectations?

Wine is a fragile item. It can be tainted or destroyed by too much light, temperature variations, unclean or not thoroughly careful production methods, or cork impurities.

Many wine consumers have had bad bottles over the years. It is especially difficult to handle when you order a bottle of wine in a restaurant; do you say nothing as the sommelier is standing at your elbow? Do you express that it is stinky, or moldy, or has no aroma? Or perhaps the color is off — it should be red but it is brown; it should be light pink, but it is tawny; it should be bright and clear pale yellow, but it is dark peach. Yes, say something! You are paying for quality food and wine, so if it does not meet your expectations, then you must speak up — the wine will not get better sitting in the glass.

Below, we identify the most common wine faults and give you some words to use to express what you are tasting, smelling, or seeing. There are some wine professionals who like older wine that might seem past their prime, but the average consumer wants wine that does not smell like their high school football locker or their grandmother’s unfinished cellar. Here’s what to look for in wine that might not seem right.


Corks come from the cork tree, which produces a very soft and malleable form of wood. The cork tree absorbs impurities from the ground. Cork producers wash their corks in hydrogen peroxide to minimize any impurities, but microscopic amounts of bacteria can linger in the tiny holes. The beauty of using cork, especially for long aging red wines, is that the microscopic amount of air that comes into the wine helps the tannins to soften and make the wine more supple. The downside of using cork is that it can taint the wine and make it smell like moldy newspaper, wet dog hair, or just dank. It will not hurt you to drink it, but doing so would not be enjoyable. Request another bottle – you can reorder the same wine and will probably get one that is as expected. The amount of cork taint in wine is between 2.5 to 7 percent of all wine with corks produced in a year. To prevent this, screw caps, glass corks, and other composite corks are increasingly used in wines that are not made for aging, like rosé, sauvignon blanc, pinot grigio, zweigelt, and some pinot noir.


Oxidation is a balancing act. Some oxygen is needed in wine as it is fermenting so the yeast and sugars continue to develop, and a micro amount of oxygen helps some wines to mature in the bottle. However, too much oxygen after the wine is bottled causes it to deteriorate and lose its essence. It will smell like nail polish and look dull and off-color. In the extreme, the wine will turn to vinegar. There are some grape-based products where oxidation is a method used in production to yield the final product, like sherry and Madeira. However, table wine should not be oxidized.


There is a growing trend in producing ‘natural’ wines, which means there is little to no filtering or fining, no pesticides or sulfites, and wild yeasts are used to turn the sugar into alcohol. There is minimal intervention in the winemaking process. Some of these wines are interesting to try. One of the problems with this type of production, however, is that the wine can be ‘mousy.’ You won’t smell a fault, but the taste is flat and off – if you ever had a pet hamster or rabbit and you waited too long to clean the cage, that is the smell you will taste on your first sip. I am not a big fan of this style. Wine has always been an organic process that strives for a clean, fresh, complex product. People with allergies to sulfites are a very small portion of the population; drinking wine from cooler climates such as Austria, Germany, Switzerland, Oregon, New Zealand. or Canada are best for those drinkers, as sulfites are used only when the harvest occurs in hot temperatures to preserve the grapes as they go from the fields to the processing center.


Sometimes, you will see or taste spritz, or bubbles, in a wine that should be still. A few producers stop the fermentation of their wine to encourage a few tiny bubbles, such as in vinho verde from Portugal and some rosés. However, if you open a still table wine that you have had before and it has bubbles, the wine has some impurities in it. You can take a clean glass or ceramic pitcher and decant the wine into it, swirl it around to let the bubbles dissipate, and let it sit for a half hour or so, then taste it again. If the bubbles blew away, it is probably OK.


Wines can be destroyed by heat or light. If you keep your wine on top of the refrigerator, please move it – it is cooking. If you like to display it in front of the dining room window, please move it – the light will destroy the contents. I used to tell my students a good storage place was under the bed – that is, until a student told me that one night his parents’ bed broke and they fell through to the floor! If there was wine underneath, well, what a mess that would be! Laying wine on its side in a dark closet is perfect – no need to purchase an expensive refrigerator.

If you are in a restaurant and the wine has any of the above faults, or if the wine does not meet your expectations of the grape or the region, ask for another recommendation and do not be embarrassed. Any quality establishment will gladly replace your wine with something that suits your style. If you purchased a wine at a wine store, or even at Harris Teeter, Whole Foods, etc., take the wine in question back to the retailer. They will replace it, and yes, they will get credit for it from their supplier. One caveat to this return – do not take an empty bottle back to your retailer, as they have no proof that you had a problematic wine. Do not pour it out — find a way to recork it or keep the bottle and pour the wine into a clean glass jar and return them both to the source.

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