Flawed Drinking

Wine tastes wrong? You could be right.

As I write, I am on my way to France, to tour Champagne, Alsace, Burgundy, and Bordeaux with two friends. It's going to be an amazing adventure, but it will be hard to beat the events of the past few weeks.

Last month I tasted 48 vintages of Lafite and 13 vintages of Cheval Blanc. I was also at a dinner at the Wild Boar where $30,000 worth of Burgundy was served (all donated by collectors), and I was in Memphis to taste every Beringer Private Reserve and Howell Mountain Merlot ever made with the guy who made them, Ed Sbragia.

Though each event was wonderful and unique, there was a common thread. At each tasting, someone asked me what a specific wine term meant. Here are some of those words and their definitions, in case you are too busy to look them up or just too embarrassed to ask. Each term refers to a flaw in a wine's quality.

Volatile Acidity

This is sometimes incorrectly regarded as a derogatory term, when in fact it is merely a descriptive one. Volatile Acidity (VA) is that acidity due primarily to acetic acid, the acid of vinegar. All wines contain a certain amount of acetic acid, which adds to the wine's complexity. It is only a fault when it's found in excess, which can be prevented by good housekeeping. Acetic acid is produced by the oxidation of alcohol, particularly under the influence of acetic bacteria.

Bacteria needs oxygen to do its dirty work, so quality control is simple. The wine should be kept free from bacteria and away from oxygen. Wines suffering from excess VA do not usually smell of vinegar, but of acetone (nail polish remover) or cellulose thinners because of ethyl acetate. White and pink wines very rarely exhibit excess VA, principally because the grape skins, which are the prime source of bacteria, are removed early in the process of winemaking.



Ahh, here's an appetizing thought: A wine can develop a smell of mouse droppings, often more apparent on the aftertaste than on the nose. This is due to an infection of a particular yeast of the Brettanomyces genus. These organisms are easily controlled by sulfur dioxide and can be removed from the wine by membrane filtration prior to bottling. A mousy smell is a sign of poor hygiene, and once it has affected the wine there is little that can be done in the way of rescue.


Oxidation can occur in any wine and should be distinguished from a wine that is simply beyond its shelf life. Oxidation happens when wines lose their protection of antioxidants -- both natural and added -- and oxygen from the atmosphere attacks the wine, causing the fruit components to simply break down. This leaves the wine dull, and lacking in any character. The bouquet of the wine becomes tired, losing its freshness and smelling of caramel, or even "meaty." The palate confirms the impressions of the nose. Ultimately, the wine takes on the character of Madeira, which is not surprising, since Madeira is a deliberately oxidized wine.

Corked, Cork Taint, or TCA

These are all tasting terms for a wine that has been spoiled by a cork stopper contaminated with cork taint. This is one of the most serious wine faults. In most cases it irrevocably imbues the wine with such an overwhelmingly off-putting smell that it cannot be drunk with any enjoyment. The unpleasant, almost moldy, chemical smell is occasionally present in smaller doses that may initially be noticed only by noses particularly sensitive to it. More often than not, the odor intensifies with aeration and tasters find it difficult to enjoy a wine once their attention has been drawn to its existence.

It is commonly, but erroneously, believed that a wine with small fragments of cork floating in it is "corked." This may be a serving fault but it is certainly not a wine fault. Now that you know about various wine flaws, start looking for them. You won't find them at first every time. I can't find them every time. But it helps to know what you are looking for.

Wine collector and writer Tom Black is active with the Chaine des Rotisseurs and the Commanderie de Bordeaux, and serves on the executive committee of l'Eté du Vin Wine Auction. All payments for this column are donated at his request to the Church Health Center.

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