Have you ever tasted a wine and felt that it just didn’t taste right? Sometimes wine flaws are fairly obvious, but occasionally you’ll encounter a bottle with a less obvious flaw. Should you keep drinking and see if it improves, or should you ask for a replacement?
Estimates on the proportion of bottles affected by cork taint vary from around 1 in 7 to 1 in 12. Of course, we can’t be certain – many people that encounter a corked bottle will not recognise it as such, and so rather than asking for a replacement, they will make a mental note that the wine is bad and ensure that they never buy it again. Cork taint is caused by bacteria in the cork, and is characterised by a musty ‘wet wool’ smell. It can be pungent and overpower the wine, or it can be relatively gentle and quite difficult to detect at first. Once the bottle has been opened the corked wine will deteriorate, so a bottle that you are unsure about initially might reveal itself to be tainted after a short period.
If cork taint is best characterised by a ‘wet wool’ taste, sulphur is best characterised as a ‘rotten egg’ smell. A wine with a sulphuric stink might improve on decanting, but if it refuses to lift then you’re going to want a replacement bottle.
Imagine uncorking a wine, leaving the bottle open for a week, and then drinking it – it wouldn’t taste very nice, would it? This is what oxidized wines taste like – oxidization happens because the bottle has been poorly sealed and air has crept into the wine. White wines are more susceptible since the tannins in reds play a role in preventing the wine becoming oxidized. It’s actually a more common fault than cork taint so if you can’t detect that ‘wet wool’ characteristic but your wine still doesn’t taste right, it could be an oxidized bottle.
Ask the sommelier
If you’re not enjoying the wine, ask yourself whether the wine has a flaw. If you can’t taste any fruit in the wine, or the fruit is overpowered by off-flavours, something is probably wrong. It’s absolutely fine to return it to your wine merchant (depending on their policy, of course) or if you’re in a restaurant, ask the sommelier to try it and get a replacement if appropriate.