How to Recognize Wine Flaws

So what’s your favorite wine? A question wine professionals, bartenders, and servers hear quite a lot both on the job and outside of work. Talk about a simple yet complex question. The answer depends on the season, one’s mood, and budget, and let’s not forget the accompanying cuisine. Many wine drinkers have a “go to” varietal, and when asked why we love this particular type of wine we have a quick-fire answer. Chardonnay because it is rich and creamy. Pinot Grigio because it is light and fruity. Malbec because it is big and bold. As we grow older and have more wine-drinking experience under our belts, our taste in wine understandably changes. A 25-year-old may love sweeter, fruitier whites at first, then prefer soft, jammy reds before finally appreciating a hearty Côtes du Rhône. Our palates are all uniquely different and prefer distinct tastes and sensations.

Regardless of wine preferences, recognizing what we like or dislike in a bottle can be hard to put into words.

Falling strongly into the dislike category is the “corked” bottle. A “corked” wine has off flavors and odors. This wine may taste and smell like mold, sulfur, sherry, vinegar, or cardboard. Chances are that many of you have had the unfortunate experience of opening such a bottle. It happens even in wines that have screw cap closures. While unpleasant, the experience serves as a great learning tool for the novice wine drinker. Not sure if a bottle is corked or not? Trust your instincts and ask your bartender/server/spouse to weigh in on the wine in question. Whatever you do with the offending bottle, do NOT dump the contents down the drain and toss the bottle out with the recyclables. Instead put a cork securely back in the bottle and return it promptly to the wine store where purchased. As long as the mostly full bottle is returned to the store in a timely fashion, you can exchange it for a replacement bottle and the retailer can get a credit from the distributor for the bottle.

Thankfully most bottles of wine opened will not be “corked.” But, there are other lesser flaws which can be discerned in a bottle. Here are some of these imperfections.

Closed

A closed or tightly knit wine is one that is young and needs time to age in the bottle for all the wonderful, subtle flavor nuances to develop. These wines may improve after years in the cellar, but if the bottle is already open, it will not show much improvement.

Flabby

A wine that is big and expansive on the palate but lacks structure. These wines have an undesirable heaviness about them.

Muddy

A wine where the flavors are undefined and unclear. Not to be confused with earthiness, which is a flavor profile that is generally an attribute in wine.

Sharp

A wine that is overly tart and bitter. While a wine with vibrant acidity is a great pair to seafood or heavy pasta dishes, there is a big difference between balanced acidity and the harshness of drinking raw lemon juice.

Thin

Ever had a wine that fades away so quickly you are left wondering if you are drinking watered down wine? This is an example of a thin wine. The wine has no body or finish, and leaves you craving something with more gusto.

The following reds are all quite delicious and certainly cannot be found guilty of the aforementioned sins. Judge for yourself.

2013 Bacaro Nero d/Avola, Italy $9.99
A wonderful little Sicilian red that’s bursting with aromas of wood violet and black cherry. On the palate, the wine is fat, warm, and inviting with cocoa, black cherry, charred wood, and earth. Finishes soft and round with only the faintest touch of the telltale lip-smacking acidity that makes Italian wines so food-friendly.

2013 Serbal Malbec, Argentina $10.99
What a great value in Malbec! So big, brawny, and tightly knit that it benefits nicely from some time in the glass and I suspect a few years in the cellar. It’s difficult to believe that a wine so complex is aged only in stainless steel. Flavor profile includes olive, rosemary, plum, currant, and smoky grilled meats.

2012 Columbia Winery Cabernet Sauvignon, Washington $12.49
Columbia Winery has been producing award-winning wines near Seattle for over half a century. This polished and affordable beauty showcases all that hard work and experience—it clearly outshines your average $15–20 Napa Cab. Flavors of plum, blackberry, mint, baking chocolate, and mulberry are layered nicely around a moderate tannic structure. Bring on the flank steak!

2012 Bogle Essential Red, California $12.99
A solid red blend of Zinfandel, Syrah, Petite Sirah, and Cabernet Sauvignon that is sure to be an instant hit. The jamminess of the Zin is pleasantly restrained, while the darker black fruit notes of the other grapes shine through along with a cedary, savory note. The wine has a strong backbone and should age well over the next two years.

2012 Elouan Pinot Noir, Oregon $19.99
Many of you may be familiar with Meiomi Pinot Noir since it has been a staple of area wine shops and carte di vinos across Madison for several months. Elouan is produced by the same company, this time utilizing Oregon grapes instead of California ones. The result? An elegant Pinot that is edgier and more herbaceous then the Meiomi. Elouan Pinot Noir has notes of sweet tobacco, briary forest floor, raspberry, and tart cherry along with bright acidity.

Callie Steffen is a Wine Specialist at Barriques Market.