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Recognizing when a bottle of wine is off

Cork taint crosses all price and varietal borders.

Cork taint crosses all price and varietal borders. Credit: / Marko Poplasen

The scene: A rainy March night. Some grilled lamb sausage. A bottle of pinot noir from Oregon’s Willamette Valley, freshly uncorked.

I pour some into a glass, and the evening takes a sour turn: The wine looks dull and smells like moldy cardboard boxes. Drat! It’s corked.

Cork taint — shorthand for the unwelcome presence of the compound trichloroanisole (TCA) — is uncommon but very real, and it crosses all price and varietal borders. Unless the musty aromas really slap you in the face, though, faint spoilage might mess with your head: Is it just me, or is this wine really off?

“It’s a tricky thing,” said Michael Freidwald, owner of The Wine Special-List in Syosset, which specializes in small production California wines (and not the place I purchased that pinot). “Some people may just not know [about faults] and think they don’t like the wine.”

Of course, some people might not like the wine and think it’s a fault. Friedwald estimates 2 percent to 5 percent of bottles are afflicted with cork taint, which can stem from tainted cellar lines and barrels or simply (as the name suggests) TCA-afflicted corks.

It’s one of a few potential wine faults. If the wine has a brownish tint and tastes as if its life has been sucked away, it’s overly oxidized, perhaps from being stored upright. (Think about what happens when you leave a bottle of wine open for a few days, and you get the idea.) “The wine loses its ‘wow’ factor and fresh taste, and might have more bitter characteristics,” said Friedwald. Whites tend to be more suspectable than reds.

If you catch whiffs of rotten eggs, or maybe cooked asparagus, an abundance of sulfur is the culprit, and decanting may (or may not) help tamp down the off flavors.

When you encounter these maladies, don’t be shy. Tell your retailer. They will usually offer to exchange it for a bottle of the same wine, and they appreciate knowing the lowdown on their stock.

But when it’s a rare, pricey bottle gifted or purchased at auction? “You always have heartbreakers in the wine game,” Friedwald said, recounting a rare but corked wine once given to his father. “It can break your heart at the collector level.”

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