One of the great faux pas in wine writing is to spend an entire article talking about wine faults. The reason is simple: most consumers have a very hard time actually identifying a wine that has gone bad as a result of a fault. Still, major publications have published story after story about how to spot a faulty wine—some are humorous, some utterly low-brow, and others highly technical.
But instead of suggesting you Google-away, we’ve narrowed down our top wine faults articles published on the web, highlighted the five scariest wine faults—each one described by an expert from one of those articles—and included a “How Scary?” description, which aims to break down the scary fault in layman’s terms.
So, in the spirit of faulty wine—a truly scary faux pas in and of itself—we’ve intentionally published this roundup near Halloween, in hopes that each and every Halloween season you’ll return to this article, better-equipped than you were the year before to spot faults in wine.
It should be noted that some faults are unavoidable, due to mistakes in the winemaking process. But others are the result of mishandling of the wine in its youth, or poor storage, so, let this list also serve as a frightening reminder of how to practice better wine-storing habits.
1. FAULT: Oxidized Wine
HOW TO TELL:
Writer Julie H. Case describes oxidation in red and white wines in her article “The Science of Wine Education” on Seven Fifty Daily. Here is a snippet of what she wrote:
“The word ‘oxidized’ typically has a negative connotation when used in reference to wine. It suggests that a wine has developed a sherry-like color and matured too soon but is lacking in the good qualities typically associated with wines like sherry. When oxidation is a fault, the wine—red or white—tends to lose vibrancy in both color and flavor. Whites begin to brown; reds lose their ruddy hue and become russet or orange. If exposed to air too long, a wine can become oxidized to the point that the acetaldehyde converts to acetic acid, turning the wine to vinegar.” — Julie H. Case
About as frightening as watching all those Chucky movies today, and pretending like you’re still scared. It’s more of a let-down than anything else—like wondering how in the world we were all really scared by that doll. With an oxidized wine, you might have waited too long, or stored it in a place that allowed the cork to dry out and oxygen to work its black magic. Sherry, on the other-hand, is intentionally oxidized, and all those nutty, caramel, toffee flavors are the result of oxygen’s unicorn magic, which, I imagine is the opposite of black magic. — JC
2. FAULT: TCA/Cork Taint
HOW TO TELL:
Writer Lauren Mowery describes “Wine Faults and How to Recognize Them” in a piece for Wine Enthusiast magazine. Here is what she says about TCA:
Mowery says you’re looking for “dusty aromas of wet newspaper and damp basement, and dull, muted fruit,” and that the cause is, “TCA stands for 2,4,6-trichloroanisole, and it’s the chemical culprit behind ‘corked’ wine. It frequently derives from natural cork closures. TCA develops when the plant phenols from cork-tree bark are exposed to chlorine, a common sterilizer. Tasters may mistake mustiness for the forest-floor and mushroom notes called sous bois by the French, or confuse it for oxidation or other out-of-condition problems. The rate of cork taint hovers around 3 percent globally, but many wine industry professionals argue it gets blamed far more frequently.” — Lauren Mowery
It might be pretty hard to spot a corked wine, but, if you’ve ever seen a ghost, no matter what anyone else thinks, you know you’ve seen that ghost. And that’s pretty darn scary. With corked wine, however, you’re going to find experts who tell you they are “extremely sensitive,” and can spot a corked wine a mile away. Here’s the scenario: You’re at a big tasting standing next to a stranger. You’re both poured the same red, and you think it’s fine, but the person next to you is contorting their face as if they’ve seen a ghost. They’ll mutter a supremely frightening word (frightening to whoever poured the wine) that “it’s corked,” and people will gasp. Someone will faint. One person will immediately spit out the wine, showering two people dressed in white. One perons will give up drinking forever.
Look: if you can spot a corked wine easily, great. Be generous about it with others around you. If you have a hard time noticing this fault, like most people, my advice is to follow your gut. If the wine seems off like you’ve had it before but you’re sensing a lackluster version, the aromatics far too tight, the fruit really sheepish, short, and the mouthfeel astringent, it’s not a wine that needs to decant or needs more swirling—it’s probably corked. — JC
3. FAULT: Volatile Acidity (a.k.a. “VA”)
HOW TO TELL:
James Beard Award-winning author Madeline Puckette describes “7 Wine Faults and How to Sniff Them Out” in her piece on Wine Folly. We really like her take on volatile acidity, and here is a snippet of what she says:
“This can be one of the most common wine faults,” she writes, “known as vinegar taint, but it is also a tool used by some high quality winemakers to develop complexity in their flavor profiles. Very high levels of acetic acid smell like balsamic vinaigrette. In other words, some vinegar taint is on purpose and that style just isn’t for you.
Sensing “VA” in a wine is about as scary as the first 50 seconds of the Frozen 2 trailer. Go ahead, watch it, and come right back. (Beat). Welcome back, so… if you’re three-and-a-half years old, that’s pretty scary, but if you’re 35, you know these Disney movies always deliver a happy ending—sometimes even a wedding in the last reel. If you smell nail polish or a slight vinegar-aroma, it’s not the end of the world, not like almost drowning in the ocean and seeing a ghost horse appear underwater (did you watch the trailer?!). Sometimes, if you can get past the typical VA aromas, the wine itself may taste great. Not always. Just be a smart judge, and if you’re training to be a Master Sommelier, don’t let your taste buds freeze up. Yes, pun intended. — JC
4. FAULT: Cooked, Maderized, or Heat-Damaged Wine
HOW TO TELL:
A 2016 article by Lucy Jenkins titled “Top Wine Faults and What to Look For” appeared in The Drinks Business. Here is what Lucy said about heat-damaged wines:
“Happens as a result of heat unstable proteins in the wine which denature and precipitate as the wine is warmed – above 80F (26C) – and then literally starts to cook with irreversible damage.” Jenkins adds: that things to look for are: “Cloudy wines. In extreme cases, the cap has been pushed off the top of the bottle and the bottle has leaked. Corks that have expanded in size or are cracked. The wine will taste very definitely off, or burnt.”
Like when Dr. Hannibal Lecter says, “I’m having an old friend for dinner.” Talk about cooked, and then something about eating his liver with, “Fava beans and a nice Chianti,” which he pronounces as, “Chee-ANT-ee.” Lecter would not have passed the Advanced Sommelier exam with that kind of pronunciation. Point is, this is pretty scary territory. Looking it this more closely:
Let’s say you’ve been saving that one bottle of DRC you bought after winning $500 off a Lucky Seven scratch-off lotto ticket or just a special bottle you’ve been saving from a trip to wine country and you don’t have a wine cellar or a wine fridge, and you’ve stored the bottle in a closet, or worse, near your refrigerator—for years. You’ve cooked a lot, and that generates heat. Maybe you live in an apartment building in a city where the eternal movement of the city (and earthquakes if you’re in the Bay Area) subject the wine to constant little tremors, and that closet doesn’t get very cool either. In fact, during one heatwave, it got really hot and you were away and the air conditioning was off. But let’s back up the train—remember when you bought it and you stashed the bottle in the backseat or trunk of your car while you enjoyed a two-hour lunch? Remember how hot the car was when you came back? That was likely the moment your pricey bottle experienced heat damage. Or it could have been over the years, subjected to all kinds of extremes—it could have perished in the UPS truck if it was delivered on a really hot day. So, get out your best Fava bean recipe and make the most of an old, long-gone friend.
5. “TYTE” Wine (Too Young To Enjoy)
HOW TO TELL:
A “TYTE” wine is a wine you’ve never heard of, until now, because I’ve just invented the acronym. But this is possibly the most common wine fault, which, in truth, is not actually any fault of the wine, but is the fault of—the consumer. Oh, now calm down. Let’s stop calling names. Let’s just learn something today—about patience and wine.
A wine that is too young to enjoy (TYTE) is indeed “tight,” closed off, and something critics often refer to as “backward” in its youth. How do you know if a wine is a TYTE wine? Typically these are red wines, big wines, powerful wines, with mouth-drying tannins and more structure and mouthfeel than aromas and flavors, like just-released Napa Cabernet from notable producers such as Beringer Georges de Latour Private Reserve, Opus One, Realm, on and on, or young Bordeaux blends from the classified growths, like First Growth Lafite. These could be wines from Spain, like Unico, or a Super Tuscan heavyweight like Sassacaia or Tignanello. These could also be extremely profound white Burgundy wines, or Northern Rhone reds—typically notable wines, from iconic producers that you have been told, should never be consumed young.
Not scary at all—rather, exciting, giving the kind of pleasure you will experience knowing you don’t ever have to endure something like The Blair Witch Project in real life, or lurk around catacombs with these nuns or worry about real clowns causing real harm like It.
These are wines that require time to let a little bit of bottle-aging magic break them down into more approachable versions of themselves when they’ll be more enjoyable, less closed off, and showing the complexities that a winemaker really can only hope for—like a scary movie that reminds you of people you know, but gets better each time you watch it (I’m thinking of Waiting for Guffman, how about you?).
To recap, if you’re uncertain if a wine is TYTE, you can always ask a sommelier or friend who works in a winery. If you’re a little way into your wine journey you’ve probably experienced a few TYTE wines—older vintages of icons that someone brought to dinner from their cellar. Maybe an old Robert Mondavi Reserve Cabernet, showing off those impeccable deep earth, tobacco, crushed, dried florals, and sweet-tannin that reveals itself a decade or more on. Or Cristal Champagne, which idealy would be consumed 15-20 years after it was disgorged, rather than the year it came to market, as is sadly the case with most Cristal. If you can wait it out, these TYTE red wines even reveal a little Trick-or-Treat dark chocolate, caramel, or, I suppose, in some instance somewhere, a candy-corn like confection. — JC