I see this statement or something similar all the time on wine sites I frequent. Just because you think a wine tastes awful doesn’t necessarily mean the wine is bad. In my experience the most prevalent causes for this reaction fall into three categories: a) The wine doesn’t suit the taster palate, b) the wine lacks sufficient age, and c) least commonly, the wine is actually bad (corked in wine vernacular). The real issue is how to tell.
Palate Pleasing: There may actually be a genetic reason for some wines to not seem pleasing to the palate. It’s the same gene that makes some of us hate Cilantro because we find it bitter, while others just love the flavor. In addition drinking dry (not fruit forward or sweet) wines is actually an acquired tastes, that requires patience, tolerance and persistence. Seriously, I know very few people who first tasted a good dry red wine that just wanted to grab a straw and slug down the whole bottle. It’s a little bit like a first cup of coffee, you wonder why anybody actually drinks the stuff, and after a while the habit forms and we actually begin to enjoy tasting the difference in the types of roast, and beans. Wine is not much different, but it is a bit more complex. Wine comes from different grapes, and the fermentation and winemaking processes differ greatly, accordingly we react differently to different wines and even different vintages of the same wine.
As a rule, I think that most wine drinkers start their journey by enjoying softer, fruitier wines. Some are just plain sweet while others have enough fruitiness to without being sweet to be pleasing to drink. Very few start their wine journey with big Bordeaux’s or Beefy Cabs. It can take a few bottles of sipping to acquire the taste for dryer, more acidic and tannic wines. Honestly, those with the wrong genetic make up may never get there.
Drinking Wine Before its Time: This is the most common issue with wine that may not please the palate. It’s a bigger problem today than in the past as wine production, hits the shelf younger than ever before. Simply we open bottles before the wine has sufficient time to develop and achieve a peak of flavor, aroma and texture. As a general rule, I never drink (unless just tasting for academic reasons) a red wine that is not at least three years old. This is just my rule and certainly not an industry standard as todays young breed of winemaker have done some amazing things with forcing fruit forward and producing wines that don’t need a lot of age. That said, I believe that a three to five year old Cabernet Sauvignon will tastes better than one that carries last years vintage. White wines, while they can age well generally will be better in the first three years. I know, no self respecting wine snob would drink white wine. Well I beg to differ, some of my favorite wine snob friends love their white wines and have developed a real palate for the fine nuances between the various white varieties.
One caveat, aging wine requires care in both temperature and humidity so take care if you decide to age your own wine. The better bet for most of us is to buy our wine from a reputable wine merchant who has it properly displayed and cellared.
Take heart, you can hyper-accelerate a wine’s (especially young red wines) aging by the infusion of Oxygen. No I am not talking about a fancy canister that costs an arm and a leg and takes up space. Oxygenation, occurs naturally by simply exposing the wine to air. I personally use a big flat bottom decanter that creates a lot of wine surface to expose to air. Swirls it around a few times and let it sit for an hour or so and you will find a remarkable difference in the character of a bottle of wine. I’ve even been known to pour a bottle of wine into a 9 by 12 glass baking dish when a wine needs a lot of air in a hurry. One bottle of red wine in a baking dish for half an hour is about the same as an hour plus in my decanter. I also use a technique I call double decanting when I am preparing a number of bottles. I keep several sterilized screw cap bottles on hand for just this purpose. If you pour the wine into a decanter and return half the wine to the original bottle and pour the other half a bottle into a sterilized second bottle bottle recap them both and put them in the cellar (or a cool closet) over night it has the effect of several years of bottle age. I have one caveat – none of this is as effective as just letting the bottle rest on its own for several years. The natural aging process allows the wine to develop flavors and textures that decanting simply will not.
There is another phenomenon that can cause a young bottle of wine to taste flat, off or bitter, it’s called “bottle shock” This usually occurs when a wine is first bottled or if it has been tossed around in shipment. It can even occur in older wines (10 or more years) when it is moved from a horizontal resting position to a vertical position if it is not moved gently. The cure for this is rest. I like to let a wine rest for a least a week (not less than three days) after it arrives in my cellar. Is this necessary for a wine you buy at the grocery store or wine shop? No, unless you kids played catch with it on the car ride home from the market. For me resting new wines more of about “I’m not in a hurry to drink most of my wines as I have plenty at rest in the cellar”.
The Corked Bottle: When you find one you will know it. You open the bottle and it immediately smells like diesel fuel or hot asphalt. If you get one of these no amount of aging or aeration will fix the problem. It is simply a bad bottle. If you purchased it from a wine merchant, and take it in right away they will generally replace it, but if it’s been in your cellar for a few years, just chalk it up to bad luck and a bad investment. I’ve said on a number of occasions (in jest) “You could dress a salad with this wine.” It is simply not true; a bad wine is a bad wine an its only value, if any is to sanitize your garbage disposal and kitchen sink drain. I’ve done a lot of digging into what causes wines to go bad and I’ve even made some pretty fair wine vinegar in my time, but it has never been with a bad wine. Making wine vinegar may well be a topic for another blog, but not this one.
Old wine with bad or odd tastes and smells is not necessarily “corked” but it may be too far past its time to be enjoyable. Too much Oxygen over a long period of time can turn a wine and with a red wine, the fist hit comes as an auburn hue in the glass where you expected a garnet or ruby color. The next will come to the nose where instead of fruit, mineral and spice you get the aroma of shellac mixed in. Even then the wine may be drinkable and even enjoyable if you like a Madera mixed in with your usual wine flavors. I find that sometimes with really old wines an hour in a decanter can do wonders as the aeration allow the wine to shed it’s musty character, take a deep breath and regain it’s wonderful old and complex character. Some times is it doesn’t and it’s back sanitizing you drains.
All that said when you get to “Yuk” as a reaction to wine it’s time to reflect on what your dealing with decide if and how the wine can be fixed.