It doesn’t happen very often, but we do come across bad bottles of wine on rare occasions. I’m not talking about wines we don’t care for, I am referring to good wine that has suffered some kind of trauma on its way to the glass. While the term “corked” is generally used for wine that is bad in the bottle, it’s not always the cork’s fault.
Wine bottles typically don’t show there is something wrong with the wine inside (but if your bottle is seeping, or the cork is pushing out, it’s a bad bottle). Most bottles of wine lay happily on the shelf in the store, restaurant, or your wine cellar – looking stellar until the moment you open them.
This is true of the bottle and cork in the picture above. The McPhail Pinot Noir we were attempting to enjoy is usually a great wine. Unfortunately, the two bottles we purchased from a local store in Fort Myers, FL were destroyed by poor storage.
What Can a Cork Tell You?
One of the first things you should do after uncorking a bottle of wine is to take a good look at the cork. Is it dry or cracking? Is it discolored? Does a red wine cork have stains up the side of it? All of these signs could indicate poor handling of the bottle somewhere along the way from the winery to your table. Interestingly, it doesn’t always mean the wine is bad. However, poorly stored wine has a much greater chance of spoilage.
Dry and cracking corks can indicate the wine bottle has been stored for a long time in low-humidity environments. Wine bottles should be stored laying on their side, preferably in a <60 deg-F location at around 60% Relative Humidity. The wine itself will help keep the bottom of the cork wet and sealed. Corks do keep wine in the bottle, but they also keep oxygen out. Wine exposed to significant amounts of oxygen will spoil over time. As you probably know, if you open a bottle and let it sit around for a day at room temperature, it starts to spoil and will eventually develop a stale or vinegar taste.
Corks that are stained on the sides are a good indication that a young wine has been stored poorly. The cork has dried out and wine is beginning to seep toward the top. If the cork is discolored, it is a good indication that the wine has been exposed to extreme heat – and heat is a wine killer.
However, it is common that old bottles of wine will have crumbling, stained corks. Again, these issues alone do not indicate a bad bottle of wine. There can still be a good cork seal. The proof will be in the smell and the taste.
What Corks Can’t Show You
There are problems with corks that don’t have a visual “tell”; one is Trichloroanisole, or “TCA”. TCA is a type of fungus that occurs naturally, and can be found in the bark of the cork tree. Other cork contamination can come from the processing of the cork bark into corks for bottles. Unclean equipment or cellars have residual chlorine from wood preservatives or pesticides that can also impart unseen and unwanted TCA.
Also, all corks are different. Most will seal a bottle very well, some will do moderately well, and some just don’t do well at all. Aged wines can vary dramatically because of the difference in the cork that is sealing out the oxygen. In another post, I’ll talk about the different types of corks and wine bottle seals.
The Swirl, The Smell and The Taste
Why do restaurants let you taste before they pour? They know that a good looking bottle can be bad and you don’t want them to pour a bad wine for you and your friends. They present the cork for “inspection”, not to smell (generally, corks smell like cork). Look for the signs of poor handling and if the cork looks fine, move to these final tells.
The swirl will show you the color and release the bouquet of the wine. If a red wine is brown, it could be bad or well past its prime. If you are tasting a Tawny Port, however, it is supposed to be brown.
Stick your nose all the way in the glass and breath in with your mouth open slightly. If you smell dirty socks, wet dog or a strong chemical aroma, it’s probably bad.
The truth is in the taste (technically, taste only works well if your nose is involved, too). A bottle exposed to heat may taste like cooked fruit and have bland, deadened characteristics. With TCA, it may be “just OK” as the problems can just mute the wine, not kill it entirely. How would you know that? Well, you would probably have to already be familiar with that wine, or a master at tasting wine.
The good news is that spoilage is about three to eight percent. Restaurants tell us that one in one hundred bottles are problematic. We have had hundreds of bottles of wine over the years and we have had six bad bottles, and five of those came from just two stores. At restaurants, we have had only one bad bottle, and it was one that I brought to the restaurant! We generally buy directly from the winery, and our wine is stored at approximately fifty-six degrees Fahrenheit at fifty to seventy percent Relative Humidity.
Typically, if you have purchased a bottle from a store and there is something wrong with it, the store should take it back and offer you another bottle in exchange (if one is available). If the store has knowledgeable staff, they will know that this happens from time to time. If your store has a rewards card program, it should be an easy swap; but keep your receipt just in case. Of course, store policy will be a factor – especially if the bottle was purchased a long time ago.
The bad bottle that I took to the restaurant came directly from the winery. I went back to the winery over three months later and told them about it, and they just gave me another one. If you think the wine you brought from home, or the wine you ordered in the restaurant is bad but are unsure, have the wine steward or sommelier come check it out for you.