Corked and Cooked: Warning Signs of Wine Gone Bad

how to tell when wine goes bad

Despite modern storage technologies, some wine will go bad. Use these tips to know when a wine has spoiled.

Countless “best of” or “recommended wine” lists borrow the marketing phrase from the 1980′s claiming that “life’s too short to drink bad wine.” If life is too short to drink poor quality wine, it is definitely too short to drink wine gone bad.

No particular genius is needed to detect a spoiled wine. Its warning signs are clear. Despite modern storage technologies and rapid, refrigerated transport, a few bottles per hundred may reach your table spoiled. Here are some tips to detect a wine that has spoiled.

Corked Wine aka TCA Contamination

Despite the advent and widespread adoption of synthetic corks, wineries still stopper countless bottles with natural wood corks. The longer a wine has been cellared, the more likely its cork will be natural.

A high quality natural cork makes an outstanding, time-tested bottle stopper, but it is made from tree bark. Cork is an unfinished wood product. Like most unfinished woods, it will eventually dry out, crumble and deteriorate, leading to a series of problems for your wine.

However, the problem associated with a drying or otherwise deteriorating cork do not make for a “corked wine.” Corking is a specific malady.

Natural cork is prone to assault by microorganisms. Fungi sometimes contaminate a cork with TCA (1,2,4-trichloroanisole, if you are keeping score at home). TCA contamination can be introduced by virtually any wood with which wine or its bottle come in contact- corks, barrels, even the wood racks in cellar.

TCA contamination—the condition we refer to as corked wine—produces a series of bad smells and tastes in wine. Wine starts to smell musty, like dirty socks, damp moldy cardboard or mushrooms; it may taste less fruity, and more bitter.

One of the reasons why, in restaurants, someone is chosen to inspect the cork and test the wine is to ascertain whether the wine is corked, or contaminated by TCA, before everyone else gets a glassful.

Cooked Wine

Not cooking wine, the salted stuff used by some cooks, but cooked wine—wine that has, while in the bottle, been exposed to high air temperature.

A bottle of wine is exposed to numerous environments during its life, beginning in the winery, in transport, in storage in a restaurant or store, or in your home. At any given place, during any period, temperature can be higher than ideal, perhaps far higher.

Elevated temperatures make wine swell or expand a little. As a result, air pressure inside the bottle rises. As the pressure rises, it nudges up the cork, breaking the seal and permitting air entry into the bottle, prematurely oxidizing the wine. When temperatures rise very high, it is as if you put the wine in a pot to heat it up. It literally is cooked.

Cooking changes the flavor and color of the wine. Fruit flavors fade dramatically. Where once you tasted bright fresh berries, you will taste stewed prune, old figs, and dates. If the cork is squeezing out the top of an unopened bottle, it may have been exposed to high temperature, and may be cooked. Cooked wine bottles will often show crud, or dried remains of wine seepage, around the rim of the bottle or on the foil capsule, but not all bottles showing crud on the lip have been cooked.

If you suspect a bottle is corked or cooked, you have every right to send it back in a restaurant or return it to the shop from which it was purchased. It is damaged merchandise and, lest we forget, life’s too short to drink wine gone bad.

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