Andrew Polmear

Would you like to taste the wine?

Andrew Polmear writes for the love of wine…

Wine tastingTwenty years ago the answer was simple: you were tasting to see if it was corked, ie whether it tasted musty because the cork had gone mouldy. Back then it was estimated to be detectable in 10% of wines, although people’s ability to detect the chemical responsible was very variable. Now it’s more like 0.1%. Or if it’s a screw cap, 0%.

So is it still worth tasting before it is poured? First, let’s be clear, you are not being asked whether you like it, merely whether there’s anything wrong with it. The answer is, yes, it’s still worth doing; there are other things that can go wrong with wine apart from the cork.

It looks cloudy. This may just mean it has thrown a deposit, which has been shaken up, or it may mean that there’s bacterial or fungal growth, in which case it’ll taste foul. In either case, send it back.

It’s oxidised, meaning that air has got in. The wine darkens: a white wine turns brown and a red goes tawny. It tastes nutty. This stage is called madeirisation, after the wine of Madeira, which is deliberately exposed to the air. If it’s further gone the wine tastes like vinegar (which it is of course!).

It smells of sulphur dioxide, which smells, not of bad eggs – that’s hydrogen sulphide – but like a freshly struck match. It’s probably from sulphites that have been added intentionally, to preserve the wine or to arrest fermentation. It may be grounds to send the wine back; but see below.

It’s cooked, meaning that the wine has been overheated. As in oxidation the wine turns brown and tastes burnt.
It tastes woody. This usually come from the cork but may come from the barrel, especially if it has been used several times. Whether to send it back is a matter of judgement. The hint of vanilla from the barrel is a good thing. Only reject it if the woodiness is unpleasant.

Unwanted grape flavours. You may be able to taste unripe grapes, crushed leaves or stems, or the natural mould that was on the grape in the vineyard.

So what do you do if you detect something that’s ‘off’? Decide whether it will spoil your enjoyment of the wine. There’s no need to be a perfectionist about it. Wine is the product of living things – mainly grapes and fungi – and has been through a very complex process to make them into wine. A faint whiff of sulphur dioxide that is gone in a few minutes would not make me condemn the bottle to being poured down the sink. But most other ‘off-flavours’ would. And in this country I’d be astonished if the waiter wanted to argue.

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