Can a Bad Wine Be Good?
Occasionally people are overheard making comments about wine such as, “I tasted the wines, they were wretched,” and “The wine is bad, it’s not like west coast wines.” Unfortunately some may believe that statements like these indicate that the wine is indeed bad. However these statements tend to tell us more about the individuals who made them than the quality of the wine. It is easy to classify anyone who knows something about wine as a wine snob. I believe though that the above statements border more on wine ignorance than snobbery.
If someone were to tell you that a wine was wretched or bad, ask him or her to explain what he or she means. Perhaps the wine has a fault, which indeed could make it wretched or bad. Or perhaps the individual simply doesn’t like the wine and refers to things they don’t like as wretched or bad. To say a wine is bad because it is not like wines from another region indicates a lack of understanding.
Cabernet Sauvignon wines made on the east coast of the United States are going to be different than the Cabernet Sauvignons made on the west coast. The cabs on the east generally are lighter bodied, more translucent in color, more acidic and have lower alcohol. This doesn’t make them bad; it makes them different. The terroir of the two areas is completely different and one should expect the wines to also be different. People may certainly prefer one to the other, however that doesn’t mean that a wine is bad. A problem arises when one person’s opinion influences another person’s choice.
If personal opinion can’t determine if a wine is good or bad, when can a wine be bad? If the wine has a fault, it may be bad. The problem here is that some can pick out the fault right away while others may not notice it and go ahead and drink the wine. A good example of this is a wine that is corked. A corked wine has been affected by tricholoro-anisole (TCA) and will smell moldy. Think of the smell of cardboard boxes that have been left in a damp crawlspace for a decade or more. While attending a class at the New York Wine and Culinary Center in Canandaigua, New York, a bottle of wine was opened that was undoubtedly corked. One could identify the moldy aroma two feet away from the opened bottle. The wine didn’t need to be poured into a glass to pick up the aroma. This wine was bad or even wretched by wine fault standards. It was never served because the presenter immediately knew that it had a fault.
However, a wine that is corked may not always be able to be identified by wine tasters. During a wine tasting at a winery a corked bottle of wine was being served. The moldy aroma was much more difficult to pick up. Many people did not identify the fault. The winery owner, however, picked up the fault immediately and seized the moment to teach the staff about TCA. One visitor stated that he had tasted the wine from the corked bottle and liked it. One estimate is that five to ten percent of bottles sealed with a cork may have TCA. We’ve never experienced this though. TCA can also be present in old barrels and even the wall and wood in a winery. This can also damage wine as the TCA may come in contact with the wine.
I recently had the neighbors over for a wine tasting. My daughter and son noticed an unpleasant aroma from one of the bottles. They opened a wine fault kit and identified the wine as having a smell of glue used for building models. This glue smell indicates the presence of volatile acidity. As with corked wines, some may notice the smell and others may not. However, this is a wine fault and if the levels of volatile acidity are high enough, the wine will be offensive and should not be served.
Le Nez Du Vin sells the wine fault kit Les Défauts Le Nez. The kit consists of twelve vials of liquid that represent twelve faults of wine. These include vegetal, rotten apple, vinegar, glue, soap, sulfur, rotten egg, onion, cauliflower, horse, moldy-earth and cork (TCA). The kit is useful for anyone interested in learning more about wine and what aromas indicate a fault in the wine.
There is debate about whether a wine fault is good or bad. Brettanomyces is a yeast that may affect a wine. People have described the aroma as manure, barnyard and stable. To many, a wine affected by this brett is bad. However there are those who believe that a low level of Brett is a good thing. It can add complexity to a red wine.
Sometimes an off aroma or bad taste in a wine may be your fault. This was the case one evening when I was pouring a wine for dinner. I wanted to use Riedel stemware and poured my wife a glass of wine. The other glass needed washing so, having a moment of total lapse of sense; I washed the glass in little water and a lot of dish detergent. I barely rinsed the glass, dried it and poured the wine. I placed the glass at the table, and then finished preparing the meal. At dinner, about ten minutes later, I tasted the wine. It had an aroma and taste of detergent. I tasted my wife’s wine and it was fine. I poured wine from the bottle in another glass and proceeded with my dinner. That wine was fine. I now recall one of my wine class instructors telling us not to use soap when washing stemware.
To make things complicated, consider that different people have different abilities to detect tastes in wines. Have you ever tasted a wine and someone in your group states that the wine has a particular taste such as rhubarb? You taste the wine again and you can’t taste rhubarb. Not all people’s ability to distinguish tastes is equal. You will fit somewhere on a scale between a non-taster and a super-taster. A super-taster has no guarantee that they will enjoy a wine though. They may be able to pick up a wine’s acidity, bitterness, heat or astringency that may challenge a wine’s enjoyment.
Can a wine be bad? The answer is yes, but it may not be yes for everyone. Rather than relying on someone else telling you that a wine is good or bad, go ahead and find out for yourself. Taste wines at wineries and wine shops. Start to determine if you like a wine or not. Then go out and taste more wines. Over time you will establish a list of wines that you enjoy. Continue tasting new wines and discover if your list of wines that you like changes over the years.