It’s happened to most of us. We’ve bought a bottle of white wine or ordered a bottle in a restaurant and our eager anticipation has turned to disappointment as we realise that something is not quite right.
Bearing in mind how many bottles of white wine are produced and consumed each year the percentage of bottles which are faulty is relatively small. However, bad bottles of white wine are out there and it is useful to know whether the apparent faults are as a result of the production process or are self-inflicted by the way the bottle has been treated.
Faulty white wine can usually be detected by its appearance and/or nose before you reach the point of tasting it. If the wine appears unusually cloudy or bubbly, for example, or the aromas are unpleasant, then it is likely there is a problem.
So what can you do if you are unlucky enough to open a bottle of faulty wine? A small number of problems can be rectified immediately but in most cases the wine will be beyond help. The decision then comes down to whether the wine was contaminated during production, whether the storage was at fault or whether it is simply a style of white wine which you do not like. In some cases you can demand a refund from the retailer. In others, you have to put it down to experience and move on.
Problems which are rectifiable include bits of floating cork, tiny bubbles clinging to the glass in a still white wine and aromas of burnt matches. Bits of floating cork result from a less than efficient uncorking of a bottle of wine. The cork will have no effect on the taste of the wine so the bits can be fished out and the wine drunk. If you find this happens frequently then invest in a specialist corkscrew which makes it easier to extract the cork cleanly.
Tiny bubbles on the inside of a glass of still white wine can be the result of an unwanted second or malolactic fermentation. In the worst cases it can make a still wine as bubbly as Champagne in which case the bottle should be taken back to the retailer but if the problem is relatively mild try using a Vacu-vin to suck out the gas.
When a white wine has an aroma of burnt matches or causes a tickle in the nose or throat it may be the smell of clean sulphur, which protects the wine. Try swirling the wine in the glass or pouring the wine into a jug and back into the bottle. Hopefully the aeration will disperse the aroma.
Some problems are likely to be your own fault. If a glass of white wine has a slick or a film on its surface you may have to take responsibility as it has probably been caused by some detergent left on a glass or decanter which has not been rinsed properly after washing or by grease deposited by a cleaning cloth.
However, there are many white wine faults which should earn you an immediate refund from the retailer. A cloudy haze in a white wine is likely to be a metal or a protein haze. This should not be present so you should be able to get your money back.
There are many unpleasant aromas which signify a serious problem with the white wine. A stink of burnt rubber or skunk is the smell of a compound called ethylmercaptan caused by ethyl alcohol reacting with hydrogen sulphide, a fixed-sulphur fault. Strong aromas of onion or garlic can also result from the same fault. A strong cheesy smell results from a bacterial fault. Both of these problems should earn you a full refund.
The smell of rotten egg results from the formation of hydrogen sulphide, the stuff used to make stink bombs. It means that the sulphur added to prevent oxidation has attached itself to hydrogen rather than oxygen in the wine. Musty aromas are likely to mean the wine is corked and musty mushroom aromas result from contamination. If the white wine smells of sauerkraut it means the wine has undergone excessive malolactic fermentation. All of these unpleasant smells are signs of a significant fault in the white wine so you should return the bottle to the retailer for your money back.
Most good retailers will not question you if you try to return a bottle of white wine with a fault unless they believe you are taking the mickey. For example, if you have drunk a significant amount of the wine in a bottle before returning it the retailer could be excused for thinking you were “trying it on”. Also, don’t expect a retailer to be sympathetic if you claim that you just didn’t like the wine!
Image by Jude Doyland.