We all know that some wines are more revered than others, and whilst everyone has a different palate and preferences, some wines are seen as universally better than others. But some wines, through errors in winemaking, storage, or both, can sadly be ruined. But what do these wines taste like? What causes them to go bad, and what do you look for if you suspect a wine tastes off?
There really is a huge range of reasons a wine could be considered bad, or taste bad at first sip. If we’re talking something relatively minor, like a hint of something that shouldn’t be there, it’s simply called a ‘flaw’. If the problem is a major one, it’s considered a wine fault.
Wine fault? That sounds ominous…
And it is, in the world of wine. A fault in a wine is typically caused by incorrect or obscure winemaking methods, or simply storing the wine wrong after it’s been bottled. It can range from tasting slightly weird or maybe overall less pleasant, to the extreme end of the scale where a wine is rendered entirely undrinkable. Common examples of wine faults include overexposure to oxygen (oxidation), damage caused by heat (such as storing it in a sunny spot - top hint, don’t ever do this!) and cork taint from a bad cork (point to team screwcap).
In a nutshell, it’s safe to say that subpar or otherwise dodgy winemaking techniques, and substandard storage conditions will impart these weirder flavours and less-than-tasty characteristics in a wine. Although we can’t control the winemaking process, we certainly can be sure we store our bottles properly! Lesson. Learnt.
What do I keep an eye out for, to avoid bad wines?
People in the wine industry are notoriously (and sometimes hilariously) creative when it comes to descriptors for taste, colour, and wines’ character. When you’re looking at wine reviews or hearing others talk about wine they dislike, keep an ear out for any of the following words, as they are common tasting descriptors for wine that’s either has flaws or faults:
- Acidic: A good wine is balanced with acidity, but too much it goes from positive comments like “sharp” and “crisp”, to “sour” or “tart” (negative tasting notes).
- Aggressive: Wine that is is harsh to the palate, caused by too much alcohol, too many tannins or too much acid.
- Alcoholic: Not describing that uncle who’s always drunk at family functions… alcoholic is a negative tasting term that describes unbalanced alcohol content. It’s also called “hot”, as an overly alcoholic wine will give that telltale burning sensation.
- Backward: Describing a wine not yet ready to drink, usually despite age and cellaring. Typically the cause is too many unripe tannins.
- Baked: Not in a good way… a term for wines that have either oxidised through contact with air, or spent time at higher than ideal temperatures. The taste will be like the grapes were overripe.
- Bitter: Self-explanatory; a negative tasting note of some wines high in tannins.
- Blowsy: Wines that lack acidity, and instead taste of too much alcohol.
- Bottle shock: Also known as bottle-sickness. This is a temporary problem when a wine has dulled or ‘disjointed’ fruit flavours. It typically happens at bottling, or when wines are shaken in travel. This condition typically disappears after a few days.
- Closed: A wine whose qualities are not yet obvious, but that will improve over time - whether that’s a few minutes’ airing, or a few years in the cellar.
- Cloudy: A physical description for a wine that is exactly that: looks cloudy. It’s usually not been appropriately filtered, or simply not properly made.
- Cloying: A term for a wine that’s ‘sickly’ sweet.
- Cooked: A term for when grapes were overripe when harvested for the wine, or a wine that was exposed to high temperatures during storage.
- Corked: You might know this one. A general term that refers to an ‘off’ or musty smell, or any range of undesirable smells or tastes found in a bottle of wine, usually resulting from cork taint.
- Diluted: Watery or thin.
- Dirty: Not a great word! A wine with ‘off’ flavours, as if it had dirt in it.
- Dumb: When wines have been served too cold or too young, that needs warming up or heavy aeration for the flavours to be present.
- Flabby: Low acidity. A wine which lacks structure, causing it to taste flaccid.
- Flat: A wine that simply tastes dull or boring.
- Grapey: Believe it or not, this is when a wine tastes too much like grapes.
- Hard: An unbalanced, high tannin wine.
- Harsh: Astringent or overly tannic wines, or those with unbalanced acidity.
- Heavy: A wine that is unbalanced, typically due to high alcohol content.
- High Sorbate: A chemical, bubblegum character in a wine.
- Hollow: A description for wines that don’t have enough depth.
- Hydrogen sulfide: A very serious wine fault. The smell will remind you of rotten eggs.
- Mercaptan: A chemical compound producing odours in wine that are again reminiscent of rotten eggs, burnt rubber, garlic or onions. Also a very serious fault.
- Musty: Wines that don’t quite taste ‘clean’ due to poor storage conditions at the winery, such as dirty barrels, or a cork infected by cork taint.
- Off: A term meaning that there is something generally wrong with the aromas and/or flavours.
- Oxidised: A wine exposed to air, making it partially or totally lose its original qualities.
- Pricked: A wine with a high level of acetic acid, making it smell and taste like vinegar.
- Puckery: Astringent wines causing a physical sensation in the mouth, like sucking on a slice of lemon.
- Reduction: When a wine’s sulphur compounds interact with hydrogen, causing very unpleasant smells in the wine.
- Rubbery: A bad smell, usually of wines that have suffered from reduction (see above).
- Stalky: A negative term for a vegetal or ‘green’ taste.
- Stemmy: Similar to stalky, it’s when a wine tastes like the stems of a bunch of grapes.
- Stewed: A wine that lacks freshness. Think, stewed fruit rather than fresh fruit.
- Tired: A wine that is very tragically past its prime.
- Underripe: A wine made from grapes that didn’t reach full maturity.
And yes, sometimes of course, it’s actually subjective...
In some cases, it can in fact be you that’s the problem! Everyone’s palates are different, and you may have a higher sensitivity to a certain compound than other people, making a flawed wine more unpleasant to you than it might be to someone else.
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