Tasting wine and finding faults

26 April 2005
Tasting wine and finding faults

You may think that all that slurping the wine buffs do on the TV looks rather silly, but it does have a purpose.

The more you taste, the more you'll learn. It's that simple.

Tasting establishes the wine's balance of alcohol and acidity, as well as its tannin and fruit.

How to taste

Fill your glass about a third full. Tilt it against a white background, or hold it up to the daylight so you can see the range of colours from the centre to the rim (older red wines start to fade at the rim, with a browny, tawny colour, while red wines, made from gutsier red grape varieties, from hotter climes, have the deepest colours).

Give it a swirl, then jam your nose right in and inhale slowly. First impressions count. After two or three sniffs your senses are dulled. You can tell a lot just from inhaling, even what grape variety it is and where the wine comes from.

Think of those aromas and let rip: warm cocoa, Peach Melba, nail varnish, the inside of a cigar box, rising bread dough, freshly mown grass, fresh dung.

Take a sip

Is it light, medium or full-bodied? Is it balanced? What fruits are you getting? Then swallow - or spit, making a note of any lingering flavours (the length). You like? Swirl, sniff and spit. And that's it.

Finding faults in wine

But wait a minute; that last wine tasted like mouldy old socks? That means it was was corked. There are claims that up to one in 10 bottles of wine are corked so chances are you've had one.

But what does corked mean? Every now and then a small amount of fungus escapes the sterilisation process and remains in the cork. When the infected part makes contact with the contents in the bottle, the wine soaks up the smell - hence the mouldy aroma.

In tiny amounts this just dulls the wine - so it might be still drinkable. Corkiness can happen in varying degrees.


Oxidation is another common fault. If a bottle of Muscadet looks a little more yellow than usual, or that young red looks a bit on the brown side, then it has probably oxidised. Oxidation occurs when too much air has got in to the wine.

How does that happen? The bottle might not have been kept properly - the cork might have dried out and shrunk a little, letting the air in (see storing, opening and serving). The wine, at best, will taste dull and flat. At worst, it'll reek and taste of vinegar.

What about that nasty smell of rotten eggs? Many wineries add sulphur dioxide to the freshly picked grapes and at the bottling stage to keep the wine fresh. But hydrogen sulphide (aka rotten eggs) can form as a result during fermentation and is a sign of bad winemaking.

White crystals at the bottom of the bottle? They are called tartrates - natural deposits - and are harmless.

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