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More Cowbell? A Wine Fault Primer

More Cowbell? A Wine Fault Primer

A host of defects can occur in wine, and some are more prevalent and obvious than others. Here, we’re focusing on the five most common defects we encounter on a regular basis. Like most things, wine faults occur in varying degrees of intensity, and everyone has different thresholds of tolerance. Some may be barely detectable to one person and screamingly obvious to another. A general rule of thumb: flaws evolve into faults when they overwhelm and obfuscate the typical characteristics we expect to find in a wine.

1. Pyrazine: I’m starting with Pyrazine because this flaw makes me think of the cowbell skit on Saturday Night Live, with Christopher Walken screaming, “Give me more cowbell, I need more cowbell!” Some people love the flavors of Pyrazine, a chemical compound that produces “green” vegetal aromas and flavors present in both red and white wines. At acceptable, balanced levels, it contributes to the clean, grassy, herbacious characteristics we seek in Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Franc. High levels of Pyrazine will completely overtake a wine, leaving it smelling of bell pepper. Excessive Pyrazine occurs when grapes lack physiological ripeness, perhaps resulting from an ill-timed harvest or a virus that inhibits the plant from using its energy to ripen the fruit properly. This fault is most commonly found in Sauvignon Blanc, Carmènere, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Cabernet Franc. Every time I encounter a wine that smells and tastes like a bell pepper, in my mind I see Will Farrell whaling away on that cowbell. An Asian Lady Beetle caught in the crusher can result in tainted (Pyrazine) flavors and aromas in wine.

2. “Corked” Tricloroanisole (TCA): TCA is the primary villain responsible for “corked” or “cork tainted” wines. It’s a chemical compound produced by certain fungi that infect cork, barrels, or other parts of a winery or wine cellar (TCA can be found everywhere, we’ve even smelled on baby carrots bought in the local grocery store.) In wine, TCA steals all that is good, leaving it smelling dank and moldy, like a wet basement or wet cardboard. TCA has a brother — TBA — which has a similar impact, and the odors are even more off-putting, with a hint of dead or decomposing matter. TCA can affect all wines that use a natural cork. Bottles with Stelvin Closures (screw cap) or synthetic corks are less frequently affected. 

3. Acetic Acid: Acetic Acid smells like nail polish remover, or a harsh, sour vinegar. If oxygen levels aren’t properly managed during the fermentation process, Acetic Acid Bacteria can take over and convert alcohol into acetic acid. This bacteria thrives in high Oxygen low Sulfur Dioxide environments, so the winemaker must carefully manage the levels of both to avoid this defect.

4. Brett – Brettanomyces: Brett is a naturally occurring, wild yeast found on wine grapes that can take hold and thrive in wine barrels and throughout a winemaking environment. Brett in high concentrations is a fault, however in low levels some believe Brett can add interesting levels of complexity to red wines – and beer for that matter. Brett displays barnyard, horsey, mousy, pungent aromas; it can also smell like bandaids. At acceptable levels, it can add spicy, leathery notes. Debate surrounds calling Brett a flaw 100% of the time. When it dominates a wine, obscuring other aromas, and flavors, it is definitely a fault. 5. Maderized: This flaw takes its name from Madeira, and the heating process through which Madeira is made. While it produces a desired effect in Madeira, in other wine it’s a defect resulting from poor or careless storage conditions. Maderized wine smells and tastes cooked and stewed. While nutty, dried fruit notes are lovely in Madeira, they are unwelcome and completely out of place in a bottle of Cabernet or Pinot Noir. How to avoid it? Keep wine in a cool environment. In addition, avoid leaving wine in your car on warm or hot summer days, and wait for cooler months to take delivery of wine club shipments. A sister of maderized wine is oxidized wine, which results from over exposure to oxygen. Dried-fruit, Port-like characteristics are the key characteristics, as well brownish or muddied color in reds and brown in whites. We expect those characteristics in wines with bottle age, but not young wines. How to avoid buying an oxidized bottle? Check the wine bottle capsule for evidence of leaking. Also, check the wine level in the bottle; if it seems low, grab a different one.

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