Does this smell right to you?
You’re in a restaurant, and you’ve confidently ordered off the wine list. The sommelier brings your bottle, hands you the cork and pours you a small taste. Now what? Stay calm. Don’t sniff at that cork. This ritual isn’t just to see if you like the wine — there are a few basic questions you should ask yourself as you swirl, sniff and taste:
Is this wine cooked? Ideally all wines are stored around 55 degrees Fahrenheit. Once they’re exposed to any temperature above that, they begin to age at an accelerated rate. Too hot and they’ll be pushed over the edge and ruined. What you’re looking for is a total lack of fruity characteristics, or the aromas and flavors that make wine taste like wine. What you’ll be presented with is an inky, alcoholic liquid that is nothing like the Pinot you ordered.
Is this wine oxidized? After heat, the next enemy of wine is oxygen. Sure, swirling and aerating in the glass can be good to open up a wine when you’re drinking it, but if the seal on the cork isn’t good (which can often be a result of the overheating we just mentioned), the wine will slowly be exposed to way too much oxygen and be radically altered. At its most mild, oxidized wine will take on a faint, out-of-place caramel/maple syrup smell, but at its worst those notes will be augmented by things like acetic acid, which is basically vinegar. The final stage is something akin to “model airplane glue” but if anybody serves you that, you should probably be worried about your entrée too!
Is this wine corked? Finally we have the issue that is, perhaps, the easiest to identify, and the one that causes the most faux pas. Corks are made from the bark of the Cork Oak tree. As a natural product, they can be subject to all kinds of biological compounds that exist in nature, but the one that we’re worried about is 2,4,6-trichloroanisole, or TCA. Many people can detect this chemical in minute quantities, so even the smallest amount can ruin a bottle. What you’re looking for here is a quality very similar to wet newspaper or cardboard — some say wet dog. Moreover, the wine will be lacking in fruity characteristics and seem generally flat.
If the answer is yes to any of these questions, your wine has a flaw. Politely inform the sommelier, and they’ll bring you a new bottle.
Bonus round: What not to worry about. We said it earlier, and we’ll say it again: don’t bother sniffing the cork. It’s not going to tell you anything that the wine won’t. And if you see gunk on the underside of the cork, it is totally fine. You might see some crystals, they’re called tartrates, and they’re 100 percent normal. Same goes for any gunky kind of sediment. In fact, the practice of presenting the cork to the buyer actually has its roots in verifying the validity of the bottle and proving that it wasn’t emptied, filled with cheap swill and re-corked, rather than checking it for flaws. The only thing that should really worry you is if it looks totally dried out and desiccated. Then you have a problem (see oxidization above).