A basic tenant of my philosophy of wine is that if you like a wine it is a good wine for you. This rather begs the question, “What is a bad wine?” For me a bad wine isn’t a wine I don’t like. A bad wine is a wine that either through mistreatment or bad wine making technique has something specifically wrong with it.
Bad wines don’t occur anywhere near as often as some people say, but they do happen. Knowing a wine is bad, rather than just a wine you don’t like, has a couple of advantages. First you can return it. Many people getting a bad wine will suffer in silence when they should return it. Knowing that a wine is bad and what is wrong with it can make people more likely to return the bad wine. By the way, you can return a bad wine to a wine store, not just at a restaurant. Any store, or restaurant, that won’t take a bad bottle back is one you shouldn’t patronize.
The second advantage of being able to recognize a bad wine is that you know the wine is bad and not that you just don’t like it. If you buy a bottle of wine, say an Orvieto, and it is oxidized (something that happens to Orvieto more often than it should) you can say “this is a bad bottle” rather than “I don’t like Orvieto” and denying yourself the pleasure of Orvieto in the future.
I can think of six ways a wine can be bad. They can be cooked, oxidized, infected, light struck, dirty or adulterated. Be aware that a wine can have more than one problem at the same time.
Cooked wines are wines that have been subject to too much heat in storage or transit. When white wines are cooked the most obvious problem is they almost always get oxidized which will be discussed below. When red wines get cooked they may or may not get oxidized. What they do get is the taste of cooked fruit. This is not the bright jammy taste that some wines such as Zinfendel’s can have. It is a dull flavor, more like old prunes. Sometimes you can tell a wine has been cooked without even opening it. When wine expands from heat, it can push the cork part of the way out of the bottle. Also, it doesn’t hurt to pay attention to the temperature of the bottle when you get it. I almost always touch a bottle of wine when it is brought over for me to look at in a restaurant before it is opened. If it is warm, I will send it back.
Oxygen is a tricky thing with wine. All wine needs some oxygen but if you get too much the wine goes bad. Oxidation is probably the most common cause of bad wines. It can be the result of poor wine making or improper storage. Oxidation is particularly common when getting wines by the glass. Oxidized white wines get a characteristic smell that I think of as being like paint thinner. With time they can turn anywhere from a light yellow to orange or brownish yellow in color. Knowing this only helps if you know what color the wine should be as some very good white wines are fairly yellow. They leave also a distinctly bad after taste when you swallow them.
Oxidized red wines are less common than white and harder to pick out. Oxidized red wines tend to get brown in color and be less clear. Be aware that older wines can get a bit brown but they should not be less clear. The flavor tends to be dull and they have a bad after taste much like that in a white wine. Some lighter red wines will have some of the paint thinner taste found in whites.
Infected wines are just what they sound like; something is growing in them that shouldn’t be. They are the result of something going wrong at the winery. Corked wines are the most common form of infection. Corked wines have been closed with a cork that has a bacterial infection. Some people describe the smell and flavor as being like wet newspaper. To me it is like cork. Don’t ever let anyone tell you that a wine is “only a little corked” and that “if you leave the wine open the smell will go away.” A corked wine is a bad wine and should be returned. Other forms of infection are less common but taste even worse. Acebetor bacteria turn wine into vinegar. Other molds and bacteria can make wine smell and taste like a moldy basement or a porta-potty on a hot day. Send them back.
Light struck wines are not very common and pretty much only happen to white wines. They are the result of the wine being left exposed to sunlight over a long time. It is most common in wines that are bottled in clear or green bottles. Brown bottles provide some protection. Light struck bottles are most often also oxidized. Light struck wines have undergone a light induced chemical reaction. They have a pronounced skunky smell and flavor.
Dirty wines are the result poor sanitation at the winery. They are often also oxidized and/or infected. They have no clarity and taste dirty. Be aware, I am not talking about wines with sediment. Sediment is a natural part of wine. You should take care not to get it in your glass, but if you drink enough wine, you will get some.
If you read old books on wine you will find the list of things wine has been adulterated with over history are both shocking and funny. Adulteration is much less common than it used to be and you can easily drink wine all your life without ever tasting an adulterated wine.
The most common problem with something being added to wine is too much sulfur. Sulfur is useful thing for wine makers. It is used as an antiseptic and is a powerful anti-oxidant. When properly used, in very small quantities, it is harmless and beneficial. If too much sulfur is used a wine will have the smell of rotten eggs. Return it.
A quick note on sulfur: There are sulfur compounds present in all wines, even wines made without it being added by the wine maker. Some people are sensitive to these compounds and get headaches after drinking wine. While some people have been able to search out wines that have low enough sulfur content (that sounds like painful research), most of these unfortunate people can not drink wine.