No matter how experienced you are, wine faults can fool you. Just ask wine writer Chris Kissack, who fell victim to buying cooked wine. In his blog, he describes buying three bottles from a well-respected wine retailer. Even though he says he noticed some minor signs of heat damage on the wine’s cork, he didn’t think the wine was spoiled…until he opened the first bottle. He says the wine tasted absolutely awful, and he was forced to return the two unopened bottles to the retailer. To his shock, he saw the same bottles on the store’s shelf again about a week after he returned them, just waiting for the next unsuspecting buyer to bring them home. While it’s impossible to spot every flaw with 100 percent accuracy, you can prevent yourself from falling victim to the most common wine faults when you inspect your wine’s cork, label, seal, and taste.
Avoid Buying Cooked Wine
Kissack accidentally brought home a ‘cooked’ wine — a wine that has been stored in hot temperatures for too long, causing the liquid inside to pressurize and push the cork slightly out of place. This is by far the most common wine flaw you’ll encounter as a collector. You can identify this flaw by taste, as cooked wines tend to have a prune-like flavor that lacks body and freshness. However, it’s actually much simpler to identify this flaw by sight before you ever open the bottle. To find this flaw, take a close look at the bottle’s cork; is it flush against the neck of the bottle, or is it protruding slightly? If you see that the cork protrudes by even a centimeter or two, it’s the sign of a cooked wine. Some corks will appear only slightly pushed out from the neck, which isn’t always a problem for ready-to-drink wines that you plan on consuming quickly. If the cork is severely distended or you plan on cellaring the bottle long-term, the problem is more serious.
If you allow a cooked wine to sit in a cellar for an extended period of time, even as little as six months, the wine will spoil. That’s because the cork will expand in the heat, then contract when it is put in cooler, more normal cellar temperatures. As the cork contracts, the space around the cork allows air in, oxidizing the wine inside and ruining the flavor. To avoid buying cooked wines, either purchase the bottles in-person so that you can inspect the cork (and store them in cool conditions throughout the shipping process) or buy from a trusted marketplace like Vinfolio. This service keeps your bottles stored under the perfect temperatures throughout the shipping process and its group of experts inspect every bottle for cork damage before shipping them off to buyers.
Some buyers worry when they open a wine and find mold under the metal capsule; this is not a sign of a cooked wine, and is in fact a relatively common quirk of older wines. Wines that have been stored under cool, humid conditions for many years often have some mild mold build-up around the capsule. Simply scrape the mold off before you drink the wine.
Take Caution with Damaged Wine Labels
A damaged wine label is rarely a sign of a damaged wine or bottle fraud, but it certainly can be. This is why it is essential for you to take extra care when buying wines with label or bottle damage. Some collectors have success buying bottles with damaged wine labels on purpose to save money. They can save as much as 40 percent on a wine bottle simply because the label is stained or torn around the edges. Imagine buying a bottle of DRC Montrachet for $2,400 rather than the average price of $4,000 just because of an imperfect label.
Before you go out looking for a damaged label, though, be aware that these bottles are difficult, if not downright impossible, to resell on the market later. Most auction houses won’t accept bottles that have damaged labels, and collectors are often too skittish to buy bottles with damaged labels from unknown sellers. If you only plan on drinking the wine and not investing in bottles for resale down the road, buying slightly damaged labels could mean getting incredible wines at discount. If you’re buying wine with the intent to resell it later as an investment, always buy bottles with pristine labels, and refuse to pay full price for bottles with even a hint of damage. Small wine stains are common and shouldn’t be of much concern, but any tears or authenticity discrepancies on the label are major red flags. To avoid buying damaged labels, make sure your bottle is inspected. Vinfolio’s experts look at every label on every bottle in their warehouse, only selling bottles that are in pristine condition or have extremely minor stains.
Broken Wine Seals Could Be a Sign of Wine Fraud
Even though wine labels can’t always tell you whether a wine is authentic, a broken security seal can. After Rudy Kurniawan fooled countless collectors into buying fake wines, wine producers started implementing new security measures to ensure that their customers would never buy fake bottles again. Both Lafite and Latour started using new security features from Prooftag, including a bubble seal for the wine. If a wine fraudster wanted to fill an empty bottle of Lafite or Latour with a cheaper wine, he wouldn’t be able to do so without breaking the original bubble seal at the bottle’s opening. If you’re concerned about wine fraud, consider investing in newer vintages from these two estates or other First Growth wineries that use similar technology.
You should also do some research into the wines you want. Does the winery have a specific way of sealing their bottles that you can compare to the bottle you want to buy? What does the wine label look like? Does the estate use a barcode system? Get in-person or photographic proof that your potential bottles meet these standards. When buying from a private collector, it’s also important to have the bottles verified by an objective wine expert, or, at the very least, have a written document between you and the seller stating that the seller will take the bottle back and offer you a refund if you discover that it is not authentic.
Wine Flaws You Can Find During Tastings
Right before I went on a two-week vacation, I once bought a bottle of lovely, deep ruby Cabernet Sauvignon that I was unable to finish before I left on my trip. Two weeks later, I saw the bottle sitting in my pantry, temporary seal in place. When I poured a bit of it into a glass, it was a strange, brassy orange color and was entirely flavorless. This was the sign of a severely oxidized wine, and it’s something you should be on the lookout for when you taste a wine in-person. Like a sliced apple that has been left out in the open air for hours, wine also turns a brown or orange color when it’s been exposed to air for too long.
If you get the chance to sample a wine before you buy it, pay close attention to the color of the wine, and avoid any that have a brown or orange hue that is unusual for the varietal and age (some older wines will naturally have this coloration). When it comes to spotting wine flaws during a wine tasting, you have to remember that just because one bottle in a case has a flaw does not always mean that every other bottle in that case has the same flaw. This is why I recommend that collectors try a sample of any wine they plan on buying by the case, and ask for another sample if the first bottle is flawed.
When you buy wines that have real corks, the most common wine flaw you’ll find during a tasting is TCA. This is a chemical that causes the wine to taste “off,” with no fruit flavors and a smell like old newspapers or wet dog. Wine experts who say a wine is “corked” mean that the wine has too much TCA. Chances are good that you’ll come across real corks often when you invest in the finest bottles of wine in the world, which is why it is so vital to identify TCA when you taste it. TCA is sometimes mistaken for Brett (which is described as a “barnyard” taste), and many wine experts point to both of these chemical compounds as fatal wine flaws. It’s true that not all wine drinkers enjoy the taste of Brett, but the chemical itself is not a major wine fault in the same way that TCA is. Many wines from the Rhone region are naturally Brett-heavy, and this is what drives the character of these wines. Brett should only be your concern if you personally dislike the taste.
Whether you are starting your high-end wine collection or adding to an established portfolio, Vinfolio is your partner in buying, selling, and professional storage. Contact us today to get access to the world’s finest wine.
Image source: By Tomas er – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7140683
Harley is an Executive Wine Specialist for Vinfolio, helping collectors find the best wines for their collection. He’s a lover of everything outdoors and the proper bottles to go along with it. You can find him at any of the newest cocktail bars and restaurants in SF or on an adventure somewhere in between Lake Tahoe and the California coastline.