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For his 50th birthday, my friend reserved a table at his favorite restaurant. He brought along his own bottle of 2005 Haut-Brion, and asked the sommelier to uncork it for him. The sommelier poured a thimble-sized splash of it into a glass and offered it to my friend to taste. Later, my friend joked, “It was my wine! Of course I’m going to like it.”
Expert sommeliers always ask customers to taste-test a wine at a restaurant, even if it’s their own bottle. That’s because sommeliers know that any bottle of wine, even the finest Bordeaux, can suffer unexpectedly from oxidation or other types of spoilage. When you taste-test a wine at a restaurant, you’re not being asked whether you enjoy the wine; you’re being asked to spot faults before the sommelier pours a round for the table.
How to Taste-Test a Wine at a Restaurant
If a sommelier asks you to taste-test a wine at a restaurant, she wants you to keep an eye (and nose) out for six different faults: oxidation, UV damage, heat damage, sulfur, TCA, and secondary fermentation.
When the sommelier hands you your test glass, go through the following steps:
- Look at the color and opacity of the wine, and tilt the glass toward the light to see the gradation of color.
- Take one deep sniff from the top of the glass to test its overall bouquet.
- Swirl the wine and take a short series of smaller sniffs to detect subtler scents.
- Take a small sip of the wine and let the liquid rest on your tongue for a moment.
- Swallow the wine, then take at least five seconds to appreciate the finish.
This entire process should only take anywhere from 20 to 45 seconds, depending on how well you’ve trained your palate to identify faults.
Here are the red flags to look for as you go through each of those five steps:
Oxidation happens when the wine is exposed to too much oxygen. You’ll notice that the wine is dull in color (red wines turn brown or orange, while white wines become tawny). The wine will also taste especially dry or bitter.
Light damages the flavor of wine, especially in delicate whites and Champagne. A wine that’s been damaged by the sun will taste like a wet, woolly sweater.
Wine that’s been in the light for too long can also suffer from heat damage. A “cooked” wine will smell nutty and taste a bit like burnt sugar. The wine might taste sweeter than it should, or look syrupy in the glass. In addition, the cork usually sticks out from the top of the bottle.
Many winemakers add sulfur to wine to stabilize it, however, too much of this compound can negatively impact the flavor of a wine. A wine that smells like egg or skunk likely has too much sulfur. If you find this quality in the wine you’re tasting, ask your sommelier to decant the bottle–sometimes this breaks up the sulfur.
TCA (trichloroanisole) comes from tainted corks or barrels. It will cause your wine to smell like wet newspaper or mold, and the flavors will be dull and unpleasant. This is the most common fault in wines that have real corks.
Secondary fermentation isn’t a common fault in wines that come from high-end estates, however, if a bottle has too much residual sugar in it, the wine can ferment for a second time. This happens occasionally with biodynamic wines. If your wine isn’t supposed to have bubbles, and you see fizz, you should send it back or open a new bottle.
Know When You Can Send the Wine Back
Finding any of the wine faults above is grounds for sending the wine back or asking the sommelier to bring you a new bottle. The sommelier will usually want to taste the wine for themselves as well. This doesn’t mean that the sommelier doesn’t believe you; sommeliers simply want to identify the cause of the wine fault to ensure that none of the restaurant’s other bottles suffer from the same problem. For instance, if you open a bottle of 2011 Pingus and find that the wine tastes cooked, your sommelier will want to check where the wine was stored to make sure the bottles that were sitting next to it are safe. A sommelier can also help you identify faults that you aren’t sure about. It can take years to learn how to spot TCA in wine, so if you’re unsure, ask your sommelier to sample a glass.
Why You Should Send Bad Wine Back
Don’t be afraid to send your wine back when you detect a serious fault. Sommeliers want to know this information so that they can keep the rest of the restaurant’s wines safe from future spoilage. It’s generally not acceptable to send your wine back if you happen to dislike its flavors. You might be hoping to drink a jammy, fruit-forward California Pinot Noir, but you ordered an earthy, floral 2013 Louis Jadot instead. Don’t send that wine back after opening it; the restaurant will lose out on the sale, the sommelier might have to throw the wine out, and a future wine enthusiast won’t get the chance to try that incredible wine. This is why it’s important to communicate with your sommelier to find a wine you’ll truly enjoy.
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