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When a Wine Turns Bad

Useful tips to keep in mind in a restaurant
when sending back a wine you think is bad.



You're in a restaurant, and before you're handed the menu, the waiter gives you the wine list. How can you know what wine to order before you even decide what you're going to eat? But let's say, you were allowed the time to make your choice of food and wine. The waiter or sommelier brings the bottle before serving the food, which is bad enough, uncorks it with a flourish, and pours a little in your glass waiting for your approval. You twirl the wine, sniff it, and sip. He winces as your face creases and you say: "this wine is bad." The answer you're most likely to get is, at best, "What's wrong with it?" A wine isn't bad just because you don't like it. So when can you send back an open bottle? The odds of encountering a bad bottle increase in a hot climate and here are terms to help you describe what's wrong.

A wine is cooked, baked or maderized when it has been exposed to high temperatures, either in the transportation van, or if stored in a small kitchen next to the stoves. A wine which otherwise should be fruity and dry, like a Grenache or a tempranillo, when cooked actually tastes like fortified wine with strong hints of almond or dried fruit.

We're not talking about Champagne, prosecco, or bubblies. A still wine is refermented when it feels effervescent on the tongue but without the bubbles. This has nothing to do with Malolactic fermentation, the second fermentation process that converts a wine's sharp malic acid to soft lactic acid. It is a process that occurs after the wine has been released and shipped. Of course, this is desirable in champagne (which is purposely refermented in the bottle in order to create the bubbles), but never in fine still wine.

You can declare that a wine is corked not when you find little particles of cork in you glass or in the bottle but when it has been tainted with moldy smells from a bad cork. You know it's corked not because you can actually detect the smell on the cork, but because being a natural product cork is prone to be invaded by living organisms and mold, just like socks or sneakers. So the moldy smell will tell you. But if you miss that, you will taste it soon enough. The wine will be astringent, too tart or harsh.

It's difficult to distinguish between a corked and an oxidized wine. A wine becomes oxidized when it gets exposed to air, probably due to a defective or a bad cork. Red wines become lifeless and dull and lose their fruitiness to become vinegar-like and thin. White wines lose their fresh acidity or their rich yeasty flavor and can turn from dark yellow to brown.

Most restaurants will not balk when you reject a bottle, especially if you let them taste the bad wine and they agree with you. Most of the time the distributors will credit them back.

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