Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Wine in a Restaurant: How to Spot Oxidation in Wine


Spot a Bad Bottle of Wine

It sounds clinical and foreboding. Some people think of rust, others of fire. A very small number think of cellular breakdown. They are all correct. Oxidation is the interaction of oxygen with other substances, each of which reacts differently to the exposure. It takes time. Since our atmosphere is 20-21% oxygen--and we need it to live of course--everything is constantly exposed to it unless it is specifically protected from it.  So the reactions are ongoing. 

Wine is a delicate and unstable product made from nature. Wine makers and other experts have learned that very tiny amounts of oxygen can improve a wine. This is actually called "aging" and usually takes place in a closed vessel made of oak or stainless steel (there are others). Even in the sealed bottle, a porous cork allows tiny amounts of air into the bottle, exposing the wine to oxygen, and aging the wine, hopefully in a beneficial manner. What happens if too much oxygen makes contact though...either over a long time, or very quickly?

Oh No, Are These Chemistry Charts a THING Now?!

The wine breaks down at the compound and even the molecular level. (organic chemist insert comment here)  The fresh fruity and structured nature of the wine starts to fall apart. How can you tell though that it's happening? What do you say when you're checking out that bottle that was just opened for you at the restaurant?

The best way to understand it might be to imagine what is actually happening. If fruit starts to go bad, what happens to the smell and taste? Wine is still fruit in a way. If you leave slices of fruit out for a day, what happens to them? The bright acidity--that snap when you bite into it--isn't there as much. The slight sweetness of fresh fruit fades away also. Odd and unattractive aromas and tastes appear. What happens to leaves on the trees as winter approaches? They lose their color, turn brownish, and begin to deteriorate. 

Homemade Wine Can Easily Become Oxidized Without Extreme Precautions Being Taken at Every Stage

Remember what I said above about controlled oxidation being the same as aging?  Well conversely, an oxidized wine is a wine which has gotten too much of a good thing, and chemical interactions, and bio-chemical breakdowns are occurring. They become more bitter and unclear on the palate. Their color trends toward browns, they smell of well, decaying bio-matter....just a little. Dead leaves, roasted nuts that are spoiling, burned marshmallow or oatmeal. It might even smell like Sherry when it isn't Sherry. If allowed to go on for a much longer time, it could smell outright foul. 

To put this into practice, open a bottle of wine that you don't mind using for the education of it. Pour yourself a glass and check it out closely. Remember how it smelled and tasted. Now don't seal the bottle, and leave it open for 5-6 days. make sure you try it again (at a similar temperature to how you had it the first time, so it's fair). Compare it now to when you first opened the bottle, and re-read this blog post. I hope this will be instructive. 

"Should I Tell Him the Wine is Oxidized?"

There's no good reason to think an otherwise quality wine is a bad wine when in fact that particular bottle is flawed. Learning to know the difference can be valuable to enjoying wine and food. Practice this, so that when you turn away that bottle of oxidized wine at a restaurant, it'll be for good reason.

For my past blog about examining wine color and other issues regarding ordering wine in a restaurant, click here. 

'Till Next Time,

 -- Marc Soucy, FWS CSW

Marc Wine Blog


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