I've probably seen this movie a hundred times between watching it with my father or with my grandfather. It's such a classic movie from the 60's featuring Clint Eastwood as a mysterious stranger, otherwise known as, "The Man With No Name." For some reason I feel that this movie title fits perfectly for describing wine quality. I've had good wines, wines that were bad, and definitely some "ugly wines" which should have never been served at all. Some of these "ugly wines" were unfortunately probably very good before they made it to bottle, so lets explore a few things that you as a wine buyer can look at to evaluate a wine before you buy it!
The Bad and the Ugly
Shopping for wine can be a daunting task! There are so many different varieties to choose from, so many brands to compare. So how can you tell, without looking at the price tag, which wine is going to be of better quality? Does a higher price tag actually reflect a higher quality wine?
Unfortunately, it is very difficult to determine the quality of a wine until you open the bottle. Sure you can pass judgement based on where the grapes were grown, or whether or not it was produced by a reputable brand that you have heard of, or if the package looks nice, but you really never know until you try it.
The bottle could have been stored improperly, or it could have a bad cork and has oxidized. Also, just because it comes from a reputable winegrowing region and carries a hefty price tag indicative of the region's pedigree, doesn't mean that it will be a good wine versus a bad or "ugly wine." I've had plenty of "high end" wines that were what I would call ugly, and kicked myself for paying so much for them. So how do you know if a wine is good, bad, or just plain ugly?
Well, living in 2020 has its benefits. There are plenty of websites where the average consumer can leave their review of a wine. From retail websites, to wine bloggers and forums, there is a plethora of information out there to help you decide if it is worth purchasing the bottle you are intrigued by. There are also some things that you can do on your own to decide if the wine is going to be good or not prior to making your purchase!
Purchasing a wine from a region or brand you already know that you like helps a lot. If you like a particular winemaker's style of Cabernet Sauvignon, you will probably have a greater chance of liking their Syrah or Merlot. This is pretty simple and many of us do this already without even thinking about it. When trying a new wine for the first time however , there are some steps you should follow to make sure you don't end up with an "ugly wine." Good or bad is typically a preference, and we all like different things! Ugly wines are wines where something has gone very bad during the processing or storage, and usually render the wine undrinkable for most people.
The first thing you should do is check around the cork. If the cork is popping out (it should be flush or just below the rim of the bottle) it could indicate that the wine was subjected to heat during storage. Heat can damage the delicate aromas of the wine and impart a slight cooked flavor to the wine. Another reason for a protruding cork is re-fermentation. Re-fermentation happens when a wine has something called residual sugar (it's sweet or off dry) and the wine became contaminated during bottling. The contamination, which is usually yeast but can sometimes be bacteria, will eat the sugar in the wine and produce carbon dioxide. The result would be that the cork may push out of the bottle at warmer temperatures, and the wine will be fizzy. Most wineries today use sterile filtration to make sure that this doesn't happen. You don't want your wine to be fizzy unless its supposed to be fizzy!
In the case of a white wine, observe the color and look for clarity in the bottle. If the wine looks yellow or brown, or the wine has visible sediment in the bottom of the bottle, it could potentially be bad. I say white wine only because you will not be able to look into a dark bottle (typical of red wine) and see whats inside. There are many smaller wineries who bottle without filtration either from a lack of proper equipment, the unwillingness to spend the money on filtration, and even some who proudly state that their wine is unfiltered. In all cases, wine is a living thing, and leaving microorganisms in the bottle can potentially lead to spoilage of the wine. Most supermarket wines are ALWAYS sterile filtered to ensure that every bottle you buy looks clear, and tastes the same. Be wary of buying a wine labeled as "unfiltered" as the bottle to bottle variation could be surprising!
Spoiled White Wine
Luckily, most of the wines out there are of sufficient quality that you will hopefully not come across an ugly one. Good or bad, as I said before, is more of a preference thing. However, there are some "bad" traits that most of us can agree on. It doesn't make the wine necessarily ugly, but might be close to pushing it over the threshold. There are 5 faults you should be able to sniff out before you accidentally let a bad bottle cross your lips.
1) If the wine smells strongly of vinegar, nail polish remover, or paint thinner, you're probably going to want to dump the bottle. Some slight vinegar smell is OK and will actually make the wines aroma more fruity, but it can quickly become off putting in larger amounts, and extremely sour on the palate.
2) If the wine smells like mold, a damp dishrag, wet cardboard or a musty basement, it is likely "corked." A corked wine usually has lost most of its aroma and flavor, which unfortunately happens from time to time as cork is a natural product. Often times a winery will not know they have a bad cork prior to putting it into a bottle. It's a bit of an unlucky draw to have a corked wine, and most wineries will happily replace your bottle if it is corked.
3) If the wine smells like sherry, without actually being sherry, it's definitely oxidized. Sherry has a sweet, nutty aroma and the fruity aromatics of the wine are mostly covered up by this aroma. An oxidized wine will be accompanied by a change in color (white wines turn yellow/orange/brown, while reds loose their purple and become rusty colored). Some wines are purposely oxidized as a stylistic approach, so it is important to know if the wine you bought is supposed to be that way or not. Oxidized wines often come from a bad seal between the cork and the neck of a bottle, or from being stored improperly.
4) If the wine smells like rotten eggs, latex gloves, or canned corn or peas, it is what we refer to as "reduced." This is a wine fault that can sometimes be fixed by decanting the wine for an hour or more to allow the off putting aromas to escape. As an added bonus, reduced wines can also be bitter on the palate and leave an odd rubbery flavor in your mouth. If you come across a reduced wine its worth attempting to decant or aerate the wine to see if it gets better. Reduction occurs mostly with red wines, but sometimes white wines with a screw cap will also exhibit this problem.
5) Brettanomyces is a spoilage yeast often seen in European wines. Some people are sensitive to it, while others don't even notice it or even like it. This makes it a bit of an enigma. A significant portion of California wineries also have a "Brett" problem with some of their wines. As a person who is very sensitive to it, it pains me to open a $50 plus dollar Napa Cabernet and find that the natural fruit aromas and flavors are overshadowed by Brett. If you are sensitive to Brett, you will notice a barnyard flavor in the wine. Something animalistic, or gamey, or like cured meat. If the spoilage is really bad the wine has a band-aid aroma, with subtle hints of vomit. It will make ANY wine that it infects taste the same. Brettanomyces is often something that will develop in the bottle. So if you buy two bottles from a winery and one is great today, the other one may be bad by the time you get around to drinking it.
I've opened many bottles of wine in my life that I thought were good or at least decent. My wife has a more discerning palate and some of the wines I like she thinks are downright bad. So, I wholeheartedly believe that good or bad is merely a preference. Different people taste different things in wine, which is one of the aspects that intrigues me the most about wine. I might find a wine pleasing, but you might find it bitter or too tart. There are some universal metrics for what makes a wine good however:
1) Varietally Correct - If it's a Cabernet Sauvignon, does it taste like a Cabernet Sauvignon? There are many different methods you can utilize in the winery to make your wine, but at the end of the day your Cab needs to representative of a Cab. I would be very upset if I bought a Cab that tasted like a Zinfandel!
2) Fault Free - The wine has no discernible faults such as those listed above.
3) Aroma, Flavor, Finish - The wine has a good/strong aroma, good flavor on the palate, and a good finish. A wine that smells great but falls apart once you take a sip is not a good wine. Some of the best wines smell one way, explode with different flavors once you take a sip, and have a lingering finish where you can taste the flavor long after you have swallowed. Some wines are meant to be delicate, and some are meant to be bold. But even delicate wines should have a finish, not just go "POOF" and disappear once you swallow!
4) Is Pleasurable - This is kind of a no-brainer. When you smell your glass and sip your wine, does it give you pleasure? Wine should be an indulgence! Otherwise we might as well just all drink water. If drinking a wine doesn't give you a happy or pleasurable feeling then its probably not a good wine for you.
5) Leaves You Wanting More - Now, we all can't drink a bottle of wine to ourselves, and I'm not saying that you should! But if you have a glass of good wine, when it's empty it should leave you wanting more. You may only be able to have one glass at the restaurant because you have to drive home, but if that wine was really good it should at least leave you wanting more! Kind of like the famous potato chip brand with the slogan of 'once you pop you can't stop'.