Finding Defective Italian Wine – The Characteristic Smells to Look Out For

We all know that smelling the bouquet of an Italian wine is all part of the experience. You’re looking to take in all of the interesting notes that the wine presents before eventually taking that glorious first sip.

And it’s amazing… as long as you don’t smell something off.

It’s possible that the bottle of wine that you’ve just opened is defective. It may have aged too much or been poorly sealed. Or, perhaps there was a problem in production that led to the bottle containing a wine that really should be consumed.

And you’d never know if you didn’t check the bouquet.

You see, there’s a second, perhaps more practical, reason for taking in the smell of an Italian wine. And these are the specific smells that you need to look out for that will tell you to steer clear of the wine entirely.

Smell #1 – The Oxidised Wine

Oxidised wine has had its makeup changed due to overexposure to the air. You see, a wine is essentially a chemical compound. Adding oxygen into the mix changes the nature of that compound, which alters the taste.

This is invariably a bad thing. An oxidised wine will always taste off and it certainly won’t give you a true representation of what the wine’s supposed to be.

The trouble lies in figuring out if the wine’s oxidised. There are a few smells to look at for here.

A general stale aroma is the most prominent sign. If the wine almost smells damp, it’s almost certainly been oxidised.

But depending on the wine and the extent of the oxidisation, you may experience other aromas. For example, you may notice that the wine smells a little like sherry. Or, it may carry a heavy nutty note that’s not meant to be there. Some oxidised wines even smell like burned marshmallow, which isn’t the worst smell in the world but is certainly something that you don’t want from your wine.

If you’re unsure, look up the note profile for the wine. If you’ve noticed a strong note that shouldn’t be there, you may have a problem. You can also check the colouring. A brown hue tells you that oxygen has contaminated the wine.

Smell #2 – The Cork Taint Smell

We’ve talked about cork taint before. 

It occurs when some form of chemical contaminant manages to find its way onto the cork during the production stage. That contaminant then makes its way through the cork and into the bottle.

The industry refers to this as Trichloroanisole, or TCA.

The good news is that this is really easy to spot when you examine the bouquet. A wine that’s suffering from cork taint will have a really damp and mouldy smell. Think wet newspaper or dog and you’re along the white lines. Simply put, you’re going to put your nose to the glass and immediately withdraw from it. The smell usually is that strong.

Do not risk drinking a wine with cork taint. You don’t want to expose your body to the TCAs that have made their way into the wine.

Smell #3 – The Burning Match

If you smell a burning match, it’s almost a sure sign that something went wrong in the production process.

Winemakers use sulphur dioxide as part of the winemaking process. Typically, it’s used in very small amounts as an aid to fermentation. But if the producer gets the measurements wrong, the wine can end up tainted by the sulphur dioxide.

You’ll usually get a quick blast of the smell when you open the bottle, so look out for it.

The good news is that this issue is often fixable. Ironically, giving the wine some time and exposure to oxygen can help here. Consider pouring a glass and swirling it before setting it aside for a few minutes. If the smell disappears, the wine’s probably okay to drink.

But you may not want to after that initial blast of the burning match smell.

Smell #4 – Vinegar

We all know that wine eventually ages into a vinegar if left long enough. This usually takes years to happen, but it’s possible if you’ve bought an older vintage and decided to save it for a special occasion.

You’ll know exactly what this smell is from the moment that you pour the wine. And unfortunately, it means that the wine’s spoiled beyond repair. You can’t take a wine that’s aged too much and de-age it.

However, you may be able to use it as a vinegar. Just don’t take a big sip of it. You’ll get that highly acidic taste that could even burn your mouth. Dilute the vinegar with water and consider pasteurising it before you put it to an alternate use.

Smell #5 – Heat Damage

There’s a reason why people say that you should only store wines in a cool and dark area. Exposure to sunlight can completely ruin a wine.

The light itself is a problem. But heat is a bigger issue here because a room can be hot without the aid of the sun.

So, how do you detect heat damage through the smell?

You’re looking for a thick aroma that makes the wine almost smell like jam. It’s a sort of sickly sweetness that has a processed aspect to it. A little further exploration may also unveil a nutty aroma or the smell of burned sugar.

You might notice damage around the seal if heat damage is an issue. It causes the cork to expand and pop the seal prematurely. And unfortunately, it’s not an issue that you can fix. An Italian wine that’s been the victim of heat damage is no longer any good to you.

Just ensure you always store your wines in a cool place and you shouldn’t experience this problem.

The Final Word

Those are five smells to look out for if you want to check if your Italian wine is defective. In most cases, taking proper care of the bottle during storage will prevent these issues from happening.

But sometimes, it’s a production error that you can’t account for.

Just make sure you always take in the bouquet before you drink. You never know when it might show you that you should not drink the wine.


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