Archive for the ‘Spotting Faults’ Category

For his final blog in his ‘Spotting Faults’ series, L’Ortolan Sommelier Stephen Nisbet rounds off with his five top tips that reduce the risk of unhealthy Festive-Season wine.

Some top tips for healthy wines for entertaining:

  1. If someone is bringing ‘that special bottle’ ask them to bring it the day before – if it is red then it might need to be decanted, if it is white you wouldn’t want to shock it by suddenly plunging it into an iced bucket, and also you can have a back up if it’s not up to scratch! If someone has just brought a bottle to your celebration, it is probably better to find a polite way of not serving it – if the wine is faulty both you and your guests will be embarrassed.
  2. If you are really worried about guests turning up with wine, and having to deal with the social faux-pas of trying to quietly ferret it away, you and always ask your visitors to not bring a bottle.  For me a bad wine is as bad and as embarrassing as the turkey not being cooked.
  3. Really think about the best place to store ‘that special bottle.’ Garages, cupboards, attics and under stairs are often either too hot or too cold – or worse a bit of both.  If where you store your wine is a little too warm, this isn’t too much of a problem as if the temperature is fluctuating.  If you have a room that is 16 degrees and it will stay at that temperature, although it is not ideal it is not anywhere near as damaging as keeping it in the garage where the temperature could range from 5 – 25 degrees.
  4. Make sure you finish a bottle before you start another one, as once open the wine won’t keep.  Wine, once open, should be consumed within 24 hours.  A wine has been sealed at a point where it is ready to drink, so allowing more air into your bottle just accelerates the wine’s deterioration. Your choices are drink it, pour it away or use it in cooking.
  5. Fortified wines oxidise just as any other wine, it just happens a bit more slowly. The best way to enjoy them is to consume the bottle fairly quickly, within a week ideally.  Although they will last a bit longer than ordinary table wine, if you keep them longer than this you will not be enjoying them in the way they were intended.  If you open a bottle of sherry for Christmas, you should aim to finish it by New Year.  Fortified wines now come in a variety of bottle sizes so you can measure against your likely consumption.  So rather than serving your Nan’s six-month old sherry at your dinner party, make sure you buy fresh!

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So you’ve bought screw-capped bottles and know you won’t be serving corked wine to your guests… but what about that special bottle you’ve been saving?

Here L’Ortolan Sommelier Stephen Nisbet continues his discussion of basic wine faults, and explains just what it is that can make ‘that special bottle’ go so horribly wrong.

Simply because they way we transport and store wine has  improved vastly in the last ten years this last fault is unlikely to affect new bottles.  So if you’re buying all your bottles fresh then your dinner party wine should be safe.  However, those bottles that you may have been brought by a friend, or the ones you have been saving under the stairs for a special occasion are especially susceptible – and this last fault is maderisation.

This occurs when the wine has been kept in a temperature that is too warm – in other words, when it has been stored over 18 degrees.  As soon as you get over 18 degrees, you get an accelerant affect on the wine, and if the temperature becomes even higher (over 21-22 degrees) then the wine is literally warm, and something is changing in the wine.

If the bottle feels warm to the touch then you are at risk of almost simmering the wine, and this can completely alter the composition, changing the flavour.

Maderisation is when the wine has developed this cooked flavour – you may receive the bottle cold, but when you open if you get stewed-fruit, prune-y smells then you know the wine has become maderised.  You will often see this raisin-y reduction character normally in port, sherry and particularly Madeira– but it is designed to be there.  In Madeira they literally cook the wine.  It is allowed to age in warm places, sometimes in specially heated rooms for a few years to introduce this factor.  It’s almost a kind of curing process for the wine, fortifying and strengthening it.  The fragile elements of wine are the fruity esters that make young wine so pleasant, and you get rid of these by warming or oxidising them out – which obviously changes the flavours, meaning that when it is in the bottle, like a spirit, it will not change much.  It has travelled past the point in no return, but because it has the sugar and the alcohol it doesn’t matter.  However, there is a problem when this occurs in a wine that doesn’t have the sugar, because it’s been fermented out, or doesn’t have the alcohol – the wine isn’t designed to develop this flavour.

So if you keep your wine near a radiator, or an oven, or anywhere in a house that has heating you are risking maderisation.  Places like under the stairs are also really bad for wine.  Even though you wouldn’t have a radiator in these cubby holes, they are often riddled with hot water pipes.  It doesn’t even need to be a lengthy period – just a few weeks above a certain temperature is enough to cause the change to occur, and your wine to be ruined.

Fine wine is particularly susceptible to maderization.  It tends to have a longer shelf-life, and so will get passed around a lot more than a younger bottle, which leave it open to poor treatment.  Provenance is like art – a lot of good quality respectable merchants know that the wine that they buy is of good quality, and they can trace it back – but unless you are a wine trader you are never going to know how the wine you are about to enjoy has been stored throughout its life.  Even I have to take it on trust a lot of the time.

Although a symptom of maderised and oxidised faults, older wines also tend to develop some darker colouration.  However, the wine will smell generally healthy.  Older fine wine is breaking down and dying, however it has been constructed in such a way as to be able to get to that point without becoming unpalatable.

To prevent maderisation, be aware of how you’ve stored your wines, and for your dinner party – unless you can be 100% sure they have stored it correctly and have ideal cellar conditions in their house – it may be best to find a polite way to avoid serving your guest’s bottle.

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Continuing in his Spotting Faults series, today L’Ortolan Sommelier Stephen Nisbet discusses how to spot whether your dinner party wine has become oxidised.

As common as corkage, and almost impossible with screw cap or alternative closure, is when the wine is oxidised.

Oxidisation occurs when too much air has got into the bottle.  Now, the whole point of a cork is to allow some transit between the outside of a bottle and the inside.  However, this transit is designed to be over many years, it is very controlled very slow oxidation, and it is equally important that what is inside the bottle is allowed to get out, as what is outside is allowed to get in.

A lot of producers have actually gone back to cork for their top wines to allow this controlled oxidation to occur – the screw cap was actually a too good a closure, and so the atmosphere inside the bottle was quite literally ‘getting stuffy’, like when you don’t ventilate a room properly. This is known as reduction in the trade, and can be detected on tasting.  Older wines are intended to expand, contract, escape and breathe in this way.

But when you get a faulty cork, and too much air is allowed to enter your bottle, the wine is ruined.  If you’ve ever opened a bottle and been hit with that sharp twang of acidic vinegar, then you know what to expect from a wine that has become oxidised.  That smell is not healthy.  As with detecting a corked wine, the best way to detect an oxidised wine is to smell to wine itself.

Always aim to pour the wine gently with no glugging, and then lift the glass up to your nose to just let the fragrance of the wine come up and reach your nostrils.  Do not stir the wine in the glass, as this will get all the tones in the wine going, and this could mask any unhealthy scents.

If there is no smell at first then this is actually better – the wine is probably healthy – but if straight away you get something you weren’t expecting, this suggests that you’ve got a fault.

The vinegary taste and smell you get with an oxidised wine is caustic, sharp, basic and deeply unpleasant.

It is particularly noticeable on softer reds and whites, as sharper wines may cover partial oxidisation. But even if you are serving something like a Sauvignon Blanc just on the top of that pleasant fruitiness there will be a kind of lingering bitter, acrid tang.

If the wine is badly oxidised, along with the bad smell it will start to change colour, and this is more noticeable in whites than in reds.  In whites the wine will move towards the more yellow/orange/brown spectrum, and will take on a muddier colour, where as younger reds will darken, often moving from a bright fresh ruby colour to a deeper garnet.

There is a way to tell, just by looking at the cork, that there may be a risk of your wine being oxidised.  If you can see wine veining up the side of the cork, then you can assume that the cork has failed.  If it is only a small amount then it may not be enough to compromise the wine, but what it does mean is that the mischievous wine has found a way through the cork and that air will be able to find its way back in again.

It doesn’t even matter how much you’ve spent on the bottle; I’ve seen this happen in really fine wine, even some of the top stuff that has a cost price well over £100 has developed this ribbon of wine up the side, and that really makes your heart sink.

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Unless there has been a terminal failure in the seal, with closures like screw caps there is generally not enough time for the time for the wine to become faulty.  Considering the way that wine is transported and stored these days, with a short shelf life and refrigerated to ideal temperatures, unless they have been hideously stored by a wine shop you can be much happier that the wine you are about to serve is more likely to be healthy.

But how do you spot if you’ve picked out that unlucky bottle? In the next series of blogs L’Ortolan Sommelier Stephen Nisbet will explain how to spot the first of the three most common wine faults that could wreck your dinner party.cork


“Now it may sound obvious, but a wine can only be corked if there is a cork in the bottle. I’ve come across it many times that if people aren’t sure about the wine, they suggested that their bottle is corked – but if it hasn’t got a cork then it is impossible.

Some people suggest that younger wines are less likely to be corked, but the truth is that wine can be corked whether it is one year old or twenty-one years old.  A faulty cork is indiscriminate of age!

To dispel a myth right here, corked wine is not a wine with bits of cork floating in it, but wine contaminated by an unclean stopper.

Careful where you smell

If your wine is corked then there is one trait that will come shining through when you open your bottle, and that is the smell of wet newspaper or damp cardboard from the wine itself.  Do not smell the top of the bottle – obviously the cork has been in contact with the neck of the bottle for a time, so that is bound to smell of cork – you should instead pour the wine into a glass and smell the actual wine itself.

The best way to do this is to pour gently with no glugging.  Do not stir the wine in the glass, but rather just lift the glass up to your nose and let the fragrance of the wine come up and reach your nostrils.

If there is no smell at first then this is actually better as this means that the wine is probably healthy, but if straight away you get one of these smells that we discuss in this blog series then you’ve got a fault.  As soon as you stir you get all of the notes in the wine going and then it gets much less easy to detect any fault.

Very unlucky

If you are hit with multiple faults, because the corking element is so pervasive is this what you will smell first – it is thought that you can notice the corked part in as low a concentration as two parts per million.  So if you smell wet newspaper, or cardboard then you can know with 100% certainty that your wine is corked, and you should be reaching for your back up bottle to serve your guests.”

Next Time: Stephen considers the effect of Oxidation

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With the festive season slowly creeping upon you may find yourself hosting an increasing number of dinner parties for friends, family and colleagues.  So when you’ve spent days planning your perfect dinner party, calculating the exact timing for the turkey, and the correct number of roast potatoes, the last thing a host needs is for a seemingly innocent bottle of wine to ruin a carefully considered meal.

Whether it’s that wine you’ve taken a punt on, that special bottle you’ve been saving, or that mystery bottle brought by a well-meaning guest, how do you make sure that the bottle you have for Christmas Dinner is healthy and worth drinking?

If you haven’t got an expert to talk to, and don’t have time to spend hours researching, there are ways, upon opening a bottle to make some fairly quick judgements as to whether it is going to be drinkable or not.

In this blog series L’Ortolan Sommelier Stephen Nisbet explores the faults that wine can develop and offers his expert advice on how to avoid serving a bottle that will make your guests cringe…

L'ortolan's Alan Murchison and Stephen Nisbet

Getting off to a flying start

The best way to avoid problems with wine is to remember that prevention is always better than any attempted cure.

The first thing to consider when buying a bottle is how the wine is sealed.

When you wander into a wine shop, you are often presented with lots of different bottle closures, some will be cork, others glass, plastic, or even screw cap and because the closure is the number one cause of any fault, if you can eliminate as much of that as possible, then you can be much more certain that your dinner party wine will not be an embarrassment.

As contentious as this might sound the best closures to go for are the artificial ones.  The great thing about artificial closures like screw caps is that they are food-safe, where as cork is not – a cork, ultimately, is just a piece of wood.  Corks are cleaned, but they can never achieve the same level of hygiene that can be acquired with sterilised food packaging.  Screw caps are consistent; they are a manufactured fixed unit and are designed to be hygienic and air tight – all of which corks can never be.

Screw caps are obvious to see, but other closures may be difficult to determine – so make sure you ask as it is often better to avoid cork all together.

Traditional is not always bestWine

The traditional view is that wine comes with a cork, but cork is beset with problems.  Even with significant advances in technology and hygiene there are still between 5 – 10% of corks that are faulty.  Although you can go through cases of wine without a problem, all it needs is one batch of faulty cork which can lead to the ruin of even the best Bordeaux.

Corks are known for allowing the wine to breathe and age, however the reality is that wine will still age under screw cap, but actually that’s not really all that important.  Although wine does age better for longer under a cork, this is really only important when deliberately aged for more than five years. So when you consider that this Christmas most people will consume whites from about 2007 to 2009, and reds from between 2005 to 2008 there is no perceptible benefit for going for the cork!

In fact, around 95% of wine is never intended to see its first birthday.  So the more air-tight and the more sealed in it is, the better.  That way you can be sure that you have it at its ultimate freshness and the wine is reaching you in just the way the wine maker intended.

Don’t risk it

For me there shouldn’t be an element of risk in any aspect of a dinner party.  Wine is no different from when you are buying your turkey or your Christmas pudding, and you have all your ingredients coming from your favourite shops – you want to enjoy them as they were intended, you don’t want to have the worry at the back of your mind that that product might not come out as you wanted – so it should be the same as wine.

So, if you are entertaining it is best to avoid a cork.  Firstly there is high chance of corkage, and secondly if I was watering ten/twenty people, I wouldn’t want to be messing around with thirty bottles and a corkscrew!  Go for the screw cap – it may be less elegant, but it is eminently more practical!

Next Time: Stephen explores one of the most common cause of wine faults; The Corked Bottle.

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