I have had a rash of unfortunate wine disasters of late. First, there was the bottle of 1989 Chateauneuf-du-Pape. Next came the ’86 Bordeaux. And finally, the last straw: a very expensive bottle of vintage Champagne from 1990. None of them were drinkable. All of them had “turned.” The Chateauneuf and Bordeaux had lost all their fruit, and the Champagne had become maderized—it tasted like sherry, and not even very good sherry, at that.
Now, if I’d only recently purchased these wines, I’d have re-corked them and returned them to the wine store for a refund. But, since they’d been in my home for decades, there was no one to blame for the bad wine but myself. I suspect the fact that these wines had turned had to do with a combination of two things. First, I simply had waited too long to drink the wines; they were “over the hill.” Second—and I think this has to be the explanation for the bad Champagne, which should have still been very drinkable—I just must have not been careful enough storing the wines. Sure, they could have been tainted from the moment I purchased them, but I doubt it.
How can you sniff out a bad wine? Well, it’s not hard. The most common cause of wine taint is what’s called TCA (2,4,6-Trichloroanisole), a chemical substance that can cause a 30 cent cork to kill a $500 bottle of first-growth Bordeaux. If you open a bottle of wine and it smells like a soggy City Weekly, or a puppy that’s just come in from the rain, it’s probably corked. Although harmless, corked wine is unpalatable. This is the most common cause of wine spoilage, and in a 2005 study of 2,800 bottles of wine blind-tasted at the Wine Spectator tasting facilities, 7 percent were found to be tainted. Some studies suggest that as much as 15 percent of all wines are bad.
But, as I said, I can’t really blame the producers for my rotten wines. In the cases of the Chateauneuf and Bordeaux, I think I’d simply hung onto the wines too long. Both were from smaller producers and probably not meant to age for 20-plus years. I should have enjoyed them when they were younger. But the Champagne had been made by a top-notch Champagne maker and should have lasted for 30 or even 40 years.
The maderized Champagne was probably a victim of careless storage, either on my part or somewhere along the chain of Champagne custody. It’s called “maderized” because the wine literally tastes like Madeira, with flavors of candied fruits and almonds. That might not sound like such a bad thing, but it is when you’re hoping the bottle of 1990 Salon tastes like Champagne.
Heat is the enemy of all wines. So, if you store your wine in a rack next to a heat vent or sunny window, maderization will surely occur. It can happen in a single afternoon if you leave your wine in the car on a hot summer’s day. I knew I was in trouble as soon as the sommelier opened the Champagne. The cork had shrunk to about one-third its normal circumference and the bubbly had a golden, Sauternes-like hue that just wasn’t right. One sip confirmed my fears; the Champagne had gone south, probably from heat exposure.
Basements and cellars are generally good wine storage areas. You want to store wine in a cool, dark place where heat and light can’t get to them. Otherwise, prepare to be spoiled rotten.