10 Smells of a Wine Gone Bad - Wine Turtle
This post was updated on: July 1, 2018

10 Smells of a Wine Gone Bad

Most wine drinkers have probably had this happen: You have some friends or family over, and you have brought a bottle of wine for the occasion, or know you have ‘that bottle’ in the cupboard that you are going to pull out.

Opening it, you pour a glass for yourself and your guests. Whether they have started drinking it or not, if you stick your nose in for a sniff and think *wait a second…* or have someone pipe up and say; “Um, I think this wine is off...”

This situation is annoying. Dramatic? Yes. Money down the drain? Also, yes. What makes this situation even more horrifying, is when this bottle of wine was expensive and you were saving it for a special occasion.

Wine can be such a beautiful drinking experience, but knowing when your wine has made a turn for the worse, is a reality we must face, that wine is after all, a perishable. The great news is that before drinking that wine that has gone bad, it has to pass the 'smell test'. This allows you to pick up on whether it has gone off before you consume it.

The Smells of a Wine Gone Bad

There are a number of distinct smell that indicate that there is a  definitive fault in the wine and it would probably be wisest for you not to drink. Below are the 10 smells of a wine gone bad.

1. Who Smelt It, Dealt It

What does it smell like?  

Rotten eggs, someone passing 'wind', cowpats, or sewer.

What is the culprit?  

Hydrogen sulfide.

What does it mean?

Hydrogen sulfide is a bi-product of the wine yeast fermenting sugars that needed nitrogen as they metabolize the sugars into alcohol and didn’t get it when they needed it. This results in some very unpleasant aromas. Hydrogen Sulfide is the devil, if left long enough, it will form mercaptans & disulfides.

2. Skunk!

skunk
What does it smell like?  

Skunk, burnt matches, or cat pee.

What is the culprit?  

Mercaptans.

What does it mean?

Mercaptans (thiols) are a group of smelly compounds that are produced by hydrogen sulfide. Once mercaptans are formed in the wine, they are just waiting for oxygen and when they get it you're in for it.

3. Mamma Mia!

garlic smell
What does it smell like?  

Smells like raw garlic or rotten onions.

What is the culprit?  

Disulfides.

What does it mean?

This happens when that group of compounds called mercaptans above, gets its oxygen. This usually happens during the end of the fermentation process. They are the final form of hydrogen sulfides reign of terror. Wines should never reach our lips with the above three in excess.

4. Put a cork in it

corked wine
What does it smell like?  

"Corked", wet moldy cardboard or musty. 

What is the culprit?  

2,4,6- Trichloroanisole

What does it mean?

The infamous, ‘corked’ aroma. This happens when naturally occurring wood fungi comes into contact with the cork. As the fungi metabolize, the compounds produced in the wine bottle give off this taint. This taint can’t be removed, hence the wide implementation of screw cap bottle tops.

5. Off to the quack

bandaid
What does it smell like?  

Band-aid, medicinal, or "hospital" smell.

What is the culprit?  

Ethyl phenols

What does it mean?

A little yeast called Brettanocmyces. It lives on grapes and on other fruits in nature, but it loves wineries, especially…wooden barrels. If it’s still alive in the bottle wine, it will metabolize any residual sugars the wine has, and presto! You’ve got last years used sticking plaster in your wine.

6. Full of pep and... vinegar

Vinegar in glass carafe.
What does it smell like?  

Vinegar (smell & taste)

What is the culprit?  

Acetic Acid

What does it mean?

Made by little bacteria called Acetobacter metabolizing ethanol, acetaldehyde and acetic acid in the presence of oxygen. Vinegar gets made is this way. Not interested in a glass of red wine vinegar with your pasta? If you can smell it, it’s gone too far.

7. Grease me up!

What does it smell like?  

Oily, fatty, overly buttery, flabby or greasy (smell & taste)

What is the culprit?  

Diacetyl

What does it mean?

This greasy, oily smell is produced mainly during malolactic fermentation. Where lactic acid bacteria attack other acids in the wine. Did you ever try an oaked Chardonnay in the 70’s and 80’s? These wines were notorious for big, buttery flavors and aromas. They have gone out of vogue now. Although they are drinkable, Chardonnay in particular shouldn't be like licking a stick of butter.

8. Cigarette?

ashtray
What does it smell like?  

Wet ashtray, burnt meat or smoked.

What is the culprit?  

Guaiacol

What does it mean?

The presence of ‘smoke’ in your white wines, or in excess in your reds, could be that the grapes have been exposed to REAL smoke. This happens when smoke from fire; i.e. forest fires, comes into contact with the grape skins. The extent of this smokiness will vary on severity to which the grapes were exposed.

9. Think different, or not...

rotten apple
What does it smell like?  

Bruised apples or dry straw.

What is the culprit?  

Acetaldehyde

What does it mean?

This happens when ethanol (alcohol) becomes oxidized. It can start to happen at any point of the winemaking process, where ethanol is present and exposed to oxygen. From fermentation, when ethanol is first produced, right up to bottling. If you can smell a sherry/apple aroma, the wine was most likely left in the air too long.

10. Don't sniff that

paint thinner
What does it smell like?  

Nail polish remover, glue, wood varnish or paint thinner.

What is the culprit?  

Ethyl Acetate

What does it mean?

Two ways. Acetic acid bacteria/lactic acid bacteria made it, or it’s the reaction between acetic acid (vinegar) and ethyl alcohol. It has been said small amounts can give the wine complexity and sweetness. But again, if the reaction from either cause; is left to occur for too long during winemaking, it will rear its head in the form of paint thinner. Not delicious at all.

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