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30 Second Wine Tasting Tip:
Penny for your thoughts

You pull the cork from a fine bottle of red wine that you've been looking forward to enjoying, and realize with sudden dismay that this stuff reeks of something really nasty: Rotten eggs maybe, or worse, sewer gas.

What's going on here? Is the wine ruined?

Those characteristic, unappetizing aromas come from hydrogen sulfide (H2S), an inorganic compound containing sulfur. Sulfur compounds sometimes form naturally in fermenting wine through a process that scientists call "reduction." Similar "reductive" processes in wine may cause smells of burnt rubber or that piece de resistance of grade-school cafeterias, long-boiled cabbage.

Some sulfury smells in wine are fatal flaws, but that nasty sewer-gas aroma, surprisingly enough, is relatively easy to banish from your wine by an old process so simple that you might dismiss it as a myth: Simply drop a clean penny (or other copper coin) into the afflicted wine, or as wine makers in Burgundy do, stir it briefly with a copper spoon.

I watched my wine-loving pal David Schildknecht do this trick twice recently with sulfury wines, then had occasion to try it myself at home with a 10-year-old Rhone red that I had been anticipating with delight. Amazingly, the sulfur aromas vanish within seconds, and the penny comes out of its wine bath as shiny and gleaming as if it just came from the mint.

"The copper reacts with H2S to form copper sulfide, which is insoluble," explained chemist Stuart Yaniger when I sought explanations from the experts on our Wine Lovers' Discussion Group. Even in alloy coins like U.S. pennies, which contain only a thin film of copper over a zinc alloy core, there's usually enough copper to do the job, Yaniger said. "In the absence of shiny pennies (or for those squeamish about the contents of their pocket), silver works even better. Use a polished silver spoon for a minute or two and watch the tarnish form!"

(H2S, by the way, has nothing to do with the much maligned sulfites that prompt warning labels on wines sold in the U.S. and some other countries because of their danger to asthmatics. For more on that story, see The 30 Second Wine Advisor for March 29, 1999:

Have you tried the copper penny trick, or do you have another old wine "remedy" you would like to share? To join in a public discussion on this subject, you can point your browser directly to this Wine Lovers' Discussion Group topic at Or if you prefer to reply in private, send me E-mail at I regret that the growing circulation of the "Wine Advisor" makes it difficult for me to reply individually to every note, but I'll answer as many as I can; and please be assured that all your input helps me do a better job of writing about wine. Please feel free to get in touch if you'd like to comment on our topics and tasting notes, suggest a topic for a future bulletin, or just talk about wine.

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30 Second Tasting Notes:
A wine in need of a penny
Lemencier Sylviane et Jacques Lemenicier 1990 Cornas ($16.99)
Hazy dark ruby, with complex, evolved aromas of smoky grilled meat, pleasant "barnyard," black coffee and ripe black fruit. An eggy whiff of sulfur in the scent at first is promptly dismissed by swirling a clean penny in the glass. Big and ripe black-fruit flavors follow the nose, earthy and full, structured with lemony acidity and just a touch of fuzzy tannins. A delight, and no hurry to drink it; although it's reaching maturity, a little more time won't hurt. U.S. importer: Weygandt-Metzler Imports Ltd., Unionville, Pa. (March 28, 2000)

FOOD MATCH: Absolutely perfect with a Northern Italian roast pork loin with rosemary and juniper berries in a dark tomato sauce, a Marcella Hazan specialty.

30 Second Wine Link
A scientist writes on sulfides
If you would like to do a little more reading on this week's topic, I've found an interesting article, "Of Rotten Eggs, Burnt Rubber & Cooked Cabbage," edited by Dr. Christian E. Butzke, cooperative extension enologist in the Department of Viticulture and Enology at the University of California at Davis. The article, subtitled "A Review and Update on Sulfide Formation in Winemaking," is at

The week's 30 Second Advertising Partner
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California Wine Club

30 Second Administrivia:
Text edition only this week
We have come up with a mailing program that makes it possible to distribute The 30 Second Wine Advisor even when I'm traveling, so I don't need to skip publication during my current jaunt to Napa. However, in a necessary compromise with our mail system's technical limits, subscribers to our HTML edition will note that you are receiving the plain-text edition this week.
30 Second Administrivia:
Every week
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All the wine-tasting reports posted here are consumer-oriented. In order to maintain objectivity and avoid conflicts of interest, I purchase all the wines I rate at my own expense in retail stores and accept no samples, gifts or other gratuities from the wine industry.

More time for wine?
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If you'd like to talk about wine online with fellow wine enthusiasts around the world, we'd be delighted to have you visit the interactive forums in our Wine Lovers' Discussion Group. If you're from another part of the world and don't feel entirely comfortable chatting in English, visit our International Forum and introduce yourself in the language of your choice.

Vol. 2, No. 11, April 3, 2000

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