Penny for your thoughts
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: www.wineloverspage.com/wineadvisor/tswa0329.shtml.)
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 http://www.wineloverspage.com/cgi-bin/sb/index.cgi?fn=1&tid=2291. Or if you prefer to reply in private, send me E-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. 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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A wine in need of a penny
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.
A scientist writes on sulfides
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Vol. 2, No. 11, April 3, 2000