In This Issue
So many bad things can happen to good wine! Many common wine flaws are clearly defined and fairly easy to learn to recognize. Wine judges learn to identify flaws as an aid to scoring wines in competition. Many wine enthusiasts pick them up quickly, as a hobby interest and a guide to identifying and discussing wine problems. A few examples:
Cork taint: A moldy, musty stench reminiscent of wet cardboard or a damp basement, often with an overtone of chlorine bleach, identifies wine afflicted by a faulty natural cork.
Oxidized: The familiar walnutty aroma of inexpensive Sherry signals a wine exposed to oxygen over time in the bottle or through a faulty cork or stopper. The geek-speak term "Maderized" is nearly synonymous, although as an exercise in wine pedantry, it's possible to draw a line between "oxidized" by air exposure and "maderized" by exposure to air and heat.
Wild yeast: Earthy, "barnyard" aromas ranging from sweaty leather horse saddles to barnyards piled high with manure - often accompanied by a twangy acidic finish - usually denote contamination by wild yeast strains with names like brettanomyces ("brett") and dekkera.
Volatile acidity: The bacterium acetobacter, afflicting carelessly made wines, can yield a range of "high-toned" aromas ranging from a whiff of furniture polish to a salad-dressing jolt of vinegar.
Sulfur: A range of sulfur compounds (not to be confused with sulfites used as a natural preservative) can cause a variety of aroma faults in wine from "burnt match" to offensively stinky smells of overcooked cabbage, sauerkraut or swamp gas.
One of the most widely discussed wine faults, though, doesn't submit easily to dictionary-style definition. Today, following up on an extended conversation in our WineLovers Discussion Group, let's tighten our focus on "cooked" wine, a common problem that lacks a clear description.
Not literally "cooked" on a stove top, this term refers to a wine purportedly damaged by exposure to excessive heat - or, increasingly, exposed to any heat above the traditional 55F/13C temperature of underground cellars - during shipment or storage.
This term is a relative newcomer to the world of wine evaluation. Wine encyclopedias and other reference books from as recently as the 1970s don't list it, at least not separately from oxidation and maderization. It rarely if ever comes up in wine judging in Europe (perhaps because these competitions usually feature new wines sent directly from storage at the winery). But dip into online wine forums or attend gatherings of wine enthusiasts, and it surely won't be long before you encounter an expert spitting out wine and declaring it "cooked."
Getting those experts to agree on exactly what constitutes "cooked" and how to identify it, however, is a much stickier wicket.
Why did a long-term non-issue so quickly bubble to the top of wine lovers' worry lists? I see a combination of two factors: First, a few strong wine importers - most notably Berkeley's irrepressible Kermit Lynch - made a virtue out of shipping their wines under carefully controlled conditions ... and pointing out that their competitors do not. Second, a significant increase of wine collecting and investment - as opposed to mere wine drinking - altered priorities among new wine enthusiasts.
Amid a growing received wisdom that exposure to heat in shipment or storage compromises the potential longevity of ageworthy wines, collectors began paying attention to the provenance of their wines - and, soon enough, worrying about the storage status of all their wines.
But what exactly does a "cooked" wine taste like? Frankly, you can ask five experts and get five answers. Based largely on personal, anecdotal experience, some cite "overripe fruit" "pruney fruit" or even "stewed fruit" as a dead giveaway. Others look for the telltale nutty but stale Sherry-like scent that betrays oxidation. Collectors, who rarely drink their treasures young, focus on the longer term: Overheat a wine, they fret, and it will "fall apart" in the cellar, losing its fruit while an undamaged wine would be maturing toward mellow complexity, the damage revealing to the collector's dismay only after years of storage.
Although the science behind this theory is less than clear, I'm inclined toward the latter view. Back in the summer of 2001, I conducted some casual tests, deliberately "cooking" a bottle of modest Cabernet in a closed car on a searing summer day. Tasted later in a "blind" pairing with an identical but un-damaged bottle, the heated wine was actually more immediately appealing, showing more forward fruit and softness. The effect resembled "flash pasteurization," a sleazy treatment given some industrial-type commercial wines to bring up their fruit. It doesn't seem surprising to me that a wine so treated - not unlike an athlete overdosing on steroids - would give up its longevity in exchange for a youthful burst of power.
Still, when I taste a wine and find it either forwardly fruity or hinting at Sherry, I can't say that "cooked" is the first explanation that comes to my mind. "Cooked" is often used generically for "damaged" in cases where it's not really possible to be more specific.
I do believe that long-term exposure to warmth compromises longevity, but I'm not persuaded that cooking confers a short-term "stewed" or other character that can be consistently picked out with the level of confidence that wine judges bring to cork taint, volatile acidity or wild yeast contamination.
At the end of the day, though, I see no reason to alter my conclusion in the 2001 article: It simply makes sense to take care of your wine and keep it cool ... and that goes double if you're talking about an expensive, ageworthy wine that you intend to keep for a long time.
At the same time, the reassuring lesson is that, even if you make a mistake and let your wine get overheated - or if the power to your cellar goes off for a few hours on a hot, summer day - you needn't assume that it's ruined and can't still be enjoyed.
Now, here's today's tasting report, a fine value in a rustic but food-friendly Old World Cabernet.
Domaine La Tour Boisée 2005 Vin de Pays d'Oc Cabernet Sauvignon ($9.99)
Clear but very dark blackish-purple, almost inky; clear garnet at the edge. Appealing red fruit and spice, hints of mixed berries and tart plums, pleasant but doesn't really jump out to me as varietal Cabernet. Flavors are consistent with the nose, fresh and tart, perhaps a hint of dark, bitter chocolate as a backdrop to the fruit. Tannins aren't obvious at first tasting, but show up as dry and rather scratchy astringency on the finish. Warm at 13.8% alcohol, a bit rough and rustic; but there's nothing the matter with that in this "wine of the country" table wine, fine with simple fare. U.S. importer: Wine Adventures Inc., West Des Moines, Iowa. (March 31, 2008)
FOOD MATCH: Fine with red meat or pasta, or in this case, both: Leftover rare rib eye steak warmed through in a light sauce of fresh tomatoes, green peppers, red onions, garlic and Pecorino Romano as a sauce for mezzi rigatoni..
VALUE: The $10 price point for quality European wine is almost disappearing as the puny dollar continues to weaken. This rustic red, however, is well worth the toll.
WHEN TO DRINK: Drinkable now and not really meant for aging, but fruit, balance and tannins will likely hold it for a few years.
WEB LINK: The winery Website is published in French, English and what appears to be two dialects of Chinese:
For a fact sheet on an earlier vintage of today's wine, see
FIND THIS WINE ONLINE:
Distribution of Domaine La Tour Boisée is limited. U.S. readers may be able to get information on sources from the import firm, Wine Adventures Inc. of West Des Moines, Iowa:
You'll find a few U.S. and international vendors for Domain La Tour Boisée on Wine-Searcher.com:
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Last Week's Wine Advisor Index
The Wine Advisor's daily edition is usually distributed on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays (and, for those who subscribe, the FoodLetter on Thursdays). In recent weeks, however, we've published on Mondays only. Here's the index to last week's column and archives:
The value of a nose (March 24, 2008)
Complete 30 Second Wine Advisor archive:
Wine Advisor Foodletter archive: