Bad Smells in Wine

There are so many unusual things you can smell in a wine—banana, toast, Crème de Cassis, black olives, gooseberries, and pineapple, just to name a few. Smelling a wine (the scent of which is called the nose) is half the fun of tasting it. If you have a sensitive nose, you can smell all sorts of wild things—kindergarten classroom, dried cuttlefish, cherry preserves. You can even start to smell the place where the wine comes from. But there are some smells which are disappointing in any wine, and I’ll tell you why. A couple of them are debatable, but I’ll explain why I still don’t think you should smell them.

1. Rubbing alcohol.

Problem: The alcohol is not well integrated into the wine, or there’s too much alcohol. Usually evident in red wines, but sometimes in white wine, too. A distinct cheap alcohol smell jumps out at you and masks the other flavors. If it’s more subtle, you can still tell it has this problem because you will feel a tingling sensation underneath the bridge of your nose. The wine is “hot.” When you taste the wine, it often tastes cheap, or just explodes in your mouth with alcohol and sugar, and not a lot of other dimension.

2. Manure/poop.

Problem: Robert Parker would say that this wine was made in an unclean way. This is a debatable smell, as I have heard that some wine critics relish it. And in fact, this smell usually accompanies higher quality wines. The wine inside is usually not ruined, although it can be harder to taste the fruit. What I dislike about this smell is that it masks everything else. You take a whiff, and “poop!” is your first note. You take a second whiff, and “poop!” is the next. And that’s it. You can’t smell the lovely fruity, earthy or spicy characteristics of the wine.

3. Green pepper/jalapeno pepper.

Problem: The wine has “green” notes. The grapes may not have reached their full potential, or there may have been too many stems and leaves included in the must with the picked grapes. This is another one that’s debatable. When I first smelled it, I really liked it. It can be really exciting to find a wine that has a jalapeno or green pepper smell. How unusual, right? It definitely knocks your socks off when you first learn to identify it. But after a few times, it gets old. Much like the manure smell, this aroma tends to mask others. Additionally, the wine may not be as complex as it could be, or the green elements overpower the grapes. (FYI, the two grapes that usually carry green pepper/jalapeno notes are Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc.)

4. Wet dog.

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Problem: Your glass is unclean. It’s tempting to attribute to the wine, but actually, it’s bacteria in your glass making that smell. Over time, human mouth bacteria attaches to the glass and multiplies inside the room temperature wine and the warm dishwater. Gross, I know. Some people are more sensitive to this than others. I am very sensitive. The best way to combat this is to ask for a new glass if you’re out. If you’re at home, soak your wine glasses in a mild bleach solution for five minutes, and rinse well.

(Full disclosure: After writing, I happened to open an issue of Wine Spectator and find an infographic about certain wine smells. “Wet dog” can also be attributed to the presence of the yeast genus brettanomyces. But in my experience, changing the glass usually takes care of it.)

Happy tasting!

-Carol

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