FAQ: Is it OK to return a bottle of wine after you try it?

Posted by Tom Wall

Most wine these days is well-made, (in almost all cases) sulfited, filtered and/or pasteurised before bottling and sealed with screw caps or reliable corks. In other words, wine faults are relatively rare. And getting rarer. So is it OK to return a bottle of wine after you try it?

The simple answer is yes.

You shouldn’t have to pay for faulty wine so if you get a bad bottle, politely explain why you think it’s faulty to the wine waiter and ask for a replacement.

Even if you are a little nervous of your diagnosis, a wine professional will definitely have the experience to confirm it and any reputable restaurant won’t try to bully you into thinking a bad wine is drinkable.

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What causes faults in wine?

The good news is that most wine faults are easily detected. You’ll know it’s wrong. Faulty wine tastes and smells faulty. Here are the most common problems.

  • Corked wine tastes like dank, mouldy cardboard. This is caused by a contaminated cork.
  • Oxidised wine tastes flat, dull and more bitter and it will look brownish-orange (if white) or dull brown (if red). In restaurants, this most likely to be caused by a poorly fitting cork but, at home, you shouldn’t leave an open bottle for more than a few days. And indeed, why would you?
  • Maderisation. If wine is heated – baked really – during transport or storage in a hot climate, it will get a jammy taste and nutty smell.
  • Bacteria and microbes. Excessive, yucky medicinal, barnyard or acetic vinegary flavours can be a sign of a runaway bacterial infection. You may also see some light fizz from secondary fermentation. (Which is okay in Champagne, but not good in still wine.) My guess is that we’ll see more of this with the fashion for ‘natural’ wines.
  • Vinegar smells/tastes. Another sign of bacterial infection. A little bit of ‘volatile acidity’ is common but if it tastes or smells like vinegar, send it back!
  • Struck matches. This is a sign of excessive Sulphur Dioxide use. It’s normal for winemakers to use this to prevent the effects of oxidation but too much can lead to unpleasant rotten egg or struck match smells.

None of these faults are dangerous or particularly unhealthy. They’ll just ruin the experience of drinking the wine. However, if you do experience physical symptoms after drinking wine, you may be suffering from an intolerance. Make sure you rule out this possibility early on to avoid issues in the future. 

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