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Off Scents or Flavours

June 26, 2012
Question by: Alex, Bracknell, UK

Q:

Like all wines, Vintage Port suffers from the very occasional bottle that has suffered a problem during production or more usually storage so that the port is damaged when the bottle is opened.  Too much exposure to light can lead to a pale and flavourless drink, too much heat to lots of stewed flavours, and so on.  I have been lucky enough to drink enough port over the years to have got to recognise the different flaws and know how they have been caused.  Except for one!

Over the past 5 years and 2000+ bottles, I have tasted from two bottles of vintage port which have been really odd.  These two bottles were both quite old port (50+ years). Both had an overwhelming smell in the glass, smelling of bread and yeast - some others described the smell as that of gloss paint.  No-one was brave enough to taste the port.

Do you have any idea what might have caused this odd spoilage?  It wasn't volatile acidity or TCA taint.  Could it have been a bacterial infection of the port in some way?

A:

Hi Alex, We took your question to Charles Symington, our head winemaker.  He said it sounded very strange, and could have been a combination of causes adding up to a uniquely off aroma (try to imagine the off-aromatic equivalent of a "perfect storm").  It is highly unlikely that the Port itself was in any way "infected" or "spoiled" as the high alcohol content of course kills all yeasts, so no chance of secondary fermentation or anything of that nature to explain the scent.

On the other hand, Charles said if there was evidence of the bottle having leaked, whatever fault in the cork that would permit liquid to escape could also in theory permit air (and germs) in.  Any "infection" would attack the cork itself, but the quality of the incoming air, or the scent of the infection in the cork, could affect the Port.

Your allusion to the smell of gloss paint reminded Charles of a story of a Burgundy producer who had stored his wine in another cellar than usual.  During the years the wine lay in storage, the cellar was repainted.  The wine actually picked up the scent of the paint and the producer suffered a total loss on that lot of wine. 

If you think about the micro-oxygenation through the cork which allows the gentle ageing of wine, or if the bottle showed signs of leakage (and therefore experienced even greater exposure to air) it would follow that if the storage place had some kind of strong off aromas, or even some kind of chemical in the environment with or without a strong smell, that could affect the wine.  We were thinking about the smell of tanalised wood, as well as the obvious paint smells, and wondered if that might be the answer.  You say both bottles were 50+ years old, so if some number of those years had been spent in a cellar with fresh paint or other treatments, or some other source of foul odour and poor ventilation, that could very well be the culprit.



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