Why we don’t like certain wines? A guide to help you understand why.

Madeline Puckette (“Wine Folly”) tasting a bad bottle of wine…


How many times have you asked (or heard) the question: “What’s is wrong with this wine?”


There’s a multitude of things that can make a wine taste bad. If a deviation from what is considered acceptable is just minor, it will define a flaw. If the problem is major, it is a wine fault. A wine fault is mostly caused by inappropriate winemaking or wine storage. It can range from making the experience of drinking wine less pleasant, to the point where it can make a wine totally undrinkable. Common examples are oxidation, heat damage, cork taint (TCA) and mousiness (caused by Brettanomyces).

Basically, deficient winemaking techniques and/or storage conditions will trigger undesirable characteristics (faults) in a wine.

Here is a list flaws, faults and negative tasting descriptors. Keep in mind that in some cases it is you who “is” the problem. Why? You may have very high sensitivity to a certain compound and this makes the wine unpleasant to you (but not necessarily to somebody else with a higher threshold to the same compound).


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Acetaldehyde: The main aldehyde found in wines. It is a unique and pleasing element of Sherry wines (Spain). However, if found in significant amounts in table wines, it is considered to be a flaw.

Acetic Acid: All wines contain small quantities of Acetic Acid. It’s only when this substance is present in larger quantities (above the sensory threshold) that it impairs a vinegary taste and aroma to the wine.


Acidic: A wine that expresses excess of acidity. A good wine needs acidity to be balanced, but when it passes the point where it is felt as “sharp” or “crisp” (both positive tasting notes), it is felt as “sour” or “tart” (both negative tasting notes).

Aggressive: A wine that imparts harshness on the palate. It may be either a texture or a gustatory sensation and is caused by excessive alcohol, tannins or acid.


Alcoholic: A negative tasting term used to describe wines that have and excessive and/or unbalanced alcohol content. Also known as “hot” (the wine causes a burning sensation in the mouth).


Austere: A negative description of a wine that is somewhat harsh on the palate.


Backward: A wine that is not ready to drink yet (despite its age). Often the cause is the excessive amount of unripe tannins.


Baked: A negative tasting term for wines that have either oxidized or that spent time in a high temperature environment. They taste as if they came from overripe grapes.



Barnyard: A negative tasting descriptor for a dirty aroma that is present in the wine. In most cases the origin of the problem is related to Brettanomyces (Brett for short).


Bitter: A negative tasting description of some tannic wines.


Blowsy: A negative tasting description for wines that lack acidity and have excessive alcohol levels.


Bottle shock (Bottle-sickness): Also known as bottle-sickness, a temporary condition of wine characterized by muted or disjointed fruit flavors. It often occurs immediately after bottling or when wines are shaken in travel. After several days the condition usually disappears.


Formation of 4-ethyl phenol in wine

Brettanomyces: Often colloquially referred to as “Brett”. At low levels the presence of this yeast may have a positive effect on wine (adding complexity and giving an “aged character” to red wines that have not being aged). Some wines even rely on Brettanomyces to give to their wines a distinguishing character. However, if the levels of the sensory compounds exceed the sensory threshold to a great extent, their perception is most of the time off-putting. The sensory threshold can differ between individuals, and the result is that some people find the compounds more attractive/unattractive than others.


Briery: A negative tasting description for wines that have some sort of “aggressive spiciness”. As it was seasoned with too much black pepper.


Closed: A tasting term for a wine whose qualities are still hidden, but that will be displayed in the future (from a few minutes to a few years).


Cloudy: Not bright. Describes a wine that has low clarity and that, either has not been fined or filtered, or that was not properly made.


Cloying: A negative term for a wine that tastes too sweet.


Coarse: A negative tasting descriptor for a wine with a harsh texture (mostly because it is too tannic).


Cooked: A negative tasting description of a wine that either comes from a hot growing region (the south of Italy, for example) and the grapes were overripe when harvested, or that was exposed to high temperatures during storage.



Corked: A general term referring to a set of undesirable smells or tastes found in a bottle of wine. It results from a cork tainted by TCA (trichloroanisol).


Diacetyl: Gives a buttery character to the wine. It is caused by malolactic bacterial metabolism.


Dilute: The opposite of concentrated. Other descriptions for these wines that lack concentration would be watery or thin.


Dirty: A very negative tasting description for a wine with off flavors (as if the wine had some dirtiness in it).


Dumb: A negative tasting term for (generally, but not always) white wines that have been served too cold; therefore, having less to offer. It may also refer to a wine that is still young and needs heavy aeration to open up.



Ethyl acetate: An unpleasant aroma of nail-plish remover (acetone) caused by the reaction of ethanol and acetic acid.


Flabby: The low acidity in the wine will show a lack of structure and the consequent flaccidity.


Flat: A negative tasting term that refers to a wine that tastes dreary.


Geranium character: Strong aroma and flavor of geranium leaves.


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Grapey: A negative description for a wine that tastes “too much” like grapes.


Hard: A wine that in unbalanced because of the high levels of tannin.


Harsh: Common description for astringent (tannic) wines or for the ones that have unbalanced acidity.


Heavy: A negative tasting descriptor for a wine that is unbalanced and tastes weighty in the mouth (mainly because of its very high alcohol content).


High Sorbate: Gives a chemical, bubblegum character to the wine.


Hollow: A description for wines that don’t have enough depth.


Hydrogen sulfide: A very serious fault in the wine. The smell reminiscent of rotten eggs that is caused by the interaction of hydrogen and sulfur dioxide.


Mercaptan: Chemical compound resulting from the reaction of hydrogen sulfide with ethyl and methyl alcohol .

It produces a odors in wine that are reminiscent of rotten eggs, burnt rubber, garlic or onions. If perceived in the wine, it is a very serious fault.


Musty: A negative tasting descriptor for wines that don’t seem to be totally clean.

The causes are poor conditions of storage at the winery (dirty barrels for example) or a cork infected by TCA.


Off: A term meaning that there is something wrong with the aromas and/or flavors of a wine.



Oxidized: A wine that has been exposed to air and that has lost (partially or totally) its original qualities.


Plonk: Poor quality wine.


Pricked: A very negative tasting description for a wine that has a high level of acetic acid. Smells and tastes like vinegar.


Puckery: Very tannic (astringent being a better choice of words) wines cause this tactile sensation in the mouth.



Reduction: A wine showing “reduction” is a wine where its sulphur compounds interacted with hydrogen. This interaction causes very unpleasant smells in the wine.


Rubbery: The bad smell of wines that suffer from reduction (a wine where its sulphur compounds interacted with hydrogen).


Stalky: A negative tasting description for a wine that tastes vegetal (“green”).


Stemmy: A negative description of a wine that tastes severely “green” (as in the stems of a bunch of grapes).


Stewed: A negative tasting descriptor for a wine that lacks freshness. Gives the sensation that the wine has flavors of baked fruit (rather than fresh fruit).


Tired: A negative description of a wine that is past its prime.


Underripe: A negative tasting descriptor for a wine made from grapes that didn’t reach full maturity.


Vegetal: “Green”. A negative tasting term, typical of grapes that grow in cool areas and don’t have enough time to fully ripen.

They will display aromas and tastes that remind you of bell peppers, asparagus and other vegetables.


Volatile Acidity (VA): It refers to the steam dis-tillable acids present in wine, primarily acetic acid but also lactic, formic, butyric, and propionic acids.

Its threshold in red wine varies from significantly (depending on the grape variety, style and, of course, the person who is tasting the wine).

If the VA is above the sensory threshold, the wine is generally considered undesirable because of their pungent, sour taste.


Watery: A negative tasting descriptor for a wine with diluted flavors and low in alcohol.


You may also be interested in reading a couple of related articles:

Everything you need to know about “Brett”

The use (or not) of sulfur dioxide in winemaking: trick or treat?

“Why You Like the Wines You Like: Changing the way the world thinks about wine.” by Tim Hanni, MW


And a big Thank You very to www.snooth.com for all the great pictures! Go check them out…



Luiz Alberto, #winelover ( visit our website: www.winelover.co )

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