It was a weekday night and we were looking forward to an easy pasta dinner built around a batch of meat sauce I had made a few days before. As usual, I was chronically short of the kind of wine I like with tomato-based sauces — crisply acidic Italian reds. And so, on the way home from work, I stopped by one of several wine stores I frequent on a regular basis. After a quick scan of the shelves I chose a $17 Barbera d’Alba from De Forville, a top producer in the Piedmont region of northern Italy.
Barbera d’Alba is made from the barbera grape in the Alba district of Piedmont. While the variety is second in importance to nebbiolo, the grape of the famed Barolo and Barbaresco appellations, it has its place as a somewhat lighter, brightly acidic “everyday” wine that’s perfect for simple Italian meals.
At home, my wife was the first to take a sip. “It’s kind of funky with an edge of basement,” she said in a geeky wine-speak way you can blame on me. My antennae went up. Corked wine, I figured. I smelled the wine myself and, sure enough, it had the telltale sign of being corked — an unpleasant aroma reminiscent of damp newspapers sitting in a basement.
But what exactly is a corked wine, and what do you do about it? Natural cork is vulnerable to high levels of a compound called 2,4,6-trichloroanisole, or TCA, and although it is relatively rare it is unmistakable when present. It’s a popular misconception that you can detect it by smelling the cork. In fact, the cork itself gives no indication of TCA, so when a cork is presented by your server in a restaurant, ignore it and take a deep whiff of the wine in the glass after swirling it around for a few seconds. A very unpleasant, musty smell is a good indication that TCA has gotten into the wine.
When we found it the other night, I put the cork back in the wine and opened something else. The next day, I brought it back to the store and reported that I believed the wine was corked. A manager smelled the bottle and the owner poured a glass and did her own assessment. Both easily agreed with my diagnosis and offered to return my $17 or replace the bottle.
The point here is that it’s entirely acceptable to return a bottle if you think the wine is bad. And good retailers will respond positively, even apologetically. In the end, I chose a different wine altogether, a $16 red from the Sancerre area of France’s Loire Valley. We had no problem at all with Alphonse Dolly’s 2011 Pinot Noir made from organic grapes. This lovely wine, with its earth, mineral and black cherry notes and a touch of brown sugar, is among the best under-$20 pinots I have tasted. In fact, I went back for a second bottle the next night.
In the end, a bad wine and a little frustration turned into a good experience with the discovery of an exciting new bottle.