Nobody Likes Rejection
The sommelier hands you a glass. Nervously you swirl the wine, sniff deeply, take a swallow, nod uneasily and pronounce, “Yes, the wine is fine. Thank you.” Is it? There are myriad wine faults, but fortunately only two are likely to intrude on your dinner: oxidation and corkiness.
Oxidation occurs when wine has been over-exposed to oxygen. An unopened bottle of wine rarely suffers from oxidation unless it is being served years after its prime. Instead, oxidation is most commonly encountered in economical wine by the glass orders.
The risk in ordering a single glass is that the bottle probably wasn’t opened specifically for you, so might have been uncorked for a few hours or—and this is the worry—a couple of days. While most bars and restaurants do their best to preserve an opened bottle, some wines are more vulnerable to oxygen than others. If ordering a single glass, put your oxidation detection-equipment (your nose) on high alert.
Ideally, servers check the previously opened bottles before serving. However, many are not trained to identify oxidized wine and—let’s face it—are often too rushed to do so anyway. An oxidized wine will have a stale and slightly vinegar-like aroma. To practice identifying this fault, simply leave a small amount of wine in the bottom of a bottle and then taste it a few days later. Or, trickle a few droplets of hydrogen peroxide into a glass of wine to hasten its demise (but please don’t drink!).
If you suspect your wine has seen better days, suggest to the server that the wine is oxidized and politely request a pour from a fresh bottle instead. It is a naughty no-no to gulp several swallows before requesting a switch, so don’t be greedy: pay attention to your first sip. Management has the final vote on the wine’s condition, but most will accommodate the customer. A squabble about wine condition is rare, but if it happens, graciously offer to purchase a glass from a freshly opened bottle and invite the management to taste the wines side-by-side.
A second flaw causing consternation in the wine world is a musty, moldy smell that overpowers the wine’s natural fruit aromas. Because this smell is derived from the effect of a mold interacting with the cork, the fault is referred to as corkiness. Wines tainted by corkiness are described as “corky” or “corked.”
Hong Kongers are veterans at perceiving moldy aromas, but detecting a corked wine can be tricky. The actual level of corkiness ranges from negligible to fusty and scientists have ascertained that our sensitivity levels vary from person to person. Don’t worry, corkiness is harmless, just a nuisance.
If assessing a wine’s condition makes you squirm uncomfortably, do not hesitate to sidestep the ritual with a confident wave of the hand and state boldly, “I’m sure the wine is fine, thank you.” It usually is.