Dear Wine Wizard,
About a month ago I bottled my first blueberry Bordeaux. I used fresh blueberries and red Zinfandel concentrate. I adjusted the taste at bottling and it was great! The wine had a nice fruity nose, complex body and a smooth finish. For Christmas I opened a bottle to check on the aging progress. I was immediately struck by a strong solvent-like smell, something like acetone. The fruity nose I had experienced at bottling was gone. The acetone smell dispersed after a minute or so and the taste of the wine was OK, but had not improved since the bottling. Am I experiencing "bottle sickness" or something worse (TCA formation)? I appreciate your insight.
Boyce L. Clark
Baton Rouge, Louisiana
Wine Wizard replies: I’m so glad you’ve discovered the pleasures of blueberries and Zinfandel! I find that these two fruits complement each other well in Bordeaux-style red winemaking. But you also seem to be experiencing the dubious joys of an "off odor" or "spoilage" character.
Your "acetone" or "TCA" smell could have a few causes. My first suspicion with an "acetone" off-odor is that high temperatures were used during fermentation. Temperatures over, say, 90° F place stress on the yeast cells, which may then produce solvent-like aromas. These aromas may be less apparent when the wine is very young and may re-assert themselves later when the wine has had a chance for its "just fermented" character to mellow out in the bottle.
TCA is an entirely different ballgame altogether. Through a complicated biochemical transformation that, as you might imagine, is not fully understood, molds that reside in corks and winery equipment metabolize chlorine to create the swampy, sharp stinky compound known as trichloroanisole. Controlling TCA, and a host of other off compounds and smelly aromas, is mostly a matter of good sanitization. However, when you "adjusted the taste" of your wine at bottling, especially if you added any juice, honey or sugar, you could have unwittingly contributed to the formation of yet more spoilage compounds by supplying existing microorganisms with a new food source.
High fermentation temperatures and spoilage organisms are usually the main culprits of these types of odors in red wines. I find that "bottle sickness" is largely a myth or a bit of wishful thinking on the parts of less-than-careful winemakers, but it might be worth your while to store your wine in a cool, dry place and wait a month or two before cracking another bottle. If you’re lucky, your wine will have changed yet again ... this time for the better.