How to spot a faulty champagne bottle

Faulty champagne bottles

The Champagne region is hardly the perfect place to grow grapes for wine.  On the edge of feasibility for grapegrowing, the region faces climactic challenges almost every year.  Amazingly, year after year, the top champagne houses churn out bottles of exceptional quality.

Failure of one bottle in 10. Those are abominable odds. If I knew of any other premium product with a failure rate like that I’d never buy it. Ever.Tyson Stelzer

Having accomplished so much in the champagne-making process, it’s embarrassing to think that so much can go wrong after the bottle has been labeled, boxed and transported.

What can go wrong?

Here is a list of the most common things which can go wrong in your drink, and how to recognise them.

Flaws can come from the consistency of the closure, transportation, storage and selling cycle.  It’s frightening to think that all these flaws are known, and there are widely recognised solutions to ensure they don’t happen.

If you find one of these faults, take your bottle back to the place you bought it for a full refund or replacement.

Cork Taint – the ‘wet dog’

Cork taint is imparted randomly by natural corks giving a mouldy, ‘wet cardboard’ or ‘wet dog’ character to the champagne.

The champagne itself lacks fruit, and the finish is shortened.  In its most subtle form, it may simply have a slight dulling effect on the bouquet and palate.

You can read more about cork taint, and a well-known solution, DIAM, here.

Lightstruck – onion with a dash of bacon and burnt rubber

Yes, thats right, if you leave a bottle in the sunlight or even fluorescent lights for too long it starts to taste like onions.

The colour of the bottle makes a huge difference because dark-coloured glass blocks the UV light, and it’s this light which kills good wine.

For me, light is is more dangerous for champagne than cork or the temperatureDominique Demarville, Veuve Clicquot

While they are quite rare, there are black champagne bottles, which block all UV light.  Brown bottles are nearly as good (blocking 97 per cent of UV light) and green bottles block 92 per cent.

White flint (clear) bottles block practically nothing.  Champagne which has been left on lees [if you don’t know what that is, you are not alone – click here to understand how the dead yeast cells affect the flavour over time] is particularly susceptible to being lightstruck.

Lightstruck wines have reduced citrus flavours, with more ‘reductive’ character.  ‘Reductive’ means you will taste things like sulphur, cabbage, corn, garlic, onion, gherkin, bacon, gunsmoke and even burnt rubber.  Not pleasant!

Three top tips for buying wine.

  1. Buy a brown or green bottle.  It’s that easy.
  2. If you do want to buy champagne in a clear bottle, then do your research, find out the disgorgement date and be sure to buy a fresh, young bottle.
  3. Never, ever purchase clear-bottled champagne if it’s not sitting in its box, or wrapped in coloured cellophane. The clear yellow wrapping around Louis Roederer ‘Cristal’ doesn’t just look good – its for a very good reason. Always purchase champagne in a box or wrapping and never from a shelf in the sun or a fridge with fluoro lighting.
Never buy a clear glass bottle of champagne that’s been sitting on the shelf or in an illuminated fridge unless it’s sealed in its box, cellophane or bagTyson Stelzer

Oxidation – burnt orange and vinegar

Have you ever experienced a wine that tastes like vinegar? Chances are it’s oxidised.

Champagne is one of the most fragile of all wine styles, and particularly susceptible to degradation in contact with oxygen. Its fruit expression is flattened, it dries out, tastes like burnt orange or vinegar and often starts to turn brown, like an old slice of apple.

Oxidation is the biggest threat to the consistency of champagne this year, seriously afflicting more than one in sixteen bottles.

It can be a consequence of an inconsistent cork (or, occasionally, DIAM).

This predicament is aggravated on two fronts. Winemakers use sulphur dioxide as a preservative to protect wine from oxidation, and there is an alarming trend among some small Champagne growers to reduce or even eliminate its use. At the same time, increasing use of oak barrels provides more opportunity for oxygen contact during ageing of champagne before it is bottled.

As always, return any bottle that’s out of condition.

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