From Cat Pee To Burning Tires: Winemakers Tackle The Stinky Vintage Challenge

The most abhorrent, offensive, repellent wine I have ever tasted was a pinot noir from South Africa. This was back in “wine school,” and another student turned to me and said, “It’s like the Michelin Man rolled in garbage, then set himself on fire.” So when I was considering what to write about in my next article, and someone suggested stinky wine, you can see where my mind went.

No doubt about it, some wines stink. Whether it’s a whiff of “rotten eggs” when you first open a bottle that quickly disperses, or a pervasive dumpster fire smell that is still apparent when the last drop has been drunk (or poured out), not all wines smell like a bed of roses. In my database of tasting notes, I have references to aromas ranging from the mildly questionable, like cat pee and barnyard, all the way up to baby diaper, perm solution and port-a-potty.

By no means are all the wines that inspired these notes from South Africa (the port-a-potty was from Spain – that was a bad one), and, equally, not all South African wines smell unpleasant. But South African wines do have a reputation – deserved or not – for producing wines with a particular aromatic disposition: burnt rubber.

What causes this? Is it something in the air or the soil or the water? Researchers at Stellenbosch University in South Africa have looked into it, and can’t determine any one component that causes the expression of burnt rubber in a wine.

Most people believe that, rather than having anything to do with South Africa, the smell of burnt rubber in a wine is the result of a fault: something genuinely wrong with the wine, possibly due to poor winemaking practices. And, no doubt, one can find the smell of burning tires in wines from elsewhere in the world. In fact, the only occurrences in my tasting note database are wines from Chile and Oregon.