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Dear Dr. Vinny,
I often detect a smell of cockroach in my first sniffs of red wines, even well-stored top-pedigree Bordeaux; it slowly dissipates over an hour or two. Kindly enlighten me.
—H.F. Chew, Malaysia
When I first read your question, I wondered how you knew what cockroaches smell like—I’ve never hung around any long enough to get a sniff. But then I found out that there are many types of cockroaches, including ones in your part of the world where the female produces pungent pheromones that are difficult to ignore. From what I understand, on a good day it can smell like cinnamon or almonds, but most folks find it a terrible odor, much like rotten palmetto berries or skunk.
If cockroaches smell pungently skunky to you, then I have an idea of what you’re picking up in wine—it’s most likely a reduced sulfur compound, or some combination of sulfur compounds. Sulfur compounds tend to dissipate with exposure to air, so what might at first smell stinky, rotten or even rubbery will start to fade into the background with a few swirls in your wineglass or some time in a decanter.
Sulfur compounds can take on all kinds of unpleasant notes: rotten eggs, bug spray, burning tires, cabbage, garlic or burning matches. These gasses are emitted naturally during fermentation, and as long as they end up going away, are not a concern. Unlike cockroaches.
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