Hello there! I'm Dr. Vinifera, or "Vinny" for short. Ask me your toughest wine questions, from the technical aspects of winemaking to the fine points of etiquette. I hope you find my answers educational and even amusing. Looking for a particular answer? Check my archive and my FAQs.
Dear Dr. Vinny,
Certain red wines seem to have an aroma and sometimes taste of formaldehyde to me. I’ve probably just spent too much time in the biology lab, and I doubt it’s actually formaldehyde I’m tasting, but I’m curious what this is. Others don’t note this aroma or taste in the wines, but have suggested maybe it’s oak or tannins of some sort. Any ideas?
—Lisa, Grapevine, Tex.
Is there a chance you’re spending so much time in the biology lab that the smell has been absorbed by your clothes or hair? If not, the good news is that you’re probably not smelling actual formaldehyde. It’s considered carcinogenic, so it’s not meant to be used in the production of any consumables. That said, it might be used to treat wood used to make cellars, so if you’re noticing this characteristic only in wines from a particular source, perhaps the labels have absorbed the odor.
My guess is that you’re picking up a different volatile compound that is sometimes present in wine: volatile acidity, or VA. I’ve heard it most often described like nail-polish remover, vinegar, model-airplane glue or Magic Markers. Some wines have low levels of VA that can add a lifted note to the flavors (unless you’re particularly sensitive to it and find it distracting), but at higher levels it’s considered a defect.
We can certainly rule out oak or tannins. Oak usually adds toasty, spicy notes, or imparts flavors of vanilla, coffee, mocha, butter or caramel. Tannins are perceived as a feeling—that tug on the sides of your mouth—and not as a flavor.
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