Hello there! I'm Dr. Vinifera, but you can call me Vinny. Ask me your toughest wine questions, from the fine points of etiquette to the science of winemaking. And don't worry, I'm no wine snob—you can also ask me those "dumb questions" you're too embarrased to ask your wine geek friends! I hope you find my answers educational, empowering and even amusing. And don't forget to check out my most asked questions and my full archives for all my Q&A classics.
Dear Dr. Vinny,
How can I find a wine that expresses a "dirty sock" aroma? I've been curious after reading about it in tasting notes.
—Gina E., Mesilla Park, N.M.
That "dirty sock" descriptor can actually come from two different wine flaws. The first version is associated with the smell of musty dirty socks. That’s typically when a wine is tainted by a chemical compound called 2,4,6-trichloroanisole, or TCA. Corks can be the cause of TCA, but it can also come from other wood sources like barrels. It won’t harm you to drink it, but those musty notes are pretty distracting. It reminds me of a dank basement, wet cement, damp cardboard or the smell of old books.
There’s also a sweaty dirty sock descriptor, which is more of a pungent, stinky foot smell that might remind you of a locker room or a horsey barnyard. That’s from brettanomyces, or “brett,” which is considered a spoilage yeast. Sometimes brett is a nice detail at low levels in a wine—it can add a spicy, leathery note. Again, not a health concern, but it can be very unpleasant if it’s not to your liking.
To find examples? You might ask a wine shop to pick out a wine with some levels of brett, and they should know what you mean. A wine with TCA might be harder to find, since it's never something a winemaker would knowingly allow in their wine. Maybe you can ask that same wine shop (or a restaurant you frequent) to save any examples of "corked" wine they come across.
The good news is that both of these odors are very distinctive. If you smell them once, you should be able to pick them out again on your own.