What does it mean if a wine smells like tar, or burned rubber? Is that a wine flaw?

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Dear Dr. Vinny,

I need help identifying a wine fault or characteristic that’s boggling my mind. I opened a couple bottles of red wine, and they both had an intense tar or burnt rubber smell. Can you identify that wine flaw?

—Justin, La Jolla, Calif.

Dear Justin,

I’ve smelled both tar and burned rubber in wines, but to me they have two different meanings.

“Tar” is not an indicator of a flaw, and is only a negative quality if you don’t like the smell. But I rather love a touch of tar aroma. Along with rose petals, tar is one of the key prized aromatics in Italy’s highly revered Barolo wines. When done right, it’s an appealing resinous note, close to a spicy tobacco. But I can see why it’s not for everyone, and if it was overwhelming the wine, it might be too much.

Burnt rubber or tire aromas (especially if they seem a bit acrid, like they are on fire) are considered a fault associated with volatile sulfur compounds, or mercaptans. Those can be a side effect of reductive winemaking. Wines suffering from reduction can smell skunky, swampy, or even like onions, a struck match, or that burning rubber note.

The good news is that some vigorous aeration—aggressively swirling your glass, or decanting the wine—can help this note “blow off,” and you can still enjoy the wine.

—Dr. Vinny

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