Q: While tasting at a pretty new winery in Spokane, I noticed a fairly strong chemical smell I could best describe as nail-polish remover...

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Q: While tasting at a pretty new winery in Spokane, I noticed a fairly strong chemical smell I could best describe as nail-polish remover. The wine was a viognier, blended with about 5 percent sauvignon blanc. I thought it was completely strange, and might be flawed, but it wasn’t corked. So I got online and came across an article about volatile acidity, and how wines with high levels can have a nail-polish-like odor to them. I have heard the term before, but I don’t totally understand what volatile acidity is, where it comes from or whether it will kill me!

A: You’ve done your homework well. That distinct smell of nail-polish remover is a sure indicator of excess volatile acidity (often abbreviated as simply VA). When detectable (as a sharp, acidic smell), VA is generally considered a winemaking flaw that can arise during fermentation or from a post-fermentation bacterial infection. Sensitivity to VA differs widely from individual to individual, and at lower levels, it can “lift” aromas and add a certain positive presence to the wine’s flavors. It is not harmful, but whenever you find any such unpleasant chemical odors, whether nail polish, airplane glue or vinegar, dominating the scent and flavor of a particular wine, that wine should be avoided.

Paul Gregutt answers questions weekly in the Wine section.

He can be reached by e-mail at wine@seattletimes.com.