We need to talk about wine faults


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| Brettanomyces is one of the most common faults in wine, but is it really that bad?

Imagine a great Burgundian name. Not this one. A more Chardonnay-ey. You know… No? Nope! Like that but not that. Anyway, imagine a large Burgundian estate, let’s call it Domaine Benoit Burnes…

So two weeks ago I was shown around some wine tanks at a local winery, tasting someone’s wines and we come up with a white wine. We taste it and the winemaker says “it has a bit of brett [brettanomyces]…you know, right there”. And we chat some more and he says, “well, you know, there’s no Burnes without brett”. He says it smiling, knowingly. He says it as Vladimir Putin says “no one is perfect.” All the winemakers I know have the schtick.

Winemakers will spend all day judging the wines of their peers, rejecting bottles left, right and center for minute levels of Brettanomyces and then sitting down with a Saint-Emilion Grand Cru Classé, declaiming the presence of Brettanomyces” complexing” or “background”, taste it a few more times and “hold the glass for the arrival of the steak”. It’s surreal.

This is the reality of wine faults – and it’s a shame that any discussion of someone’s position on the matter doesn’t start there. It doesn’t start with acknowledging that great wines can be flawed and still great. That average wines can be flawed and still average. That natural wines can be faulty and still excellent. That natural wines can be faulty and terrible.

Because I am convinced that many of our discussions of faults are shortcuts to denigrate natural wines. When people go on the internet to say they can’t stand faulty wines, it’s actually natural wines. Because they’re not incinerating their Premier Cru Burgundy tomorrow night.

Natural wine and faults don’t come out of thin air, I have to point out – some natural wines are very faulty and unpalatable. But the reason I say a discussion of faults is shorthand for bashing natural wines is that by faults most people are actually referring to brettanomyces (primarily) and oxidation. I could talk about oxidation all day (and let’s not forget oxidative vinification, which is also something else and may or may not be a fault, depending on whether Sherry or Jura is written somewhere on your label) but oxidation, and cork – defilement, are, for me, the only non-negotiable faults.

But what about other flaws? There is, in most major wine circles, no broader discussion of whether reduction is a fault. For every person who speaks out against faulty wines, that same person will likely struggle to have a position on at least one classic fault. Reduction is a standard example that is not mentioned enough. Some winemakers will castigate a wine with minute levels of brett but won’t care about a wine with reduction. Some winemakers I know in the judging circuit will reject reductive wines outright. Immediately. The winemaker is responsible for managing the reduction, they say. If there is still some in the wine, it is the winemaker’s fault. Other winemakers don’t – mainly because it’s often encountered in great white Burgundy (a beast similar to a great white shark only it doesn’t take away your limbs, it takes away your disposable income) but also because reduction is sometimes where a wine wants to go.

For technical minds, the reduction can come from ferments particularly rich in solids (when the white grapes are pressed directly in barrels without being drawn off their raw lees, for example); it can also come from nutrient deficiencies in the vineyard; basically, if a ferment is struggling (and it’s the winemaker’s job to deal with it), it will tend to become reductive. Hence why “poor” winemaking may be to blame – indeed, a reductive wine is the emaciated dude who is tied to the bed in the movie Se7en: he hasn’t been fed and he stinks a bit, but the guy on the bed didn’t put him in that situation.

But you also get a reduction of white Burgundy. Good white Burgundy. Very good white Burgundy. And no one goes online to complain that Benoit Burnes starved his yeast on a dirty mattress.

acid trips

And there’s more. There is volatile acidity, or “VA” as everyone calls it. VA is similar to discount in that I strongly suspect that many people who castigate wines for brett will give a pass at a higher VA level than usual.

In the books, the go-to descriptors for VA are nail polish remover or vinegar, but that’s one end of the spectrum. VA is a good fault to trot around, however, because every wine has VA, it’s just what we think is acceptable (which discussions of actual faults should imply). Some people like their wines a bit “lifted” (often synonymous with VA) and don’t realize it. Others don’t. Where you sit on an array of wine faults is a personal thing and most good wine tasters (in my opinion, at least) understand that. My faulty wine may not be your faulty wine. A wine can have a flaw but still be drinkable and pleasant.

So how much is too much of any defect? If we agree that we can have a great wine with faults, at what level does this fault prevent it from being a great wine? And does this level apply to a cheaper wine or a natural wine? Why are mentions of faults in wines almost non-existent in the vast majority of tasting notes when there are clearly many more faulty wines than we think? (This is the premise of The Missing Wine Faults piece I did a while ago.

And (I’ve written about this before too) if you’re particularly sensitive to a flaw, is it your duty to disparage a wine everyone liked just because you’re not? It’s almost a form of intimidation. This certainly breeds a kind of paranoia within your group. Let me illustrate this: the next time you attend a wine tasting, choose a random wine and say, halfway through the tasting, “oh, the VA is too high for me” or “oh , you don’t see the brett in this wine?”. Then, briefly calculate in your head how many people are questioning and compare that to the number of people who are questioning you. And before you tell me, I already know. I know which side gets the most numbers each time.

This is the main thing we have to decide: when is it acceptable to mention a defect? I’ll be honest, I haven’t found the perfect answer, but I do have a few tricks.

A lot of people treat flaws like a board game, which is fine if you’re a bit of a weirdo. People get good at spotting flaws. They become good at telling others that they have spotted a flaw. But they’re less good at giving their drink to someone who hasn’t spotted it. But they should be. So here’s what you do:

In some cases, if someone proclaims they have spotted a fault, don’t interrogate yourself, interrogate them, and interrogate them immediately. “Are you sure?” says offhand, is probably the best, especially if you’re a novice taster. In most cases, a good taster will expand on the problem and actually give a useful description. If you’re still not convinced, fine. If you’re around people like a brett-bully, however, they’ll look at you like they can’t believe you can’t spot him.

So here we go straight to the point. If the wine in question is expensive or famous, take the nearest empty glass of water and hold it up while saying “so throw it here and get yourself something else.” If your interlocutor does anything other than spill his drink, it was not a fault, it was a mole.

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