A Fault, A Flaw, Or A Feature?

  • By Jamie Drummond
  • 30 Mar 2021
  • 5 MIN
  • Level 201
Made possible by
Oxidation in action with apple - Credit : Pablo Gad

“Hold on, is this April Fool’s Day?” 

This very thought has often crossed my mind as I’ve been passed a glass of some mystery wine at a social gathering or at the bar of one of Toronto’s more hip dining/drinking establishments; this would have been in times pre-pandemic, of course.

I stick my nose in the glass and inhale, filling my retronasal olfactory pathway with a turbulent gust of fruity nail polish remover and hot farts (volatile acidity: Acetobacter having produced both Acetic acid and Ethyl acetate, and Mercaptans, respectively).

I frown, sniff again, and furrow my brows still further. In my mind, these elements do not make for a good combo.

“You don’t like it, do you? I knew it. You just don’t understand the wine. It’s the true terroir!”, I am told.

But the fact of the matter is that I do. I DO understand the wine, and I know that it is certainly not for me. It may be the hottest cult wine in the market right now, with the quirkiest of labels, but I’m going to have trouble swallowing a mere thimbleful of this, even if only to be polite.

I read my host’s mind, and they are thinking “Freaking Boomer… with a freaking Boomer’s palate…”. So it goes.

Going Through A Deductive Process  

Studying for my WSET diploma way back in 1997, discerning whether a glass of wine had any apparent faults was one of the first things we were taught to do, because why bother even putting one drop in your mouth if the stuff smells like an open sewer (volatile Hydrogen sulfide)?

And this habitual assessment of a wine for obvious faults (or less obvious flaws) seems to have stuck over the intervening years, as I go through this process every. single. time. Whether at a formal tasting at 11am or at an afterhours at 2am, and everything in between.

For the purposes of this particular discussion, let’s get one thing straight, we won’t be talking about 2,4,6-Trichloroanisole here, as that fungal metabolite isn’t a fault per se, but a taint. Just like smoke taint and “eucalyptaint”, cork taint is a taint; the secret is in the name. And before someone states that marginal TCA contamination may add complexity to a particular wine, trust me buddy, you are NOT going to win that argument. Yes, this has actually happened to me... 

So Do I Have “Boomer Palate”?  

Although I have been known to enjoy a little funk on my wines, I’m not particularly tolerant of spoilage yeasts and what they bring to the microbiological party aromatically; I’ve always been drawn to cleaner wines with purity of fruit.

Now, saying that, I have previously enjoyed some of the more notorious older vintages of a well-known Châteauneuf-du-Pape producer, but I never fell for the influence of terroir and/or Mourvèdre arguments doing the rounds at the time. I knew that particular horse blanket reek was Brettanomyces bruxellensis from the get go, but in the context of the inherent aromatic complexities of aged wines from this estate, I definitely viewed it as more of a feature than a fault.

For the sake of comparison, if I detect the slightest whiff of Brett in a younger wine, I give it the widest of berths. In my experience, what with inside a wine bottle being the picture perfect home for Brett propagation, things are only going to get worse and that bottle is going to be an absolute stinker.

Ever wondered why one doesn’t usually find Brett in white wines? It’s all because of white wines generally having a lower pH; Brett just LOVES sitting around stinking in a pH of around 3.5 - 5, and that would be a few red wines, particularly those from warmer climes.

The Most Complex Of Topics (And A Veritable Minefield)  

Which begs the question, when is something a fault, a flaw, or a feature? It’s undeniably a complex topic, and one that has to be approached with a certain degree of caution.

Oxidation, for example, is a common fault, but in the case of so many wine styles subjected to oxidative winemaking practices, this controlled and deliberate oxidation is much of their raison d’etre (see Sherry, Port, Madeira, Vin Jaunes, Rancio et al., and indeed, to a lesser degree, any wine that sees barrel time).

A certain degree of volatile acidity can often bring an extra layer of complexity to many of the profound Nebbiolos of Piedmont (tar and roses, anyone?), and very few of us wine professionals bat an eyelid. So as I said previously, it’s complicated.

A Question Of Reduction 

Reductive white wines are so zeitgeisty these days, meaning that we see a lot of VSCs (Volatile Sulfur Compounds) in the glass. Usually the result of insufficient yeast nutrition (read: lack of nitrogen), these reductive compounds are usually Hydrogen sulfide-based, and in smaller quantities can lead to “desirable” aromatics such as gunflint (Benzenemethanethiol, often mistaken for minerality/terroir), grapefruit and passion fruit (3-mercaptohexal-1-ol and 3-mercaptohexyl acetate), and litterbox/gooseberry (4-mercapto-4-methylpentan-2-one).

In excess (and in the absence of oxygen) this can lead to the seriously nasty side of mercaptans, organic sulfides, and thiols. These take us into rotten vegetable/garlic/onion/burnt rubber (Methyl mercaptan), canned corn (Dimethyl sulfide) and the aforementioned open sewer territory. No thanks.

Some Thoughts On Mousiness 

Mousiness, a fatal combination of two of the three heterofermentative lactic acid bacteria-produced N-heterocycle bases (and a few other mysterious factors) is simply the worst fault ever, hands down. Mainly because you can’t smell it, and by the time it is in your mouth it is GAME OVER. For me, the taste of mousiness is akin to licking the kitchen floor of a mouse-infested cabin; you may as well just give up and go home. Awful.

Is It All A Matter Of Taste? 

There are a huge number of wines around today that I personally would say were technically faulted, or, if I was being generous, deeply flawed.

However, many people love these wines, and at the end of the day, that’s all that matters. There’s a whole generation of wine lovers looking for very different things in wine than I. We all have differing thresholds and tolerances for olfactory and gustatory stimulation, so just drink whatever makes you smile.

Oxidation in action with apple - Credit : Pablo Gad