Intrinsic wine faults – do they exist?

As discussed by Jamie Goode in his book Flawless, a wine flaw may be said to be a characteristic of wine that is present to such an extent that it impacts on quality – it causes a wine to be less attractive either to an individual or to an average taster, depending on whether you want a more subjective or objective definition. Clearly though, if you want to use the more objective version you will also need to define average taster. From the attendees in a recent workshop I attended, the concept of the average taster would have been very hard to pin down. There was a wide range of sensitivities to the various flaws we were exposed to, and when detectable they gave rise to different perceptions, both in terms of what they most resembled and how pleasant or unpleasant they were.

As explained in my previous post, I think it is helpful to distinguish between two types of wine flaws: faults, which result from the vine growing and winemaking process, and taints, which come from external sources. In that post I also took a quick look at taints, but below I focus exclusively on wine faults.

Faults like brett and volatile acidity are thought by many tasters to be attractive in low or moderate concentrations, and this is also true of some reductive notes, which may be regarded as minerality and not considered to be a fault at all. In fact Jamie goes a step further in his book and, referring to the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi, points out that even if a fault is recognised as such, there is an aesthetic view that it can still enhance beauty, or even be part of it. Whether attractive or not, substances that give rise to faults will always be present in wine to a greater or lesser degree. It is also undeniable that whether large concentrations of the substance are acceptable or not can depend on the style of wine. For example, Sherry would not be Sherry without its oxidative whiff of acetaldehyde, but the same nose on a white Burgundy would cause the wine to be sent back in a restaurant.

And yet, despite all this, people talk about faults as if they have some sort of objective existence that is distinct from all the good wholesome stuff in wine. The reality of the situation is of course that winemaking gives rise to many chemicals that individually are neither good nor bad, but together create a wine that may be liked more or less by different people depending on the balance between the chemicals, personal taste, context, and expectation. Put bluntly, in the normal usage of the term, wine faults do not exist. Or, to be less blunt: I struggle to see why the concept of wine faults is useful. As discussed above, acetaldehyde may or may not a pleasurable aspect of wine, depending on many factors. But is that not also true of acidity, sugar and alcohol for example when out of balance, or any individual fruit flavour? So why is acetaldehyde then regarded as a potential fault while many other components of wine get away with it?

Of course, I am not denying the existence of oxidation, reduction and brett, nor the related chemical compounds that impact on flavour. I am just saying that it is often not helpful to describe them as faults. This is not mere semantic quibbling – the issue runs deeper than that.

To declare a wine faulty is to claim a degree of wine expertise, and pronounce a judgement on the wine. Sometimes that is a call that wine professionals may be required to make in the course of their work. And consumers occasionally need to do the same too, when deciding whether to accept a wine in a restaurant for example. Whether or not a wine is faulty also has legal implications in consumer-protection legislation in the UK, as the consumer can claim against retailers for faulty goods – but not, it seems, for a wine that is unpleasantly tannic for example. But those are merely formal and legal aspects, based on the conventional way in which so-called faults are traditionally viewed in our wine culture. The important thing is how much we like a wine, irrespective of whether the cause of our pleasure or displeasure is a fault or not.

Your attitude to wine faults will inevitably influence your views on, for example, homemade and natural wines. If you believe in faults, and in your expert opinion you detect them in homemade wines, then you are going to dismiss the wines and work towards replacing them with their less faulty commercial counterparts. But on the other hand, if you refuse to judge a wine by faults and see people preferring homemade to commercial wines, you are more likely to respect the taste of those people and celebrate diversity in wine. Similarly with natural wines. As a non-believer, you do not need to fret about whether a natural wine is faulty or not. Do you like it or not? That is the important thing. Well, it is certainly one important thing, and to me the most important. Of course you may also be influenced one way or the other by the philosophy of natural wines, but that is a different issue – one I try not to get involved with.

About Steve Slatcher

Wine enthusiast
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2 Responses to Intrinsic wine faults – do they exist?

  1. Alan March says:

    Interesting, radical approach Steve.
    As someone who likes, and is part of, natural wines I get where you are coming from in theory. In practice, however, I grow more and more intolerant of VA at high levels and mousiness in particular. I know the latter is complex and not simply about ‘dirty’ equipment but I find mousy wines undrinkable. Winemakers’ reactions vary too, some I know simply deny there is mouse, others won’t sell the wine. In the latter case would that not argue for faults existing?

  2. Many thanks Alan. Mousiness is an interesting one. I don’t believe anyone yet properly understands how it occurs, but it does seem to be an intrinsic fault rather than a taint. Perhaps it is unique amongst intrinsic faults in that it is universally disliked by those that are sensitive to it (I don’t think I am). I won’t deny that there are all sorts of grey areas in the categorisation of wine flaws, and also in what I wrote, and it seems that mousiness might be in one of those. I did consider writing something more nuanced, but decided that would be far too long and tedious, and I wanted to get over my main message – that the concept of wine faults is so vague as to be almost meaningless. Certainly it is not a binary thing – you cannot taste a wine and go through a checklist of all known faults to discover if a wine should be chucked or not. It is not just a question of defending natural wines, but understanding how the chemicals of so-called faults are an important port of many wines.

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