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.

When is a flaw not a fault? When it’s a taint

I have been doing a lot of thinking about wine faults recently – firstly as a result of attending a wine faults workshop organised by Jancis Robinson and her team, then through considering some comments about homemade wines in Eastern Europe and Georgia, and most recently from reading Jamie Goode’s book Flawless – and I have a few personal conclusions on the matter I’d like to share.

Although there are one or two grey areas, I agree with those who think it is helpful to divide wine flaws into faults and taints. In this classification, faults have their origins in the basic aspects of growing grapes and making wine. It is possible to avoid them only by using high-intervention viticulture and vinification, and even then vestiges will remain in some form or other. Faults include reduction, oxidation, volatile acidity, and brett. Taints on the other hand come from external sources that do not necessarily have anything at all to do with wine. An example is TCA contamination from corks; also smoke, ladybirds and eucalyptus, all of which can taint grapes in the vineyard.

Let’s take a brief look at taints here, and I’ll cover faults in my next post. To be called a taint, the added flavour cannot be entirely intentional and, if in large enough concentrations that can easily be attained, it negatively impacts the quality of the wine. Some taints are pretty much universally regarded as bad if they can be detected – cork taint is a clear example of this. Others, like eucalyptus, can be seen as a positive if not too strong, and can even be regarded as part of terroir. Note also, that the concentration of eucalyptus in the finished product is sometimes managed by the winemaker, by blending wines from grapes at different distances from the trees.

Essentially, what I am saying is that each type of taint should be considered individually, depending on how much it is liked or reviled. I would argue that, although each individual taint may have its own complexities and management issue, taints are straightforward in principle: they do not really belong in wine, but not all of them are unpleasant and some can be even desirable.

On the other hand, I think faults – flaws which are intrinsic to wine, remember – are more complex, and more controversial. If you disagree that flaws are controversial, wait until you read my next post 😉

Update 06/01/19: It now occurs to me that, in addition to faults and taints, there is a third class of flaw: one that results from poor post-bottling storage. Examples of this are heat damage, lightstrike, and oxidation due to a poor cork. I think these are closer to taints than faults, as they do not have a direct cause in the winemaking process, and if we call them taints my arguments should still work.

Huasa de Trequilemu, Cauquenes, 2012


Pale garnet in colour.  Intense nose that is dominated by Elastoplast, with some fragrant horse manure. It’s a bit of a brett bomb, but there is also red fruit – perfumed cherry notes.  Maybe rubber and menthol aspects.  Medium high acidity, and low but detectable astringency. Intense, light and delicate. Lifted and refreshing.  Great complexity, and great length. Tingly, fragrant, bretty finish. This still primary, but I don’t think I would let it age further. It is best slightly chilled. Difficult to rate, but if pushed I’d give it ****

This is a challenging wine in more than one way. I first came across it at L’Enclume, offered as a match for their venison with charcoal oil. I thought it was a great dish with great wine, and the pairing was superb. One of the best introductions you could hope for, but I still love the wine after drinking a few bottles in more modest surroundings.  However, my enthusiasm is not shared by everyone, and I can understand that. By any standards the wine is weird, and technically it is faulty. The dominant smell of Elastoplast is the result of a brett (short for brettanomyces) infection, which is perhaps better known for its farmyardy smells.

But is it a fault if you like the result? Some would say not, by definition, while others argue that brett is always negative. In practice, I am not sure how it would be possible to have the same wine, but without the brett, to compare. So will we ever be sure? This is in marked contrast to the situation with a corked wine, where you can often open another bottle to compare, and the clean one is always better. For more on brett, see also this blog post of mine. Ultimately, unless you get into an argument with your sommelier when you try to return it, I am not sure it matters whether you call it a fault or not. If you like the wine, buy it and drink it. Also buy it if you want to be challenged. If you want an easy ride, there is plenty of other Chilean wine to be picked up at supermarkets.

The producer is Agricola Luyt Ltda, the grape País, it’s 13.7%, and I bought it for around £18 from Buon Vino in Settle. See also this blog post on Luyt and Clos Ouvert by Rob from Buon Vino for a bit of background.

Blandy’s Bual 1954

blandys_bual_1954I was recently at John Dickinson’s 60th birthday celebration in Maxwell’s Café and Delicatessen, and having a great time. The dinner was accompanied by 17 wines, most of which were generously provided by our host. Let me try to put the quality of the wines into some sort of perspective. We kicked off with Krug Grand Cuvée, and then the wines got better.  They included Palmer 1996, Talbot 1985 and Quinta do Noval 1966.

But for me they were all eclipsed by the final bottle: Blandy’s Bual 1954.  I say “for me” because only 3 of the 15 or so present voted for it as wine-of-the-night, and most people sitting by me were rather underwhelmed.  Indeed, I had to be quick to intercept a glass on its way to the spittoon.

I can understand how it divided opinion.  It was searingly acidic. And despite Bual usually being one of the sweetest styles of Madeira it came over as off- or medium-dry, as by the standards of most sweet wines it had little by way of balancing sugar. The flavours were hugely intense, and everyone within ear shot of me seemed to agree about their profile – varnish, French polish, eucalyptus, camphor.  In other words, it was weirdly volatile. The only point of disagreement was how desirable the flavours were.

Albeit to a lesser extent, I have experienced that sort of volatility occasionally in other old Madeiras, and I regard it as a positive thing. It is also present in some Colheita Ports, and I sense it is often referred to as complexity. But in most styles of wine, of course those flavours would of course be totally unacceptable. Faulty or not, I enjoyed this wine tremendously. It would be sad if we all liked the same thing.

Blandy’s Bual 1954 gets ******.  Cheers, John, and here’s to the next ten!

(And thanks to John for providing the photos, as well as the wine itself.)

The joy of brett

A recent seminar at UC Davis seems to have sparked a little flurry of discussion on brett.  These seem to be five of the PowerPoint presentations used at the seminar: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.  And here are a couple of interesting follow-up articles I came across on wine-searcher and Palate Press.

I thought the brett debate amongst wine lovers was relatively straightforward.  Some think that no detectable level of brett is acceptable, not only for its unpleasant aromas, but because it suppresses more positive aromas in the wine.  On the other hand, a commonly expressed opinion is that, at low levels, bretty smells add interest to a wine – complexity if you like.  But even those who see low levels of brett as potentially positive seem to implicitly agree that the smells are basically rather unpleasant.

However, findings presented at this seminar (presumably they were known before, but certainly not by me) throw the debate wide open.  It appears that some aromas produced by brett are judged by some people to be unequivocally positive.  These include chili powder, red pepper, black pepper, cardamom, leather, cooked meat, smoked meat, coffee, mocha, graphite and cigar.  I don’t think it is being claimed that these aromas are always due to brett, but they certainly can be.  My guess is that no one really knows how they arise in practice. Another example is the bretty band-aid aroma, which apparently is recognised much more positively as five-spice by those more familiar with Chinese cooking than Western hospitals.

However, even given this positive angle, there is still the issue of how to encourage bretty aromas to develop in the right direction – to improve the wine rather than reduce it only to the smell of shit.  We might well learn how to do this in the winemaking process.  Indeed we must do it already to an extent, even if we do not know exactly how it works.  But after bottling, the conditions to which the wine is subjected are out of the hands of the winemaker.  So unless any remaining brett is zapped with a pre-bottling injection of sulphur, each bottle will develop unpredictably depending on the precise content of the bottle and its environment.

A new Brett Impact Wheel of aromas was presented at the UC Davis seminar, and I am wondering if brett connoisseurship might become one of the next big things in wine, replacing minerality and terroir expression as subject to discuss.  If it does, remember you heard it first here.

The joy of oxidation

For me oxidation and TCA are at opposite ends of the spectrum of acceptability of wine faults.  If I think I detect the merest whiff of TCA, the wine is undrinkable as far as I am concerned.  But at the other end of the spectrum, I have enjoyed many oxidised wines.

Of course, some styles of wine are oxidised by design, and some of my best experiences ever came from such wines.  I am in particular thinking of a bottle of 1959 Leacock’s Sercial that I slowly worked my way through over the period of several months.

Amongst wines not designed to be oxidised, and which have given pleasure, three spring to mind.  One was the oxidised Rieussec 1985 I mentioned in a blog post a couple of months ago.  Less grand was a bottle of wine  I drank a few years ago in a cheap and cheerful restaurant-cum-café.  It was also sold by the glass and I suspect the bottle we got had been open a while and topped up with a little fresh wine. I was about to send it back when I suddenly realised it probably tasted better with the slight tang of oxidation than it did without, and it worked well with the eclectic spicy food.  The third wine I am thinking of, I bought  heavily discounted in 2005: Vindemia, Vi de Criança, Terra Alta DOC, Xavier Clua Coma, 1999.  It was amber, and delicious.  I thought at the time it was meant to be oxidised, but now I doubt it.  Either way, it was so wonderful I returned to the shop and bought a case.

I am not saying all oxidised wine is good.  I recently encountered an oxidised Chablis, and all you could really say of it is that it tasted flat, and I don’t think oxidation ever does anything for red wines.  I would also be less than amused if an expensive wine turned out to taste more like Sherry than the Burgundy Grand Cru that it really was.  But sometimes, just sometimes, it can be worth pausing and thinking before you send an oxidised wine back or pour it down the sink.