What is a flaw in wine?

Is there such a thing as perfection in wine? We know when a wine is tainted but there are other things, such as brettanomyces, volatile acidity, oxidation and reduction that we find in some of the great wines in the world. Are these flaws? Are they intentional? Or are they assets in the wine? This topic was one of the fascinating seminars at TEXSOM this past August in Dallas which I wrote about in the Napa Valley Register and share here. These are topics definitely worth thought and discussion and I thank Jamie Goode and Elaine Chukan Brown for leading this interesting discussion.

Here is an interesting thought: what exactly is a flaw in wine or when is it part of the character? We know when a wine is tainted with TCA (trichloroanisole) or TBA (tribromoanisole), the wine has undesirable aromas and is not the intention of the winemaker. But, what about other things such as brettanomyces, volatile acidity, oxidation and reduction? Are these flaws or choices? Do these things enhance a wine or destroy a wine?

This was a fascinating topic covered at the 15th Annual TexSom, a two-day conference in Dallas presented by the Court of Master Sommeliers, Guild Somm, Wine & Spirits Education Trust (WSET) and SommFoundation. Jamie Goode, Ph.D, and Elaine Chukan Brown led a discussion of what constitutes a flaw and how that may, or may not, be considered a flaw in the current era.

Let’s start with the notion of faults. Goode shared a story about a wine competition in New Zealand in which he was a judge alongside many winemakers. As they tasted through 50 or so wines, he found it unsatisfying. He explained that a winemaker’s job is to find the flaws and they are super-attuned to finding them early on in young wines.

But when it comes to judging wine, winemakers need to switch this ability off and stop looking for problems. Otherwise, Goode explained, “Wines with interest, detail and complexity get pushed back and inexpensive commercial wines win the prizes.”
This is not to say an inexpensive commercial wine cannot be good. But more often than not, commercial wines are seeking a level of perfection over beauty. And, as Goode said, “Beauty is not the absence of faults.” Sometimes the smallest of flaws can bring out and enhance the beauty of something. Consider the Japanese concept of “wabi-sabi,” a world view that sees beauty as imperfect.

Wine changes over time, and our aesthetics of wine change as well. It was in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s when we started to obliterate flaws. The goal was to make a perfect product. But a “perfect” wine is a wine that is not alive; it has no movement.
We have continued to focus on things that we take for granted and assume we know what constitutes a good wine versus a bad wine. But, where do these assumptions come from and, ultimately, are these personal views or they way things should be?
Again, there is a time when a flaw is called a flaw. TCA ruins a wine but other known “flaws” such as brettanomyces, volatile acidity, oxidation and reduction can enhance a wine.

Brettanomyces is a yeast that grows in wine. It grows in the absence of little nutrition. This is an issue found primarily in red wines, but Brettanomyces is not an infection. It starts with a molecule, and if the conditions exist, such as high temperatures, residual sugar, high pH, high alcohol and high phenolics, then Brettanomyces can occur.
The resulting wine can take on a spicy, savory, slightly animal quality. Not all wines respond well to Brettanomyces, nor do all wine drinkers. Pinot Noir with Brettanomyces is rather unenjoyable, but it can work well with grapes such as Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. Some people aesthetically do not like Brett, but others like it. The issue with Brettanomyces is that it is unpredictable and has a tendency to mask the terroir of the wine to a degree.

Elaine Chukan Brown noted that the history of tasting can play into how you relate to wine with Brettanomyces. She noted that many years ago, when the New York restaurant scene started, the wine lists had more French wines, many with Brettanomyces. These old-world wines were highly rated at the time. But, when the restaurant movement moved to the West Coast and California wines became the focus, wines with Brettanomyces were rated lower by the critics. So, if you like a Cabernet Sauvignon with a savory, barnyard-like quality, there is nothing wrong with that.

Oxygen is needed in winemaking as yeasts need oxygen. But as the wine develops and fermentation ends, and then through to bottling, less oxygen exposure is desired. A wine that is exposed to too much oxygen can lose the vibrancy of its color and flavor. But oxidation does not have to be negative. Think about wines, such as Sherry and Madeira, in which oxygen exposure is a marker of the wine and what makes them so unique. The nutty, savory, umami flavors found in these wines, and other oxidative wines, is rather appealing.

Volatile acidity
Volatile acidity develops when there is too much exposure to oxygen during fermentation. It is the process of wine turning into vinegar. A wine with volatile acidity can have cherry and raspberry flavors or on the more extreme side, the wine can smell like nail polish remover. But volatile acidity can add complexity to a wine and make it interesting. Think about Amarone della Valpolicella, which has had a long fermentation and typically has volatile acidity, it is a pretty delicious wine to drink.

Reduction sits at the intersection of style and fault. Many producers do what they can to keep oxygen away from their wine. In order to do this, there is the use of sulfur, stainless steel tanks and topping barrels. A reductive wine will take on descriptors such as matchstick and flinty. These notes will typically disappear after swirling the glass a bit. Of course, when the smell is more like rotten eggs, then it may have gone too far.
We tasted a number of interesting wines in this seminar on wine flaws. The 2015 Kumeu River, Coddington, Kumeu, a Chardonnay, exhibited reductive qualities with a smoky, flinty nose that I found very appealing. The 1996 Atzori Vernaccia di Oristano was aged under flor in chestnut barrels for ten years and was a beautiful wine with nutty notes. The NV Broadbent Verdelho 10 Year Madeira appears dry with flavors of dried fruit and mineral and has a salty finish. And the 2010 Chateau Musar Rouge from the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon is a wine that exhibits Brett, oxidation and volatile acidity yet these “flaws” are what make the wine a great savory wine with aromas of cedar, raisins, figs and cinnamon.

Ultimately, we have to ask ourselves what we think constitutes a flaw in a wine because in the end, that “flaw” is in the taste bud of the beholder. What is most important is how you are responding to what is in the glass and if you like it, then enjoy it!

Read the original story in the Napa Valley Register.