"Is it a flaw or is it the wine?"
This is a question that I often think about. This is mostly because I am frequently accused of being too charitable toward wines that display any of a wide range of things that some winemakers and drinkers deem unacceptable.
I hear from these folks that a wine is flawed (and therefore no good in their eyes) if it displays any signs of either brettanomyces (a so-called “spoilage yeast”) or volatile acidity. These two, referred to in the trade as "brett" and "VA," respectively, are common in many wines from all parts of the globe.
Brett is often recognized by its smell of old leather or, to me, the horse-tack room I knew in my youth. VA can sometimes be identified via a varnish or nail-polish remover sort of smell. In both cases, too much of either can dominate a wine and cover up all else that it may have to offer. (By the way, too much new oak can cover up everything in a wine as well.)
But how much is too much? I would argue that a little bit of both of these things (oh, and the oak too) can act as catalysts in some wines and can set off the aromatics. It is almost as if they put the aromatic profile into “high-definition” and make the picture prettier, more vivid, more complex and ultimately more interesting.
When I smell a wine, I think about it much like I do music. I find in the aromatics that there can be a bass, a mezzo and an alto. It is the special wine that can offer the entire range in one glass. In my opinion, sometimes this range comes from the effects of brett and/or VA. Some of the great examples include Château Beaucastel and Château Latour in most years, 1991 Dominus Estate, many a Brunello, Barolo and Amarone. The list also includes countless wines of less famous repute. These wines are individual and speak of a place as much as any other. I believe that these wines can be special and are worthy of our attention.
So if a small dose of brett and/or VA can allow for greater diversity and interest, why can these not just be considered part of the wine? To have a narrow and sterile ingredient list is narrow and boring in itself. I say, let's celebrate the diversity and be inclusive. This doesn’t mean that every wine will make everyone's heart go pitter-patter. But we should allow for all of the possibilities and respect the alchemy that can be winemaking, cheesemaking, breadmaking—and smile-making.