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In Defense of Flaws in Wine

Posted: Jan 18, 2008 10:20am ET

"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.

Chris Seldin
Aspen, CO —  January 18, 2008 2:34pm ET
Richard. Nice blogging. In your experience is brett something that can vary from bottle to bottle? I ask because I recently had two regular-sized bottles (of an 05 CdP that featured prominently in a certain top 100 list) that were consistent with each other (and where I detected no brett), but also had a 375 of the same wine where brett seemed to get the better of the fruit that I remembered from the other bottles. Had heard of bottle-to-bottle TCA variation, but not brett. Sorry if this is a rookie question.
Andrew J Walter
Sacramento,CA —  January 18, 2008 4:46pm ET
Interesting topic. In reality, almost all red wines have some degree of VA and Brett -- so your experience of these flavor profiles depends upon the level in the wine as well as your individual sensitivity. Personally, I do not like Brett when I can detect it -- barnyard and manure do not belong in my wine! VA in small quanitites, as you suggest, can add a certainly almost indefinable complexity. At a store or restaurant, the consumer should be guided towards or away from wines with these characteristics by a knowledgeable staff -- like at Little Nell I am sure!
costa mesa, ca —  January 19, 2008 6:07am ET
Forgive me if I'm belaboring the obvious, Richard, but how does one as a taster hone the ability to accurately conclude that they have detected flaws such as VA and Brett? Are all wines that smell of "old leather" or "horse tack" directly attributed to Brett? Same with "nail polish remover" and VA?

In other words, is there a gray area here between natural complexities of a wine and the flaws that can potentially produce them? Or, is there no delineation; they are one and the same (i.e. I smell old leather; it must be Brett). Your thoughts...
Richard Betts
denver airport at present —  January 20, 2008 8:24pm ET
ok, back from Canada. Chris, every question is a good one. I would certainly assume that Bret can varry from bottle to bottle, especially as some producers still (which is very hard to believe) bottle barrel to barrel. Thus, if one barrel has got it and another not, bingo. I have also felt as though Bret sometimes "blooms" with time. Now I cannot say with any authority whether or not this is true but I have certainly felt as though some wines that I've had over time had shown more bret with each occasion.Andrew - right on!Brian - first of all, I am not prepared to say all Bret or all VA is a flaw. In certain doses, particular to each wine, these can both be part of the complexity and enjoyed. As for recognizing it, a good way is to drink wine with someone who does and can then point it out. Ask a sommelier or winemerchant to recommend something with either of these and you can chase it too. Naturally, our door is always open in Aspen and happy to help!cheers!Richard
John Miller
Windsor, CA —  January 22, 2008 4:40pm ET
Richard,I love your open-mindedness on topics which often generate extreme opinions. I too find brett sometimes charming in small amounts. It is important to note the brett smell comes from more than one chemical produced by the bacteria, namely 4-ep (4-Ethylphenol) and 4-eg (4-Ethylguiacol) and the smells are very different. I discovered in a sensory evaluation course at UC Davis that I like small amounts of 4-eg, or the barnyard/saddleleather smell, but not the 4-ep, or band-aid/medicinal smell.
Steinbrunner Oliver
Germany —  January 23, 2008 9:30am ET
To avoid (not always nice) discussions with the customer, the producer of the wine has two options, to eliminate BRETT:1. Sterile Filtration, with the fact, that not only Brett will disappear, but also some of the demanded aromas of the wine2. The use of Dimethyldicarbonat at the time of bottling the wine. DMDC deactivates the BRETT Enzymes. For wine producing it is allowed in the USA, South Africa and New Zealand, but (sorry for that) not in the European Union (there it is only allowed for producing fruit juice).By the way, in my opinion the complexity of a wine should be more the result of the soil and the physiological ripeness of the grape than by an unknown neigbour in the barrel.
Ltjg David Ziemba
Baghdad Iraq —  January 24, 2008 5:01am ET
Richard, First off, Just caught your appearance on the "Thunder Show" (WLTV) with GV...it was great, and you really brought alot, and showed your love of wine and the pleasure you have in your project and your job. As for VA can it be more found in certain types, specifically in whites? rookie question but I am looking back and trying to see what I tasted and whether it could be attributed to VA. I have come across the "old leather" but never found it to hinder what I was drinking, only be an additional note to my ongoing education of wine.
Richard Betts
denver airport at present —  January 24, 2008 11:06am ET
John - that is super interesting stuff. Thanks for that. Any ideas with regards to David's question here too?David - Thanks very much for your post. I noticed that you are indeed writing from a very long ways away and I appreciate that - in all respects - very much. Your question is a good one and has got me thinking. I cannot recall ever finding VA in a white and I do drink a fair bit of them. Well....and I'm just thinking out loud here - there are so many odd things going on in wines such as Valentini's Trebbiano D'Abruzzo, as well as Fino Sherry, and Vin Jaune. If it were to exist anywhere, maybe this is the place. In the end, I cannot say whether it can or cannot happen with any authority. (Anyone out there have any ideas?) David, also, upon return, if you make it up here to Colorado we can work through some fun wines with all kinds of 'old leather.' Best wishes.Then, Oliver, I think we can avoid (not always nice) discussions with consummers if we take it back a step and describe a wine before it is purchased. As for the filter and the enzymes, I prefer mine without. I would offer that terroir is everything that goes into making a place what it is; slope, aspect, soil, rainfall and the like but also the relation to the Route Nacional and the pig farm down the way. Terroir does not, in my mind, generally include an excuse for laziness or a dirty cellar. I do, however, believe that there are many wonderful wines that show terroir and "happen" as much by virtue of the "artist's studio" (read, winery and cellar)as anything. Witness Henri Bonneau's cellar, winemaking, vines and wines. To me, they reflect their terroir and the "studio" is indeed something very special that allows them to be unlike any other. Thanks Everyone!
Eric Arnold
NY, NY —  January 25, 2008 9:52am ET

Hey Richard,

This is a really good topic, and I often argue this one out with other wine geeks. A winemaker friend of mine in Australia (Justin Lane at RedHeads Studio) is big on the VA and brett -- his theory is that complexity in a wine is several faults acting in harmony. And I think I agree with him, based on some of the wines I've had of his and some Old World wines here and there. but...

What is the point at which the fault dominates? I think that's really different for everyone, and my threshold is pretty low. The VA and/or brett have to be sort of like the triangle player in the orchestra, and not much more. For some people, they're fine with the VA being like the entire horns section (and their girlfriends all yelling at them at the same time). To me, that's bad winemaking and, moreover, wine that absolutely murders the food it's served with. I'll take a clean, uninspired, cheap wine over an expensive, out-of-whack, faulty one any day.
Brad Rothman
Boulder, CO —  February 27, 2008 7:00pm ET
Richard:I'll agree that a slight hint of brett can make a young wine seem more alluring, mysterious and complex, but over time I think it can overpower the delicate nuances which develop with age in fine wines. Aging good wine properly brings out those nice leather aromas as well, but without the horse manure odor associated with brett. VA is a different story for me. I really don't understand how anyone can enjoy acetic acid on the nose, and wines with high VA tend to fall apart early. You also have to consider that we can only process a finite number of smells at any given time, so if VA is detected it is robbing the wines nose of other components which are being masked. I see where you are going with this, but I believe that a flaw is a flaw.

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