Over dinner with a wine-collecting friend recently, I lifted a glass of a classified-growth Bordeaux to my nose—and scrunched reflexively at the unmistakable odor of a barnyard. My dining companion, however, grinned at what he described as the rich complexity of the fruit and pleasantly funky overtones.
Any card-carrying wine geek knows what happened. The wine had been affected by a yeast called Brettanomyces, which can develop in red wines after fermentation. Some of us consider its presence an "off flavor." Others love it, even expect it in certain types of wine.
It's not just brett. Other odors found in wine can divide wine drinkers, including volatile acidity (vinegar character), vegetal aromas (when the wine smells of bell peppers or cabbage) and woody notes from new oak barrels. A touch of those can add welcome complexity. Too much can sour the experience for those who are sensitive to these elements.
This is especially vexing with natural wines, whose adherents often tolerate flavors usually considered to be faults, but it's also an issue with wide swaths of European wines. In restaurants, whenever I consider ordering a wine from Bordeaux, the Rhône or Italy that I haven't tried before, I tell the sommelier I hate brett. This always ups the odds of getting a wine I'll like. (If the somm looks at me like I'm nuts, that's my cue to order a wine I know, and by the glass. Or maybe a beer.)
When my dining companion in the above Bordeaux scenario had such a different reaction from mine, we were both right.
Every one of us senses various aspects of wines at different thresholds. I know, for example, that I'm not as sensitive as others to sweetness. But the tiniest amount of a moldy character throws a wine out of whack for me, so much so that I realized some years ago I really didn't like blue cheeses with wine, unless the wine was sweet enough to bury that moldy taste. (There's a reason why the classic wine to drink with Roquefort is a rich, sweet Sauternes.)
As much as certain aromas and flavors strike me as dissonant, they may be the wave of the future. In predicting food trends, Barb Stuckey, author of the book Taste: Surprising Stories and Science About Why Food Tastes Good, listed her No. 1 forecast as "perfectly imperfect foods." The president of the food development firm Mattson explained: "While we think we've reached sensory perfection ... some clients want their products to be less than perfect. We know how to solve unpleasant 'off' flavors. However, our Millennial clients are not dissatisfied with these so-called faults; in fact, they view them as badges of authenticity."
Applied to wine, it's easy to see why my bugaboos are someone else's prize component. It's a good thing the enormous range of wines out there can give us all something we like.
What are you feelings about wine faults? Take our quick poll or elaborate in the comments below.