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Flaw? Or Complexity?

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Jan 15, 2007 2:41pm ET

That flavor you hate in the wine but the guy next to you loves? To you, it's a flaw. To him, it's welcome complexity.

Somehow, I'm not surprised that this topic came up in comments about Pinot Noir. I had written that I found some of the wines in a recent tasting green and earthy. One response said those were flaws. On that I would agree. Others, however, love those green, earthy wines.

So what gives?

Partly it's a matter of physical sensitivity. Some of us can taste sugar in minute concentrations in wine. For most of us, the threshold is around a half a gram per liter. For others, wine doesn't taste sweet until it reaches twice that intensity.

The message is: we all have thresholds for any element in wine. That's one reason we so often disagree. And the more complex the wine, the more elements it has, the fewer people will like it. That's why mass market wines are so bland. They avoid anything that might offend somebody.

This is why some collectors swoon over wines you hate because they smell to you like a barnyard; they're not as sensitive to brettanomyces as you are.

One way for winemakers to create early complexity in their wines is to engineer elements into them that would otherwise be considered flaws, such as brett, but at a subliminal level. It's a risky game, but it can pay dividends in the marketplace. If I taste brett in a wine, I ding it. Others love the extra element.

But it's also a matter of what we are accustomed to. People who drink mostly young wines often dislike the nuances that develop with age, reminiscent of crushed flowers, toasted nuts, underbrush and other things that have nothing to do with fruit. That's what I am looking for in an older wine (so long as some fruit remains).

And don't get me started on oak. For some, the merest hint that the wine has seen a new barrel is too much. For others, it's not wine unless it has that sweet vanilla and coconut character of new oak. I appreciate a level of oak that enhances the basic nature of the wine without taking over. That's too much for the first group.

James Laube's blog about TCA affecting entire wineries touches on a similar issue. Who is sensitive to this specific element in wine, and just how sensitive are they?

So it goes across a whole spectrum of wine's components. And that's a good thing. You may not love all of the thousands of different wines made every vintage, but somebody will, flaws and all.

Dan Jaworek
Chicago —  January 15, 2007 4:17pm ET
I find the change in terminology interesting. Considering what James L wrote and the use of the term TCA in both blogs, I can see that "cork" taint should remain an issue for the wine buying public, screw caps or not. But in the future we'll call it TCA. I hope we at least see the number of instances drop. My question is, do you feel that we'll see an entire years production contaminated or none at all? Dan J
Karl Mark
Geneva, IL. —  January 15, 2007 4:47pm ET
I always have felt that the staff at WS does a great job at using colorful descriptors and taking the time to explain the nose, flavors and other aspects of the wine, as opposed to some other critics who are more fascinated with the owners of the vineyard or more unrelated factoids. The more descript a review the easier it is to understand what it is that you are buying and allows us, the consumer, to make our own educated choice. Thanks.
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  January 15, 2007 6:28pm ET
Dan, let's see if this clears up the confusion. TCA (which is shorthand for trichloroanisole 2,4,6) is the telltale component in what we call "cork taint." It forms when chlorine works on certain molds. Both chlorine and the mold occur naturally in wood, including but limited to cork. When it taints the wine from wood in winery construction, floors, barrel racks, etc., it will affect all or most of the wine in a winery. It's not a pretty picture.

If a winery has a systemic problem with TCA, the wine can taste as if it's corky, but the taint didn't come from the cork. To be more precise, we just call it TCA.

Most of us have encountered this taint in bottles affected by TCA in the cork, which is why it's known as cork taint. If you open a second bottle and it tastes fine, you can be pretty sure the cork was the culprit.

Hope that helps.
Larry Schaffer
Central Coast —  January 16, 2007 12:50pm ET
Harvey,Interesting post, but it seems to paint a fairly broad stroke about what 'collectors' are after. I will focus specifically on Brett. The problem here is that this is a spoilage organism, and a living organism that truly cannot be controlled when in bottle. Therefore, if you bottle wine 'with just a little brett to add complexity', and that wine gets shipped across the country, encounters warm weather, and 'blooms', you may now have a wine that tastes and smells like a barnyard - any nothing more!This happened to us recently when we received a very highly rated 03 CdP. We anticipated it being a great wine, took it to our end of harvest party, and tasted it along with a dozen or so other wines. There were 4 winemakers there, and each deemed the wine 'undrinkable' because of the level of brett in it.I am of the belief that 'a little' of almost anything can add complexity to a bigger wine like a syrah or cab, but these same qualities in a more delicate wine will stand out like a sore thumb!As far as threshold differences go, you are right. That is why it is SO important for consumers to read reviews very carefully and NOT depend upon them 100%. Consumers must begin to trust their own judgements, even if they are 100% different than what a reviewer says!Enough of a rant . . . will you be attending Unified next week?
D Fredman
Malibu, CA —  January 16, 2007 1:04pm ET
Having observed things from the retail side of the business, people seem to prefer more primary fruity/oaky sensations when they're starting out but will veer more toward the earthy/mineral side of the equation as their tastes evolve.The level of brett that's considered tolerable can be an acquired taste. I worked for an importer in Berkeley whose Bandol in particular was known for containing more than a fair amount of brett. The longer I worked there the more I became used to this flavor component. What I used to consider a flaw I soon began seeing as a beneficial aspect of the wine's character. I began seeking earthiness in other wines I was purchasing and found myself really with the clinically clean winemaking I'd encounter when tasting a lot of new world wines. I then went to work for an Australian importer and after a few months my palate got tweaked back toward appreciating big, warm-climate wines because that was stylistically the bulk of what I was tasting on a regular basis. Since leaving that job a few years ago I now get to taste wine from all over the world and my palate has found a comfortable equilibrium. I like a little bit of brett and earth in my wines but can tolerate nowhere near the levels I used to enjoy. Likewise, I can the effects of overt fruit, oak and high alcohol but ultimately I'm looking for a wine that balances all of its components in a manner that will reflect its vineyard origins and the abilities (and even personality) of its winemaker. Thus I don't mind some brett or overripeness, as long as it adds to the complexity and typicity of the wine (FWIW, I find TCA unacceptable in any amount). Not only does wine evolve, but so do we, and I have no doubt that my tastes will be modified further over time. That's one of the things that keeps wine interesting to me.
Berry Crawford
January 16, 2007 1:08pm ET
Good blog. Taste is subjective. For me I am highly sensative to Brett. Just don't like the flavor of feces in my wine...call me crazy
Dan Jaworek
Chicago —  January 16, 2007 1:15pm ET
Harvey, understood. However, if a producer used screwcaps but you still detected TCA, would you conclude that all bottles were affected? Dan J.
John B Vlahos
Cupertino Ca. —  January 16, 2007 1:24pm ET
Harvey, how true! My uncle in Greece has been making his own wine for over forty years and over time he has gradually been neglecting the hygiene of his barrels (some have been used for over twenty years),to the point that the wine tastes moldy and worse. But, either he cannot taste the mold, and other infestations, or he's gotten used to it and enjoys it. His nephew, who lives next door, and makes wonderful wines, cannot get him to clean up his act. It seems that taste buds can get used to off-flavors to the point that they are acceptable, or even preferred. On the other hand, properly maintained older barrels can add wonderful complexity to wines. If I recall correctly, the old Inglenook winery in Napa used older 550 gallon casks for decades in making their world famous cabernets. This area of wine making has yet to be fully investigated, I believe.
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  January 16, 2007 1:34pm ET
Dan, if I taste TCA in a screwcapped wine, I expect it's likely that the whole batch was tainted.
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  January 16, 2007 1:39pm ET
I am chuckling about John's uncle in Greece. What he describes is a perfect example of what my old friend Bob Thompson dubs "kennel blindness." In dog-show terms, it refers to a breeder not noticing a flaw in his dogs because they all have it.
Dave Joyce
Winston-Salem, NC —  January 16, 2007 11:13pm ET
Harvey, My business partner once asked a visiting importer of French wines, who happens to be French himself, why many French wines had the barnyard "brett" aspect to them and that element was so praised by them. His answer was "we can't get rid of it, so we call it an essential characteristic, and then it is not a flaw." We thought it was good to know that marketing hype in the wine business was not a recent trend, but had been going on in France for several hundred years!
Don Rauba
Schaumburg, IL —  January 17, 2007 2:18am ET
Harvey - Thanks for finally tying together the earthy "barnyard" smells I've grimaced at with the term brett. I've read other descriptions of brett before, but none have mentioned it quite this specifically. I even recall someone telling me it manifested itself as a medicinal edge - any truth to that?

Needless to say, I've had a few bottles this way, and the aromas are simply spoiled. Extinguished. Pumping out the air (and waiting a day) seemed to help the taste a little bit on those bottles; but although the wine is more drinkable sans fecal nuances (LOL Berry Crawford!), the fruit & other primary aromas sadly don't ever rekindle to my satisfaction.

And Dave Joyce's glimpse into French marketing has also revealed to me why my palate is firmly new world, not old.
Jay J Cooke
Ripon CA —  January 17, 2007 4:06pm ET
Harvey, I drank my last bottle of a 2002 Williams Selyem "Friends" Pinot this weekend. This wine had been one of my favorite WS. This bottle was like syrup with a licorice flavor. Tasted more like a Port than Pinot. Any idea what happened to it?
Jack Stoakes
Colorado —  January 17, 2007 10:57pm ET
Harvey,Just curious where you got your 'perception threshold' number of half a gram per litre for perceptible residual sugar in wine. Jancis Robinson states 2 g/l for this threshold while Marian Baldy states 8 g/l! I realize that Total Acidity and overall pH can affect perception of sugar, but this seems like a very wide range of disparity.
Jack Stoakes
Colorado —  January 26, 2007 9:16pm ET
Any response, Harvey? Just curious.
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  January 27, 2007 2:46pm ET
Sorry, I thought I had posted a response to the question of sugar threshold. My mistake. I started to type ".5 percent" and switched in mid thought to g/L without moving the decimal point. The threshold on average is about 5 g/L. I kinow very few people who can tasted sweetness at 2 g/L and most everyone can get it at 8 g/L.

For context, a typical dry red is less than 2 g/L. Many Alsace whites are in the 8 g/L range. Many inexpensive California whites are in that range as well.
Jack Stoakes
Colorado —  February 19, 2007 6:19pm ET

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