Monday, September 10, 2012

The Wizard of Flaws


One of the most difficult aspects of wine evaluation for a beginner to learn is wine flaws. But, luckily, I’m the Wizard of Flaws, and, in this edition of The Basics of Wine Appreciation, we’ll visit the hush-hush world of wine faults. Once you come to understand wine faults, you’ll understand why that bottle of wine you just opened smells funny, and in no way resembles the review you read in The Wine Advocate, which proclaimed it smells of “rambutan, cat foie gras, strawberry edible panties and pus,” when you only get “berry.” We’ll focus on the most common wine flaws, the wine equivalents of harelips, birthmarks and basketball fever. 

What is the most common flaw found in wine?

Most people would say that the most common flaw in wine is when it’s white. Being white is not a flaw in wine. It’s a flaw in Tea Party Republicans. There isn’t one flaw in particular that beleaguers wine. Rather, there are a whole host of flaws, ranging from Brettanomyces and corkiness to stupid labels with pictures of animals and individually numbered bottles. (Really, I have bottle #1273. Wow, get me a SuperLotto ticket, I’m hot, baby!)  The list isn’t endless, not like listening to an Andrew Lloyd Webber score or Michel Chapoutier speak, but it’s long.

How do I know if a wine is “corked?”

Most beginners are confused about cork taint. Cork taint does not smell like human taint. There are many wines that do smell like human taint, which is caused by either sulfur issues or your sommelier failing to wash his hands. Sommelier taint is distinctive for its aroma of mendacity. A wine that is corked has been contaminated with a compound commonly referred to as TCA (which stands for “Tainted Cork, A-Hole!”), which gives the wine an aroma reminiscent of wet dog, though I think it smells more like porn star moustache. Don’t ask. TCA also mutes the flavors of the wine, so it is actually preferable in orange wines. But only natural TCA, not the synthetic TCA used by so many orange wine producers to enhance their aromatics. There are people who think you can tell a wine is corked if the cork breaks when you remove it from the bottle. This is not true with corks, though it does apply to condoms. (And, oddly, pouring a corked wine through a condom can often remove much of the cork taint, as well as lighten the mood.) “Corked” is a very specific aroma, and not a catchall term for a wine you just don’t happen to like. If it doesn’t smell of wet dog, or musty basement, or your homeless uncle, it’s not corked. Just shut up and pay for it.

What does it mean when someone says a wine is “reduced?”

“Reduction” occurs when a wine is released at a stupidly high price point and then ends up on a flash site for 40% off. This happens a Lot18. The wine is then said to be “reduced.” Varieties that are prone to reduction are, most notably, Syrah and Sauvignon Blanc. Their reduction can often be remedied with more exposure to oxygen, best achieved by pouring them down the drain. In extreme cases, reduced wines can smell of hydrogen sulfide, or rotten eggs. An old trick is to drop a copper coin into a reduced wine. The copper binds with the hydrogen sulfide resulting in a more pleasant smelling wine. It’s often best to simply drink those rotten wines out of a Salvation Army kettle and save yourself the penny. Many experts believe that screwcaps facilitate reduction. Actually, they simply facilitate winos, the only people who drink crap in screwtops.

What is Brett?

Brettanomyces Dekkera (nicknamed “Brett,” after the Hall of Fame Kansas City Royals star George Brett, though no one knows why, maybe because he spoiled no-hitters) is a yeast than can grow in wine and create a whole bunch of stinky off-aromas. A little hint of Brett in wine is often thought of as adding complexity, a lot of Brett in wine is referred to as “Parker 98 points.” The off-aromas characteristic of Brett problems are described variously as barnyard, mousy and Band-Aid. So a lot like your high school prom date. Brett is symptomatic of sloppy winemaking because it is easily avoided. Competent winemakers avoid Brett by not returning its text messages, hiding behind the nearest planter, and wearing funny masks. However, wearing a funny mask isn't neccessarily about avoiding Brett; many winemakers simply like to wear masks, and for the same reasons bank robbers do.  


Mockingbird said...


Andy Perdue said...

I thought George Brett was the cause of the pine tar aroma in Retsina.

Samantha Dugan said...

Well this explains why I failed my wset exam....and had my instructor calling me vulgar. Thought TCA was something totally different and I did wonder why it was on the exam in the first place. So embarrassed. What would I do without you?!

amy cleary said...

That is what I get for being in meetings all morning, Andy beat me to the George Brett pine tar comment.

Lior said...

You almost made me wake my wife up with my laughter

Now, THAT's a recipe for a corky night all right

Thomas said...

Andrew Lloyd Webber and satire together: almost perfect.

Had you put Andrew Lloyd Webber together with hack-ire, it would have been perfect.

Is Lloyd pronounced differently than the pronunciation of Loyd? Always wondered. And is TCA legal in California?

Ron Washam, HMW said...


I don't know about that, but I know it took him 15 years to go through the ML.

My Gorgeous Samantha,

Not sure what you thought TCA stood for...Nah, I won't ask. Is it a wset exam? I thought it was a wset smear.


I guess that Brett thing was a hanging curveball for everyone. I need to work the corners better.


That's funny, I make my wife laugh in bed a lot too. Small world.


In Lloyd, the "L" is silent, that's the main difference.

Bill Klapp said...

As one who has heard (and regretted) hearing Michel Chapoutier speak, I have to hand it to you on that one, Ron! In fact, lock Chapoutier and Bob Parker together in a room and I suspect that you would recreate the Second Circle of Dante's Inferno..."the lustful blown about by violent and endless wind"!!!!!!

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Hey Bill,

ONCE I went to a Chapoutier tasting with Michel and he spoke extemporaneously for 90 fucking minutes, during which we were give NO wine to taste. Only after he finished yammering, clearly enjoying in short man fashion his hold over a bunch of ignorant sommeliers, were we allowed to taste his vastly overrated wines. From then on, when invited to a tasting of Chapoutier wines, I always asked if Michel was attending. If he was going to be there, I politely declined, as in, "Are you fucking nuts?"

Marcia Macomber said...

I've not heard (thankfully, I guess) Michel Chapoutier speak. Is it akin to listening to Clint Eastwood yammer on next to an empty chair?

Dean Tudor said...

I was at a similar Michel Chapoutier tasting in Toronto. The wines were poured, but we were to ignore them until he stopped speaking. I lasted 18 minutes, and then I began tasting. I was reprimanded, but responded that the wines AT THAT POINT would taste similar to what people actually had at home since at home, the wines would not be subjected to 90+ minutes airing. 90+ minutes of airing does NOT equal a 90+ number grade. I stopped, the tasting continued, I decided to just smell and look at the wine, ignoring the speech. He was petrified, and would not talk to me afterwards. Who cared? At 90 minutes the wines were over the hill....Empty bottles were on the table, and I got off by fondling the Braille labels...

Bill Klapp said...

Marcia, it is akin to the empty chair yammering back! In retrospect, Napoleon had a Chapoutierian complex!