In a nutshell, wine is a result of a magically simple, yet wondrous, natural process: the juice of ripe grapes, abundant in natural sugars, attract micro-organisms of yeast, which themselves cannot help but feast on all that sweetness and convert it into alcohol while exporting copious amounts of CO2.
How much simpler and more straight forward can it get, right? Why then, one can ask, in our modern social culture of wine making that wine itself has become such an involved and nuanced subject with multiple factors, from human to natural, determining the quality and ultimately the praise or the criticism of the final product. From the geographic origins of the vineyards with their micro-climates, through the multi-faceted farming practices, to complex wine making techniques, and eventually to storage of the already bottled wines, all these factors contribute to or detract from the wine’s quality and its value.
Wine’s most basic and primal purpose in our lives is its sustenance, its social function of jollifying our lives, bringing us together by transcending our differences, and mitigating the pain of our existential anxieties by subtle inebriation. Yet somehow, in the process of social evolution, armed with superficiality and vanity, we have elevated wine to the status of art form, and this joyous libation has fallen a victim of snobbery, pretense and contrived validation of social status. Good on us! Let’s distance ourselves even further from the animals we once were.
But outside this human inflicted pomposity, wine’s true, unadulterated sensual and aesthetic appeal should not be slighted or understated. At its best (and that “best” lies in the palate of the beholder) wine can offer a gratifying and inspiring experience to our eyes, our smell and our taste buds, enriching our body and soul. There are circumstances, though, when these sensations of senses can be compromised, and it is then when we talk about “flawed” wines.
Here are five most pertinent examples wine flaws.
Benefits of oxygen in our lives and its existence on our planet cannot be overstated. Oxygen is an indispensable chemical element in the composition of our atmosphere and molecular structure of our planet, and without it, life on earth could not be. But just like with many other things in life, sometimes too much of a good thing is a bad thing; and it could even be lethal. Oxidation is aging, and it eventually leads to decomposition. Our body cells oxidize and that’s why we grow old and eventually… Hold up! Let’s not get morose here…we're still talking about wine here after all.
In scientific terms, wine oxidizes due to chemical reactions that convert ethanol (alcohol) into acetaldehyde. When that happens, wine develops undesirable aromas of vinegar and caramelized apple, it loses its vigor in color, flattens in flavor, and eventually it turns, literally, into vinegar.
Obviously, oxygen is present throughout the entire process of wine making and often an additional exposure to it is encouraged. Here are a few techniques:
-Open-tank top fermentation (self-explanatory)
-Pumping over, a.k.a. remontage, is a process of pumping red wine from the bottom of the fermenting tank and splashing it over the top of the fermenting must to achieve a better extraction of color, flavor, tannin.
-Racking. This is a general term for moving wine from one vessel to another: tank to barrel, barrel to barrel, barrel to tank… and so on. The purpose is mainly to separate sediment from wine for clarification purposes.
Oxygen also plays a vital role in wine’s life after bottling. And that’s where cork comes in. There is a magical duality to cork in its function. On one side it prevents the air from entering the bottle and spoiling the wine, which it eventually will. On the other hand, cork’s finely grained structure offers a unique permeability which allows the wine to slowly “breath” and evolve while cellared. In that fashion, as wine continually oxidizes to the point of it being faulty is subjective; what one person considers spoiled by oxidation, another may consider elegantly aged. There is though, a threshold beyond which a wine becomes unpalatable, and no respected wine drinker should touch it. I like to say: wine is a like human being who offers different traits and characteristics at different stages of its life until it is dead.
TCA aka Cork taint
“Corked wine” is sometimes an abused term to signify someone’s general dissatisfaction with a bottle of wine. As a sommelier, I have found myself in numerous situations in my career when a guest challenged the quality of wine by calling it “corked,” when in actuality, the wine was perfectly sound. Not an easy predicament to get out of without coming across as condescending and offending or embarrassing the patron.
But the flaw of “corkiness” is very specific. It is caused by a chemical contaminant 2,4,6-Trichloroanisole and manifests itself by the odor of wet cardboard or wet dog. The taint occurs when certain fungi come in contact with chlorine, a common sterilizer, during the cork production or other wine making practices. The flaw is usually transferred from the affected cork stoppers in contact with wine, but it can also originate in oak barrels or the processing lines at the winery. The estimates vary, but it is believed that about three percent of all wine bottled under natural cork is compromised by this affliction.
Reduction is kind of the opposite of oxidation in that it is caused by shortage of oxygen. It mainly occurs during the wine making process, when the limited oxygen exposure leads to the volatile sulfur compounds. Wine requires a certain amount of oxygen to polymerize, otherwise, reduced flavors will most likely appear. This fine balance of too little versus too much of oxygen in wine making is a great example of the delicate and intricate nature of the process. A reduced wine gives off unpleasant whiffs of rotten eggs, sulfur or rubber. At small levels, reduction can be eliminated by extensive aeration in a decanter or a wine glass.
Brettanomyces or Brett in short.
Brett is an unwanted strain of naturally occurring yeast that is usually interrelated to red wines. White wines are much less vulnerable to it because of their lower pH and much smaller phenolic content. The presence of Brett in wine is a rather controversial issue since some wine professionals consider it, in small amounts, a part of aromatic makeup of a wine adding to wine’s complexity. In large quantities, Brettanomyces will cause an overwhelming, unwanted sensory characteristics of barnyard and sweaty leather. Some grapes tend to be more susceptible to Brett; Syrah is one of those. Historically, Brett is associated with the red wines of the Rhone Valley in France.
Tartrate crystals a.k.a. wine diamonds
This isn’t a flaw, but rather a misconception of one that needs to be addressed to save the wine aficionado of every ilk from embarrassment. Wine diamonds can occur in both white and red wines and can deposit on the underside of the cork or the bottom of the bottle. Tartaric acid along with citric, malic and lactic acids is one of prime acids in wine grapes. The crystals are a result of tartaric acids binding with potassium and their formation is linked to the exposure of wine to cold temperatures (below 40 degrees). It can happen at the winery, during transport, or in your fridge. Cold stabilization is a process employed by some wineries to get rid of tartrate deposits. Before bottling, the wine in bulk is cooled off to temperatures below 40 degrees, the crystals form and are filtered off. Cold stabilization’s drawback is its negative effects on wine’s flavor complexity and aging potential. That’s why most reputable wineries avoid it. Wine diamonds are completely harmless and if found in a bottle can be easily separated by filtration or decanting.
These five ailments are not the only ones afflicting wines but, in my view, those most worth addressing and most prevalent. Keep in mind that these “defects” come in different levels of flaw intensity leading to much subjectivity. The presence of a flaw can be and is often debated especially since there is no scientific method to determination or measurement. It also depends on a palate’s sensitivity to be able to detect a flaw, especially in marginal amounts.
All in all, for my own purposes, I define a flaw in wine as a clearly detectable aroma or flavor which, one way or another, permeated the wine without the winemaker’s intent and negatively impacts the sensory enjoyment of the consumer. Remember though that none of these so-called flaws are harmful to our health. Ultimately, if desperate, stuck on a deserted island with only one bottle of wine saved that happens to be corked, stink of barnyard or rotten eggs, don’t panic, you’ll still experience its magic as an elixir to ease your pain, solitude, and to see the brighter side of things.
Cezar Kusik Wine Contributor Polo Lifestyles 2021