Chardonnay, corks and tasting panels

Here’s my score: Amorim Cork 1, tasting panels 0. Though the victory in WineLand March 2014 is actually more crushing than that.

WinelandI’ve been continuing my reading of the latest issue of the magazine, which seems to be getting on very nicely under its new editor, Edo Heynes. The new regime doesn’t appear to me to have made very much difference so far – my  real regret is that it seems to involve Edo writing much less these days, and he was always one of my favourite local journalists. And, frankly, I rather miss the editorials of former editor Cassie du Plessis, which were unfailingly interesting, intelligent, well-informed – and just a little bit unexpectedly sideways in their glance.

There’s a rather fascinating article in this issue, replete with informative tables, by Elias Holtzkampf (a new name to me) about “Liquor consumption patterns in South Africa”, but I confess that what grabbed my attention over breakfast this morning was two disparate items, linked only by chardonnay wines and the presence of tasting panels.

HRVChardItem 1 was the surprise of seeing Hamilton Russell Chardonnay 2013 scoring a mere 3.5 stars on the “Which wine?” tasting of a selection of currently available wines. The tasters were a pretty mean bunch, in my opinion, altogether! Only two wines score four stars – the undoubtedly worthy Tokara Elgin Sauvignon Blanc 2013 and the Overgaauw Cape Vintage exactly 20 years older. Apart from the HRV, everything else gets three or less. I had the HRV 2013 the other night at the Classic Wine Awards dinner, and thought it marvellous – certainly amongst the Cape’s top white wines. [See my comment below for more on this.]

Item 2 – actually more interesting altogether than a panel’s low rating of a very fine wine – is tucked away in a little piece headed “Veritas and Amorim tackle TCA”. It tells that at Veritas this year (“this year” being, I’d guess, actually last year), “all instances of TCA detected by the Shiraz and Chardonnay categories were analysed by Vinlab to establish the presence, extent and origin of TCA using gas-chromatography”.

Amorim Cork was a “partner” in this – presumably they paid for the tests and it appears that it was something as worth doing as they presumably expected. Maybe Amorim generally think that tasters too easily blame corks for apparent faults in a wine. (Myself, I’d love to have every wine accused by some “expert” of having brett tested, and see how many stand up to what can be a glibly easy diagnosis!)

According to the article, only one bottle of Shiraz, out of 194 entries, was found to have TCA (it seems it was the only one accused). Of the chardonnays, only one out of 130 entries was tested positively for TCA. Now that’s a very good result indeed for cork – even though we’re not told how many of the entries were bottled under screwcap, we can sure assume that in these categories the majority would have been under cork. Even if it were only half, then two corked wines out of 162 wines is a far, far cry from the figures sometimes touted by cork’s enemies.

corkscrew-wdcutWe are told, however, that the Chardonnay panel suspected three wines of “having TCA traits”, but only one of the three was shown in the laboratory to be tainted. This is actually quite odd, that the panel should get it wrong – TCA is usually pretty easy for experienced judges to pick up; to get it wrong like this does Veritas not a lot of credit. Again, it’s perhaps too easy to make accusations of faults, and too fashionable.

An interesting sideline which would have surely had the cork producer chuckling a bit is that of the four wines (three chards, one shiraz) which were believed to contain TCA, “two had screwcap closures”. Deal with that one, admirers of screwcaps and of tasting panels at big competitions!

Charles Hopkins, chair of Veritas, says that they are “going to expand this research project to all classes at Veritas this year”. I’m sure Amorim will be delighted if the results are anything like last year’s.

9 thoughts on “Chardonnay, corks and tasting panels

  1. I agree that the word “brett” is perhaps bandied about too easily. It’s quite a complex issue, not least because there are five different types of brett (if I recall correctly). Even so, I think the other side of the coin is that many South African tasters and drinkers might well have become rather tolerant of brett…

  2. WineLand’s Elona Hesseling has alerted me to her blog, on which there was a discussion of their March tasting, including regarding the HRV Chardonnay. (http://www.wineland.co.za/blog/2014/03/03/an-ageing-issue/) “The Hamilton Russell Chardonnay 2013 didn’t fare as well as it should have, with the oak and acidity that still needs time to integrate.” And panel chair Higgo Jacobs confirmed to me that the wine was not tasting nearly as well as it did a few months later at the Classic Wine awards. This points to two problems – one is that it is very unfortunate that a producer like Hamilton Russell releases its splendid Chardonnay so ridiculously early – which does no favours to its customers or to its reputation. The other problem is one inherent to blind tastings, as I pointed out in a recent blog (http://wp.me/p3DdtR-Hi).

  3. Kwisp, Brettanomyces is a family of yeasts which, under varying conditions can produce 4 compounds which we asscociate with “Brettyness” in wine, they are 4 -ethylphenol (TCP and Elastoplast smell, always bad in my view), 4-ethylguaiacol (cloves and spiciness, sometimes called the good or “complexing” Brett),4-vinylphenol (can be pleasantly floral in small concentrations but very difficult to definitively identify) and isovaleric (leathery, cheesy,barnyard character). What makes things even more complex are that these 4 compounds often exist together, producing a cocktail of aromas.

  4. Kwisp, Brettanomyces is a family of yeasts which, under varying conditions can produce 4 compounds which we asscociate with “Brettyness” in wine, they are 4 -ethylphenol (TCP and Elastoplast smell, always bad in my view), 4-ethylguaiacol (cloves and spiciness, sometimes called the good or “complexing” Brett),4-vinylphenol (can be pleasantly floral in small concentrations but very difficult to definitively identify) and isovaleric acid(leathery, cheesy,barnyard character). What makes things even more complex are that these 4 compounds often exist together, producing a cocktail of aromas.

  5. Thanks, Chris!

    That makes it theoretically clear to a degree, and of course one can’t smell any of the five brett species (B. nanus, B. bruxellensis, B. anomalus, B. custersianus and B. naardenensis), only the molecules you’ve mentioned that they produce. I was only aware of three of those four, so you taught me a new one.

    Things get even more muddy because of meddling threshold relationships and compound combinations. Also, the fact that labs basically only ever test for one of those molecules/compounds, i.e. 4-ethyl-phenol. Add many producers’ fear (understandable) and denial (adding to the problem) and it’s all a bit of a mess.

    These nasty brett products also sometimes appear in wildly different concentrations in different bottles of the same wine, especially as the wine gets older. This means that some bottles of the same wine may be fine, while others aren’t. But many producers still think that it’s exclusively a batch problem, i.o.w. once they have tested a single bottle for brett (or, more accurately, only one of its four resulting molecules), they may easily declare their entire vintage “clean”. Conversely, once they do find brett, they often summarily think it’s Armageddon (or they revert to denial).

    The sad reality is that there is a massive amount of grey area here…

    • It would all depend on the sterility or not of the wine concerned. If the wine was sterile filtered before bottling, the concentration of those compounds should not change over time as the yeasts producing them would not be in the wine. If the wine was not sterile filtered, Brettanomyces spp would grow depending on the storage conditions etc and then there would be bottle variation of the concentration of those compounds.

      • Jip, and it has become very common for winemakers to do only light (or even no) filtering, especially where smaller volumes are concerned…

  6. 4EP & 4EG both get tested as a standard practice when testing for Brett, as well as getting a cell viability and actual presence. The other two compounds mentioned by Chris is pretty rare, and you will find EP & EG levels as a solid indicator that Brett is having a party.
    Not just the filtration issue is at play (as sterile filtration was not common until pretty recently) is the fact that plenty of red wines are getting bottled with ample amounts of residual sugar- pushing up the risk of Brett activity in wines even more.

  7. Still today some winemakers think that a clean cellar is enough to avoid brett. That, “cellar palate” and being satisfied by testing a bottle or two per batch of a young wine (you really have to screw up badly for brett to show up sensorially in young wine, but even that happens), are probably some of the main reasons why brett is still so prevalent.

    Brett loooooves wood (even penetrates it), sugar, high pH (here we go again with endemic over-ripening) and low sulphur. If more winemakers took this issue more seriously, it would go a long way in taking care of the issue to the extent that it’s a negligible occurrence.

    I must also say that I’ve had many naturally made wines (low sulphur, no or little filtration) that were as clean as a whistle, but their grapes were also harvested early. Perhaps the value of healthy fruit and good natural acidity is underestimated?

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