Finding fault

Perhaps like me you have been at some wine-tasting occasion when a clever and highly trained person (often a winemaker) has sniffed and swirled, then sat back and pronounced: “A touch of Brett”, or kindly used some euphemism like “savoury” to do the damning. And that’s that. Wine dismissed. No matter that you and some others might think it  a lovely wine. OK perhaps it might have a hint of the nicer kind of fault, you say to yourself weakly, but that just adds to the complexity in this particular wine. But for the implacable technicist, the wine has a fault, and that’s that. Move on till we can find something drinkable.

At the London WIne Fair last month I attended a workshop by Dr Pascal Chatonnet on the various wine faults associated with reduction – broadly, the opposite of oxidation, and often associated with perfectly-sealing screwcaps. It was part of a continuing series of such workshops, sponsored by the large cork producer Amorim, who are of course keen to have it understood that not all faults are caused by cork, but this was by no means a screwcap-bashing exercise. Chatonnet continually asserts that there is no perfect wine closure available, and part of his lecture was about how to work with screwcaps to avoid any problems of reduction. (I have an electronic copy of his Powerpoint presentation: if anyone would like it, please email me at timja*AT*telkomsa.net.)

A good deal of the lecture was, sadly, with all its chemical formulae, way above my head. The examples we tasted (prepared in a laboratory, working from clean red and white wines which we had as control samples) were interesting. In some the fault was very clear (strongly cabbagy or rubbery aromas and flavours, for example – though I can’t now remember all the different conditions and strengths which gave rise to them). In some, I could only be aware of the interference in flavour by referring back to the control sample. In one or two cases, the fault did indeed seem to add a touch of interest, I’m afraid. But whether I could now easily pick up the hint of metallic flavour in a fruity young shiraz and ascribe it to a particular aspect of oxidation is most unlikely. To do that, I would have to attend many more sessions than just one; I would have to train my palate in a way that it never has been (and never will be and frankly, I confess, I’m not entirely sure I would want it to be).

I recently saw reference to just what training I would need, in a short article about Australian show judges, in the latest issue of World of Fine Wine. It is by the British wine-writer Margaret Rand, stemming from her experience as a guest judge at the Royal Adelaide Wine Show. She cites an Australian judge’s description of the intensive training that oenological students receive there, and reports that “They learn to recognize faults by repetition. They taste wines over and over, recognizing positive attributes as well as faults, and their results are constantly checked and compared by statistical analysis.”

Rand’s bottom line in the article is that she thinks such judges are, if not exactly too well trained, then certainly too ready to dismiss supposedly “faulty” wines – some of which, at least, should rather be celebrated for their complexity. She contrasts the methods and aesthetics of British judges. It’s not a new issue she raises, of course, but it is one that does need to be asked anew every now and then, and she does it very well and thought-provokingly.

Things are done rather differently here, of course, where we do not have the same sort of show system that grew up in Australia, nor do we have the depth and number of such trained palates that Australia can draw on. Fortunately? And frankly I’m not convinced that the results of our big competitions and magazine tastings – where judges taste large numbers of wine blind in one sitting risking palate-fatigue, tannin build-up, etc – would be more useful if we did have more such expert palates. Though probably more “faulty” wines would be kicked out.

The Trophy WIne Show, however, consciously tries to respond to this controversy, consciously avoiding either over-technicism or over-aestheticism. The panels there comprise one local expert in the sense of being trained or experienced in the technical sense (usually a winemaker), plus a local palate with expertise based less on training than on experience (often a winewriter), plus a foreigner who might fit into either of the camps. The idea is, I suppose, that each point of view will be forced to grapple with and learn from another, and a possible clash of attitudes might produce a compromise that will led to something like the truth (is there such a thing?).

Well, the results of that show will be announced on Monday, so we’ll see what they’ve come up with this year. Probably nothing with Brettanomyces, however. The technicists seem to have won that battle; many of us have learned to be more alert to it, and we know we’re never allowed to call it complexity. And yet…

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