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Get Your “Wine Fault” Out of My Glass: Misconceptions, Misnomers and Misadventures with Wine

Do you know what a wine fault is? I thought I did, until the London International Wine Fair when APCOR, the Portuguese acronym for Associação Portuguesa de Cortiça (Portuguese Cork Association), sponsored a tasting on wine faults. They’re goal was to help guide wine professionals and social media influencers through an educational session that described the various faults that can effect a wine’s aroma and taste other than cork taint.

Why talk about every other potential fault in a bottle of wine except cork taint? Quite honestly, cork has occasionally gone through the wringer among wine professionals and mainstream press. The continuous debate between cork and screwtops is endless, leading to loads of articles in wine magazines and wine videos alike debating the merits of each. However, most consumers are not aware that cork taint can, and does, have an effect on wine – leading to ample misconceptions and misinformation. Hence, it’s important to qualify that this particular tasting was not meant for the average consumer, but rather, the average professional

As for the vast array of other wine faults, I’ve generally found that words such as reduction, oxidation, brettanomyces are never added to a consumer’s wine vocabulary, and quite often, equally overlooked by wine professionals – reduction being the most misunderstood by far.

The consumer sees wine as a static object, rather than produce, which is perishable. They assume that upon purchase, the wine will remain in a bubble of alcohol, protecting it from the bad, and enhancing the good. What they fail to see is that a wine is a living breathing product, and like a bag of grapes, it can rot or mature over time.

As for the professional, without proper training, they may incorrectly categorize a wine.

Hence, it is of no surprise that this particular session at the LIWF was not only the one that I was most eager to experience, but that I felt the most confused and passionate about afterwards. Having tasted 8 wines of the exact same producer, vintage and style, 7 of which were faulted, I walked away feeling more ignorant than ever before. Sure, I can generally pick out a corked bottle of wine, signaled by its ubiquitous wet cardboard aroma, but the 7 faulted wines I tasted with APCOR were not easy to discern as faulted. Many of the “off” aromas were subtle and elusive. When placed alongside the control wine, I could easily pick out the faulted versus the non-faulted, but without the control, I often remained in the dark.

Over the course of the day, I tasted every faulted bottle several times over, but my conclusions were indecisive. I did, however, walk away with some rather pressing questions as a result of APCOR’s seminar.

  • Your faulted wine is my delicious libation! Agreeing on what is, and what is not, a wine fault can be rather tricky. Just between Ryan and I, taste can vary dramatically. We’ve tasted wines that have provoked two very different, and quite emotional, responses. While he felt it was liquid gold, I wanted to pour it down the drain. Equally true, taste can vary according to to one’s nationality. While one culture may be more tolerant to bitterness, another may be more tolerant to tannins. To a winemaker, it’s any wine that departs from its “norm”. So where does that leave us? In the tasting with APCOR, some of the wines “should have” been perceived as faulted, but I found them perfectly drinkable. If compared next to the control wine, I might have agreed and seen the fault, but without the control wine, a few I’d continue drinking throughout the evening. So is this is an issue of personal taste, a high threshold to a particular fault, or maybe, a cultural norm?
  • How many consumers are aware enough of a grape’s characteristics to discern if the wine is flawed or just not a style they’re keen on? Example, cat piss is a common descriptor of Sauvignon Blanc – not necessarily everyone’s cup of tea (erm..wine) and could easily be described as “off” if one didn’t know better. If you know that wine typically smells of “x” then you can discern when the wine smells different or off. For a consumer, this can be very confusing. If I take it to the professional level, how are you supposed to know if the wine shows tipicity or not if you’re unaware of the grape or region? As an example, Ryan and I tasted a Sherry wine from California last week. If it was placed in an international blind tasting among other Sherry styled wines, we might have considered it “off” because while it was an interesting Flor influenced wine, it did not seem to fit in the  true definition of a sherry.
  • What is the best way to teach consumers between a good wine and a faulty wine? There are many wine fault kits available for purchase, and they can be a great way to get up to snuff on your wine faults. However, to play the devil’s advocate, could this have the reverse effect and make you hypersensitive to faults that may not exist? Could you become the wine fault version of a wiki-chondriac :)

My questions are endless, but I’d rather know your thoughts! Have you experienced a successful educational platform on wine faults? Should we better educate consumers, and if so, how?

Please take a moment to check out some  intriguing and thought provoking articles on wine faults:

Wine Doctor: How to Spot Faulty Wine

Time for Wine: Common Wine Flaws

Uncorked: High Alcohol is a Wine Fault

Cheers,

Gabriella Opaz

APCOR educational session on detecting wine faults from Ryan and Gabriella Opaz on Vimeo.


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  • http://intensedebate.com/profiles/winklorch Wink Lorch

    Congratulations Gabriella on writing about a really difficult issue.I think wine may be the only consumer product that faces so many complicated issues with quality.

    Firstly, sorry I couldn't attend this session, but I've attended several similar sessions with different people over the years and still am not confident about certain wine faults, so don't worry about your confusion. I only really want to address your third point to emphasize that actually teaching about wine faults to consumers is very challenging.

    As a wine educator for many years, I tend to keep the explanations for consumers (not so for trade students) as simple as possible. I tell them if the wine smells of vinegar or really foul, not 'winey' at all, it is most likely to be faulty or 'off'. I do always suggest always that it's tasted too and if possible left in the glass to see whether it gets better or worse. In a restaurant situation I talk to consumers about how best to venture sending a bottle back (depends on the country where the restaurant is as to how that is received) but if possible involve the sommelier or wait staff.

    I guess the most important things I recommend, with my wine educator's hat on, are:

    1) If you come across a faulty bottle and you are confident you know what the problem is and why it's like it is e.g. a corked or TCA-affected bottle, then share this with as many consumers as possible to give them the chance to experience it – e.g. in a basic restaurant, encourage the wait staff to try it if you can and they have time, and in a wine class, definitely pass the bottle around. Even at home, give faulty bottles to your non-wine confident friends to taste.

    2) as someone working with or for a winery or the wine trade, at any sort of wine show, wine fair, wine tasting or presentation, please, please, please check/taste every single bottle BEFORE letting anyone else taste it. As a presenter, it's not easy to deal with a possibly faulty bottle mid-presentation and as a sales person representing a winery at a tasting, you really should be only serving the good bottles.

  • http://twitter.com/pieterrosenthal @pieterrosenthal

    I wish I'd had the time to attend this, but then there was so much to see and do. I agree though that often faults can be in the eye (nose) of the beholder, other than some fairly obvious ones. I've even had someone describe a corked bottle as better than the non-corked version, admittedly the wine was pretty awful.
    I'm always secretly hoping I get an obviously corked bottle at one of my workshops as it provides a great learning experience for the attendees to try them side by side, so was pleased to have a great example last weekend at the Edinburgh tasting. Hopefully that will give the consumer confidence in assessing the fitness of a wine. But where the fault isn't obvious, as you describe, is there hope for us mere mortals?

  • Ben

    Whenever I get a wine that smells “corked” (wet cardboard) I also notice that the cork slides out effortlessly. The wine is orange and has clearly been rapidly oxidized (“maderized”) by exposure to oxygen that slipped through a poor seal. I don’t think most of what is blamed on cork taint is in fact a result of TCA – it’s poor enclosures or poor storage and handling that are to blame. I read about a study a while back that found few of the wines that were deemed “corked” to contain any TCA at all.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/ryan7968 ryan opaz

      9 times out of 10 when I get a TCA tainted wine the cork looks perfect, the wine is beautiful and it smells/tastes like crap. What you describe is more like a loose cork or a wine that was heated in transit, and while it may have some wet cardboard notes, is probably not TCA as you say. There are tons of faults, the problem is though when the wine looks perfect and the wine tastes bad. Then the consumer is left wondering, or rather not, instead they assume the wine is not to their liking.

  • http://vinosambiz.blogspot.com Fabius

    Great post, really interesting. I also have lots of questions and doubts, but no answers I'm afraid!

    The thing I find especially interesting is where to draw the line between a 'flaw' and a 'characteristic', eg why should the aroma of cat-piss be an acceptable attribut of Sauvignon Blanc, but considered a flaw in Airén (or any other vatiety)?

    Then there's the line to be drawn between wine 'experts' and humble wine lovers! Some aromas and tastes percieved by the experts (who may well taste 10s or 100s of different wines per day) are simply undetectable by the non-professionals.

    As far as education goes, I think the more opportunities we have to taste flawed wine, the better. It would be really helpful if educators (and wine shops giving tasting courses, etc) could routinely include examples of flawed wine in their offerings to their customers/students.

  • http://vinosambiz.blogspot.com Fabius

    And lastly, for a bit of perspective: when posting and commenting on flawed wine, it gives the impression that there are millions of bottles of flawed wine out there and that we're in dire and immediate danger of being lumbered with one!!! But in my personal experience, it's actually quite difficult to get such a bottle! (maybe that’s why wine courses don't offer them!). I'm in fact rather sceptical of statistics such as 5% of wine bottles being corked. I mean, where ARE they? For example, I and my immediate circle of friends and family, have been buying wine regularly for about 20 years, and in all that time I can remember 2 occasions when the wine was corked!!!

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/ryan7968 ryan opaz

      THis blows my mind! We get on average 1 corked bottle per 20 wines we open. I have on our counter now about 5 bottles that we will dump. I used to get in my store about 1 a day, that were either returned or a sample that was corked. Low percentages considering the amount of wine we dealt with but none the less a lot of bottles. I think 5% is fair, though I know it's been higher in the past.

  • chuck

    I think one of the common faults not recognised is reduction

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  • http://twitter.com/bwinetv @bwinetv

    I don't exactly know why I started to learn about flaws in wine aromas, actually before learning about them I could drink almost any wine! haha Anyway, my worst defect wine odor must say its brett's aroma (ethyl-guayacol), really unpleasant, makes me stop drinkingn more wines, it spoils the moment, puaj!! damn you Dekkera!!

    By the way, amazying blog + amazying newsletters! BwineTV is an starting TV channel covering anything related to wine culture, though in a very young, funny, relax and non-poshy way. CAUTION! Its in spanish (starting from Spain and Chile)

    Hope you can visit us some day and feed as back with suggestions. Best luck! salud! http://bwinetv.com/ http://bwinetv.com/

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    funny but true….special care is needed to handle such cases….

  • TC

    “Just between Ryan and I, taste can vary dramatically” should be “just between Ryan and ME …..”

    • J Roberts
      • Anonymous

        Thanks to you both. I will admit that I’m still a little unsteady as to why you are correct in this case, but I think I get the general premise. Please never stop lending a grammatical hand. I can always use the help :)

        • J Roberts

          Easy really, Ryan is the subject of the sentence and you are the object so you need to use the objective pronoun for yourself, which is “me”…