Master of Faults - Wine & Spirits Magazine

Master of Faults

For the ten years before Harrop started with the Challenge, the organizers had been tracking corked wines, flagged by a range of different judges. In those years, Harrop says, wines presumed to have cork taint ranged between six and seven percent of the total. Four years ago, when Harrop joined the competition, he saw a range of faults beyond cork taint coming through from the panels. “On the hoof, I created a little program on the computer and started logging them,” he recalls. Now he tracks faults through 14,000 to 15,000 bottles over the course of the annual two weeks of judging.

“I found in my first year that the figure for cork taint was closer to three percent. Total faults were around seven percent–a similar figure to previous years; so the balance must be other types of faults. The cork industry has been going on for decades that seven percent is a load of rubbish. And though I’m no apologist for the cork producers, sure enough, tasters were flagging cork taint when it was actually Brettanomyces.”

Harrop’s interest in faults began when he was winemaker at Marks & Spencer, the up-market British retail chain. “I didn’t actually make wine,” he says. “But when you’re a retailer selling five million cases a year of own-label wine, you own the product and have to make sure the faults are minimized.

“I started studying for the MW in 2001 and realized that faults can actually be the making of a wine,” he recalls. Soon, for his MW dissertation, he began to research Brettanomyces and its role in high-quality syrah. “I’d been told that Brett was the pox–its nickname in Australasia, where it’s treated as some kind of plague. Here I was in the Rhône hearing winemakers wax lyrical about wines I was taught to hate. I collected syrahs from some of the most well-known producers around the world, tasted them with MWs and asked them to rate and rank them, and whether they perceived Brett. Then I analyzed the wines for volatile phenols. It was clear that just a little bit–just over threshold–is fantastic. In the highest-scoring wines, it brings out the varietal character and complexity. Too little and the wine is simple. A little Brett is good; too little is less good. On the other end, the worst wines in the ranking were full of volatile phenols.”

Harrop believes the New World winemakers who insist that any Brett is bad Brett are just as misguided as those who let it run rampant. “It’s easily controlled if you monitor it,” he says, “and easily stabilized through filtration. I don’t know who spread the word that unfiltered wines were better. I’ve done trials and the filtered wines come out best, both in texture and expression.”

Harrop surveys the damage from the Apple iMac surrounded by white-sheathed bottles at his faults table. “A lot of people think I’m some kind of masochist. But I have the last laugh.” For Harrop, faults are the way not only to understanding great wine, but to making great wine. At below, he describes the marker for each of the major faults, and some of the trends he has found over time.

Pavlova (a.k.a. Reduction) Maybe instead of reduction, it’s better to say complex sulfides. These compounds express themselves under reductive conditions. They vary from h2s (rotten eggs) to DMS (sweet eggs–I often describe it as Pavlova, the Kiwi dessert). And there are various mercaptans, some flinty, some cabbagy. Some of the great wines of the world are not sulfidic, but on the cusp. To be honest, I struggle with it as a good thing, with some Chablis or Côte d’Or producers, who shall remain nameless. Cork taint in years past has been three percent of total faults, but as of the end of the first week of this year’s judging, reduction was the biggest category in terms of total faults, at 26 percent of the bottles; cork taint was at 24 percent. (Preliminary results from the entire tasting show cork taint and reduction contribute equally to total faults, at 25 percent.) There’s definitely some correlation between more screwcap wines and more reduction.

If you taste sauvignon blanc in tank, it may be full of guava. Then it goes into bottle, without the winemaker managing the sulfur, the dissolved oxygen, and you can end up with this cabbage or green onion character. We’ve seen about 2 percent of all screwcap entries having this green scallion character. It’s not the closure, it’s how the wine was processed. Cork taint is terrible, but the good thing is that it is random. Reduction is not. If you have green onion in one bottle of sauvignon blanc, it’s in every bottle. The effect on total wine in bottle is much greater if it’s not controlled.

Cloves & Bullshit (Brettanomyces) Brett is about 15 percent of the total faults this year, up from the last three years’ average of 12.4 percent. People describe the smell of Brett, but it’s the volatile phenols that you’re smelling. Brett is only a microorganism that can produce these compounds–4–ethylphenol (4-EP) and 4–ethylguaiacol (4–EG). 4–EP is the barnyard, fecal scent. 4–EG is the clove, or country smoke, burning, wet green wood. I think the reason we’re up from previous years in Brett is that we’re seeing more expensive wines in heavy bottles. [The heavy bottles are often markers for wines made from superripe fruit, which translates to high alcohol and some residual sugar. Also, they are usually fermented or aged in new oak; all that unfermented sweetness is an invitation to Brett.] It’s a better reason not to buy wine in heavy bottles than the carbon footprint: You might be getting a dud.

Balsamic Vinaigrette (Volatile Acidity) This can be confused with oxidation because VA comes from an oxidative reaction. But it’s distinct–the wine is not bruised but the volatile acidity is excessive. It can work in elevated levels in some wines, like Burgundy and zinfandel, by heightening the intensity of the wine.

Excessive volatility can come about through a stressed fermentation, primarily if fruit sugars are high. At 14 degrees or above, it’s a risk. Alcohol is toxic for the yeast; if you don’t have sufficient flexibility in the membrane of the yeast cell, it fractures and more toxic activity develops. The yeasts struggle and produce elevated levels of VA and sulfides. Then the yeasts may die, leaving residual sugar, which may allow Brett to feed. Brett also feeds on the sugars in new oak.

Hessian Cloth (Cork Taint) TCA (cork taint) is dank and musty, like Hessian cloth–when you take your socks off at the end of a run and leave them in the bathroom for a few days and then go back.

One thing that’s helped is the Diam closure, made from agglomerated cork. It’s the same process by which coffee is decaffeinated–supercritical co2 extraction–applied to cork granules, which are then glued together. We’re not only seeing more screwcap entries, we’re also seeing the number of Diam entries increasing.

Stale Bread (Oxidation) We’ve seen the number of oxidized wines increase this year. It ranges from wines with stale, dank flavors to something almost like stale bread, a stale, leesy character to just completely screwed wine with no fresh fruit. The wine is bruised.

Death Warmed Over (Biogenic Amines) Other faults include microbial or biogenic amines, like putricine or cadaverine–which smells like a dead body. That’s a fault that has no place in wine.

There’s SO2, which is more of a sensation than a scent–you can feel it in your nose and temples. It has an eggy scent in high doses. And grey rot: Grandma’s dusty curtains, that mixed with a green, unripe character.

This story was featured in W&S August 2009.

Joshua Greene is the editor and publisher of Wine & Spirits magazine.

This story appears in the print issue of August 2009.
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