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When is a “flaw” not a flaw?



Got an email from a wine director at a restaurant yesterday. She wrote:

Yesterday I was tasting through my wines by the glass to make new notes after going through some recent vintage changes when I smelled the 2012 ___ Sauvignon Blanc. I was so overwhelmed by the smell of rotten green pepper and shocked by the complete lack of the usual ripe grapefruit notes. I generally get excited when I come upon a wine with a flaw as I look at it as a learning experience I can share with my staff. But to my shock, most of my staff did not smell the same thing I did and no one smelled it to the extent that I did. I opened several bottles then went on to a new case but they all smelled the same to me. I was convinced there was a flaw but questioned myself that no one smelled the horrible things I did. I pulled the wine right away. So, my question is, is this strong smell considered a flaw or is it just bad judgment on the part of the winemaker and producer to release a wine like this?

(The wine director identified a specific New Zealand Sauv Blanc but there’s no point in revealing it here.) There are two points she made that leaped out to me, both of which are interesting enough to warrant a little chat.

The first was “most of my staff did not smell the same thing I did.” This points out the subjectivity of wine tasting. Whatever caused the green pepper smell that the wine director picked up on (and I couldn’t say that it was pyrazine because I haven’t tasted that wine), it seems that she was more sensitive to it than the rest of her staff. I myself am very sensitive to pyrazine, and I don’t much care for it if it exceeds a certain tipping point in a Sauvignon Blanc. But on the other hand, I’ve met people who are far more sensitive than I am to TCA and brett.

The second point is contained in the wine director’s question and is in some ways the more interesting one. “Is this strong smell considered a flaw or is it just bad judgment on the part of the winemaker?”

I don’t think it was a flaw, technically speaking, but it depends on how you define “flaw.” Generally, flaws in wine are considered to be egregious violations of the basic sanitary and chemistry things you learn in winemaking school. For example, a young white wine that is brown in color and smells old may have been oxidized; that is a flaw, but on the other hand, you want a degree of oxidation in some white wines (Sherry, for example). Aromas that are rancid also are considered flaws, but in some older wines (Priorats, for example), a little rancidity is considered desirable. And consider brett itself. Technically, it’s a flaw, but some winemakers (and wine drinkers) like a touch of it in their wines.

If we assume the cause of pyrazine smell is unripe grapes, can we call that a flaw? In one sense, maybe: I mean, you wouldn’t make a wine out of grapes that were 13% brix, would you? But if pyrazine’s a flaw, it’s not on the scale of letting a white wine get oxidized to the point of brown stinkiness. Pyrazine could be and usually is a vintage problem (and you can’t accuse Mother Nature of committing flaws). But it could be a marketing decision to bottle and sell a pyraziney wine (one that the winemaker may not want to put out there, but has to be sold anyway, for economic reasons).

Is it bad judgment to sell a wine that some people will think is flawed, like that New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc? Well, not necessarily. The wine director who emailed me thought it was flawed, but no one else on her staff did. It’s conceivable that, even had the winemaker known the wine was high in pyrazines, he would have green-lighted it anyway (assuming he had that power, rather than a sales director or owner), knowing that it wasn’t so excessive that critics all over the world would condemn it as cat pee.

So this question of what constitutes a flaw, and what doesn’t, is more complicated than you might think.

  1. When I’m drumming up words to describe wine, “green pepper” probably isn’t something I hope I’ll come up with. Green peppers are burpy!
    But, reading this, I’m reminded of something a good friend (a sommelier) always says, “Good wine is the one you like.”

    As I cook, I’m sometimes blown away by one person tasting who’ll say, “This is SO hot; I just can’t eat it.” The next woman might come up with, “On a scale of 1-10 (one being the lowest degree of heat), this is about a 2. Where’s the hot sauce?”

    Differences are attractive and interesting. I’d have tried to sell the wine by the glass, offering a taste before purchase–if only because the staff disagreed with her. Just me, though.

  2. I think I may know which New Zealand SB that was. Poured one that was just like off bell peppers, cat pee and body odor…all in one glass, yuck and I called it flawed too. I would say another flaw that might not be a flaw would be Zinfandels that clock in at 16.7%, that’s not table wine at that point, least to me, it’s dessert wine.

  3. Well, legally anything that clocks in above 14.0% is dessert wine. Don’t you think it is about time the TTB reviews its tax policies?

  4. My humbly submitted Winemakerly opinion from an article on wine flaws I wrote for Wine Business Monthly in 2008- I believe intent and result, and the judgement thereof go hand in hand:

    “Hence the heart of the debate: when is a wine fault a defect and when is it an asset?

    Many of the common wine defects are also inherent products of the normal fermentation and winemaking process.

    What’s clear is that one winemaker’s potable is another winemaker’s poison–techniques and tolerances will vary. The trick lies in making sure that you make, age and bottle only what you mean to; it’s a balancing act to ensure a “spoilage” compound stays right where you want it to and doesn’t cross that line of intent.”

    Article link:

  5. Kyle, I don’t think that’s true. Anything under 14% can legally be called Red Table Wine and anything over 14% is called, simply, Red Wine. Dessert wine is a different category that producers of Port-style wines have to use as they aren’t allowed to put Port on their bottles anymore (unless they were grandfathered in).

  6. A couple of things here:

    First and foremost, was this the first time that the wine director had tried this vintage of the wine? And if so, why in the world would they do a vintage swap without having tasting it in advance? This I don’t understand . . .

    Second, Kyle is correct in that anything over 14% is officially considered ‘dessert wine’ by the TTB. Not ‘fortified wine’ as that is a different category, but dessert wine.


  7. Chris, >14% can be labeled as Red Wine (as its class). A wine label needs to have a class, whether that be a variety, a blend (with %) or generic Red, White or Rose. But for tax purposes, anything (almost) over 14% abv (up to 21%) is taxed as dessert or fortified wine. Anything below is Table wine. And yes, 21-24% abv, sparkling, artificially carbonated and hard cider are different tax designations.

  8. Title 27: Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms


    4.21 The Standards of Identity
    (2) Table wine is grape wine having an alcoholic content not in excess of 14 percent by volume. Such wine may also be designated as “light wine,” “red table wine,” “light white wine,” “sweet table wine,” etc., as the case may be.
    (3) Dessert wine is grape wine having an alcoholic content in excess of 14 percent but not in excess of 24 percent by volume.
    4) Raisin wine is wine of this class made from dried grapes.
    § 4.34 Class and type.
    (a) The class of the wine shall be stated in conformity with subpart C of this part if the wine is defined therein, except that “table” (“light”) and “dessert” wines need not be designated as such. In the case of still grape wine there may appear, in lieu of the class designation, any varietal (grape type) designation, type designation of varietal significance, semigeneric geographic type designation, or geographic distinctive designation, to which the wine may be entitled.
    § 4.36 Alcoholic content.
    (a) Alcoholic content shall be stated in the case of wines containing more than 14 percent of alcohol by volume, and, in the case of wine containing 14 percent or less of alcohol by volume, either the type designation “table” wine (“light” wine) or the alcoholic content shall be stated.

  9. I took a winemaking class about tasting wine for flaws. This was an objective (not subjective) tasting where increasing amounts of additives were added to wines, then shuffled up and tasted blind.

    It became very obvious that some people have sharp palates and some don’t. It took longer to realize that some people with very sharp palates can’t taste certain flaws. I myself was so certain that the so2 results were wrong that I wanted to test them in an aspirator.

    The point of this story is that flaws are very real things. The differences between peoples palates are also very real. To answer your original question: A flaw is not a flaw if you can’t taste it

  10. Steve,
    You bring up a great topic and the posts so far have not (IMHO) touched on the real issue.

    It does not matter if the vegetative odor was caused by pyrazine or something else, I can think of at least three avenues of investigation that have to do with production practices that may cause similar odors but this is not a technical winemaking forum.

    The big issue is our obsession with making flawless products, an obsession that is the killer of creativity. I often say that I am not a winemaker (yeast are the only winemakers) I am merely a vinegar stopper. Vinegar is the one and only true wine flaw I know and the first reason we swirl wine in a glass and sniff it before we sip (the other being to ensure some centurion did not put poison in it). Everything else is a matter of taste, and public taste is heavily influenced by fashion. Years ago lobster was fed to prisoners because no one wanted to eat sea cockroaches.

    So, I think the answer to your question is that yes, that wine was flawed but just in the context of a commercial release during these times. And you are right, it is more complicated than it seems.

  11. Steve,

    To amplify Oded’s point, sometime prior to Dom Perignon’s “drinking the stars” sparkling wine from Champagne could have been stigmatized as flawed.

    Cheers, M

  12. Steve – really great topic and one that piques my interest.

    A primary variable, mostly misunderstood or overlooked, is the ‘perceptive acuity’ factor that shows up as, “But to my shock, most of my staff did not smell the same thing I did and no one smelled it to the extent that I did.”

    We like to think that what we experience via sensations is reality. In fact, sensations occur only as a result of our personal sensory physiology and then how the brain processes the information it receives. Both vary greatly! If you are color blind, you are color blind. This same blindness, and the counter point which is hyper sensitivity, occurs with aromas and tastes as well.

    Learning more about these factors of sensory physiology and neurology goes a long way to understanding personal preferences and perceptive differences. I am really tolerant to TCA and know others who seem have 10 to 100 times greater sensitivity to me. On the other hand a whiff of SO2 and I am a goner – it anesthetizes my olfactory system. These differences are well known and it becomes a new way for the wine industry and consumers to realize why there are so many different points of view about wine quality and character. One person gets a warm, sweet sensation form high alcohol/high tannin wines and for someone else it burns and hurts. No right or wrong per se, just different experiences.

    Not really all that surprising how differently we assess and describe wines! If a flaw falls in the woods does it make a sound?

  13. I agree with Alison. Naming a it a flaw or “character” is all in the intent…what did the winemaker want in that glass and does the final product execute upon that desire.

    Just like with gardening…anything you didn’t plant is a weed.

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