June 17, 2008

Finding Fault

Cork taint, brett, cooked, lightstruck, there's a lot of things that can go wrong with wine. Ladybugs in the vines sometimes get pressed with the grapes, and this can make the wine taste like rancid peanut butter or cat pee. Too much time on the lees (the leaves, stems and skins which are often left in contact with the grape juice as a normal part of wine-making) can produce mercaptans. Mercaptans are what the gas company adds to natural gas so it stinks. Good for avoiding blowing yourself up; not good for wine. Wine is a living thing, breathing and evolving. That's part of the beauty of it. And, unfortunately, flaws are sometimes part of the process.

Some "flaws" are even desirable. Brettanomyces, for instance, often called "brett" by wine geeks, is a strain of yeast that can make wine taste like band-aids. But at lower-levels, it can impart an aged character to a young wine; some think it adds depth and complexity. I recently had a bottle of red that someone noted smelled of equine urine; very scientifically described, I thought. With equal biological precision, I said, "Yeah, cool, huh?" I now realize we were wankering around about a bottle of badly brett tainted wine. I've had another equally piss-y bottle from the same producer. Brett seems to be their thing. It's possible they're encouraging the flaw on purpose. More likely, they're too cheap to buy new barrels. Brett thrives in the oak used to age wine before bottling.

And then there's the all-inclusive category for flawed wine: "corked." Which I've always thought sounds appropriately like what you'd really like to say (hint: starts with an "f"). Sometimes "corked" actually means "corked," meaning contaminated with TCA, a mold that grows on cork treated with chlorine bleach. But more often "corked" means oxidized, or cooked, or f----ed up in other ways you're not quite sure about and would need an advanced degree in organic chemistry to understand.

For me, there's nothing worse than ordering a nice red at a restaurant, tasting it and then wondering, "Is this off?" And is it? If some wine-makers encourage flaws as part of their artistry, what counts as "off?" TCA is detectable at levels around 9 parts per trillion, which is, by definition, next to nothing. And we all have different thresholds for detection. I may sense it at 9, but you may need 11 parts to notice. So we sit there, eye-corking the sommelier, drinking wine that smells like wet newspaper.

Clearly, this is a category that calls for rigorous investigation. Or would be if (again!) I had bothered to get that advanced degree in chemistry. But there are a few experiments worth conducting that fall within the competencies of the Lab.

I happen to have one underway now. Results later in the week.

(image credit: © Andre Nantel | Dreamstime.com)

No comments: