Wine assessment and tasting is by its nature opaque. Countless factors will affect a wine at any showing, and if you were to re-taste the wine, in another context, your conclusions might be very different. To avoid discrepancy and possible misrepresentation, process and methodology are most important; with every wine assessed with an identical approach. Prejudice, friendships and marketing must be swept aside until you are alone with a wine. I have sat at many a tasting and been baffled by the comments of those present, or answers given by producers. Rubbish talk, as they get further from the truth of what’s in their glass.
There are innumerable books on learning how to taste wine. The one thing they all have in common is the setting of parameters; and these can only be set with a consistent approach to every wine. Specificity in regards to colour, fruit, weight, tannin, acidity and the relationship each component has with the whole is crucial. But before we even get to assessment and conclusions is a list of faults which, if they are detected, immediately means the wine is set aside and not considered further. Perhaps another bottle is at hand to be opened and for the process to begin again, but the fault is always noted. Some wine producers have faults that are consistent and if this is the case, the producer is not to be trusted as a source of drinkable wine.
But what of these faults? Some wine tasters have greater or lesser sensitivities to certain kinds of faults. This cannot be helped and by no means accords one taster a greater palate over another. Perversely though, there are more and more tasters and critics, who do not share the once universal approach to wine faults. And it’s this minority of professionals within the wine community who are marketing products that are faulty and, quite frankly, unethical. Faulty wine shouldn’t be critiqued in the first place. Furthermore, some of the faults are systemic and found within all bottles. The producer henceforth, and the critic too, have decided to sell their soul to laziness, amateurism and unscrupulous profit making.
The first inkling I had of this blithe disregard to wine faults was at a wine tasting in August 2019. I tried a Georgian wine which was infected with Brettanomyces (Brett). Expensive and rare, it was a shame, as the texture and length were excellent, and the fruit that I could detect was lovely. The flavour and presence of Brett, however, was pervasive, and had ruined what would probably had been a very good wine. But we’ll never know. Mulling over my thoughts, another taster exclaimed “this is so fuck’in good, I could drink a whole bottle of this right now”. When he walked away, I said to the importer that it was full of Brett, and the importers response, “but it’s natural mate”.
Smoke taint will be a pervasive problem for many Australian wine regions for vintage 2020 but, it must be stressed, not all. I have tried a few dozen wines in tank from various affected wine regions, all but one showing obvious smoke taint. The single exception was a Riesling from Orange. Pressed gently and run off skins immediately, the wine was quite lovely. This wine would usually have been made by allowing the juice to rest on skins for at least 12 hours, to gain texture and complexity. Then the wine would have been left on lees in tank and blended with some press wine. However, to avoid the risk of smoke taint, the winemaker was unable to utilise any of these techniques, and in making a Riesling that was not stylistically typical for him, was unsure if he would release the wine. I encouraged him to do so, for it was lovely, and quite typical of the regional style. The point I’m trying to make is that in some instances, wine producers can avoid smoke taint, but the resulting wines may not be to a standard. Scrupulous producers will avoid releasing wines with smoke taint, for not only is it a fault, it is unpleasant to taste. Why risk your reputation? The producer I visited told me that if he did release the wine, he would reduce the price and bottle it under a different label, as he wished to retain his incredibly high standards.
Recently, I read a review of a smoke tainted wine released with a $30 price tag. The producer admitted it was smoke tainted, but claimed that he was only releasing the wine to support his growers. The points awarded were quite high. Firstly, I couldn’t believe the wine was reviewed in the first place. At the first obvious sign of smoke taint, the wine should have been discarded. Secondly, the wine should never have been submitted and released in the first place. The producer’s excuse of supporting growers is marketing spin. Greed, a lack of respect for the general public and a disregard for the production of fine wine are the only reasons I could think of. Faults are inarguable. I haven’t heard of a corked wine considered acceptable, though due to the fact it is natural, I won’t be surprised if a wine critic starts to make excuses for this particular fault.
The Hunter Valley has made real efforts to reduce the presence of Brett, and has been largely successful. Brett is common in beer, cider and Sherry. But why the sudden acceptance amongst a small, but growing group of wine drinkers? The flavours are extremely unpleasant – think Band Aid. The only answer is to make a point of difference. In a tough competitive market, these people are looking for an angle and Brett stink and now smoke taint have become part of the “natural wine” lexicon. Producers and wine professionals within this sphere are attempting, with much success, to carve their own niche knowing they cannot possibly compete on the dreadful quality of their wines alone. So create a convincing narrative. Ironically, many of the greatest wines in the world are “natural wines”, but the truth is always naked in the glass.
I had always wanted to taste the wines of one particularly ‘visionary’ Spanish winemaker and an importer was kind enough to bring a few bottles he had made with another winemaker. Slightly oxidised and full of Brett, I asked how he could possibly sell these wines. Who in fact would like them? His response? “We call these Newtowners. They drink this shit for breakfast”. Shit just about sums it up. I find it hard to believe that anyone could enjoy the taste of Brett. Indeed, I believe some tasters have convinced themselves, due to the “natural” paradigm they find themselves in, that it is in some way desirable. They are, quite literally, kidding themselves.
Bruised or rotten fruit doesn’t get exhibited at an Agricultural show, nor do mouldy cakes appear at a Country Women’s Association bake-off. Animals are scrubbed, the hay cleaned out and refreshed. The cups and saucers for tea are spotless, and lippy removed. The meat is fresh and the sausages cooked through. Would anyone expect anything less? Do you want your fruit juice to taste of anything else apart from the fruit from which it was made? Would the cakes or strawberries taste better if some mould were allowed to develop? I think not. So why is this accepted, indeed lauded, by some fringe elements within the wine industry?
The only conclusions I can draw from these examples are not flattering. The wine world is small and I believe there are some who find being objective, difficult. Further, the niche that the same people have created needs a narrative that sounds convincing and legitimate. There may be no accounting for someone’s taste, but professionals have a responsibility to be as consistent and objective as possible. Faults should be called out for what they are; distasteful. Producers who insist on bottling wine that is faulty should be dismissed. There are plenty of better options out there.