My first thought is this. When we talk about “flawed wine” we are often not talking about flawed wine; we are talking about ourselves.
We’re talking about our view of the world, and how we want wine to enter that world so as to fulfill us. We are speaking on the level of the larger values, and so it is only proximately that we talk about wine as such. I don’t think this is pernicious; I think it would just be better if it were out in the open.
What thought comes to mind when you read or hear the phrase “technically perfect wine?”
Some people might feel relief. Oh good, I don’t have to worry about anything yucky, I can just concentrate on the flavor. Another person might hear the phrase and think Oh no, another antiseptic, clinical wine, denuded of animus or soul, robotic, boring! I doubt that many (wine) people see that phrase and feel nothing.
I have a Fripp soundscape playing while I write. They’re live recordings and there’s the occasional flub. That’s quite acceptable. What would not be acceptable would be if his instrument were out of tune. That is a fundamental error that makes the music unlistenable – and to complete the metaphor, it makes the wine undrinkable.
So let’s try to get the discussion out of the zone of symbol and shadow and look at truly misbegotten wines. I myself divide those into basic awfulness that nobody in her right mind should like, versus less malign errors that some drinkers can legitimately appreciate, especially if they are subtle.
If a wine smells like shit, vomit, rots/decays/spoilage or rotten eggs, it can’t be defended. I’m sorry – it can’t. Even if it vanishes with an hour or three hours or ten hours or two days in a decanter, it has no business being there in the first place. If you suppose I’m attacking a straw man, you haven’t had the conversations I’ve had with actual people who defended such wines, denied there were even such things as “flaws,” and applied an almost gorgeous illogic that made me hope – because I am sometimes not a very nice man – that their next seat-mate on a 9-hour flight was stricken with unending broccoli farts.
Then there are the flaws that really are matters of preference. I tip my hat to Vicki Denig – from whom I do seem to be getting all my blog ideas – for a lovely symposium she recently published, and to which I contributed, whose conclusion was perfectly down-the-middle. (As sometimes happens when you talk to too many people!) We shouldn’t obsess over every little burp, we should recognize that some so-called flaws can be agreeable as nuances, that the truth lies somewhere in between, etc. As of course it does, and Denig pulled together a lot of wisdom from some fine thinkers.
But let’s look at an obvious example – brettanomyces. “Brett.” It is generally agreed that, in small quantities, this bacterium can imply a pleasant countrified or “rustic” nuance, an earthiness to certain (red) wines that adds to their atmosphere. A little Brett is OK with me too. But here’s perhaps a subversive question: would we miss it if it weren’t there? Does it really improve a wine? I truly wonder. These are not rhetorical questions to me. I rather think we’ll accept Brett because we want to be the kinds of people who can be “earthy;” it makes us feel more “sensual,” less effete.
As regards the various other flaws (if you don’t like them) or quirks (if you do), they’re usually fine if they make a wine more interesting and animate. Of course one person’s “minor” is another person’s “intolerable.” I had a colleague who reacted violently to VA. He’d recoil from the glass and said it gave him cluster headaches. Once I was drinking one of Guigal’s “La-La” wines and while I thought it was excellent the guy I was drinking it with said it had too much VA.
My own opinion is that in theory a technical flaw can sometimes be attractive, the way a certain angularity can make a human face more appealing. I have my line where Brett is acceptable and when it’s excessive; if I didn’t tolerate a certain amount of VA I’d never drink great Sherry, and I distinguish between positive oxidation (that is, esterization) versus just-plain tiredness. I think that oxidation is a flaw most of the time, but I’ll accept a little if it doesn’t overtake the wine. These are my personal views: my professional views as a selector/merchant are rather more exacting. I don’t want customers to have to “excuse” a flaw in order to gain entry unless the wine is profound in every other way. Which of course is rare.
Obsession with pristine cleanliness can make wines feel denuded and antiseptic. We’ve all had wines like that. But I question the underlying value-judgment that all technically perfect wines result from obsessions about cleanliness. In the world in which I walk, that is almost never true. The secret seems to be to have wines that are technically competent yet also full of charm and life-force and character. That takes some doing on the part of the vintner and more crucially, some understanding on the part of the drinker, because too many current drinkers are repelled from “proper” wines as if by reflex, and while I adore idiosyncratic wines I also think it’s foolish to worship idiosyncrasy as an absolute value.
I also cannot abide reduction, light-struck thiols or H2S in any form. If I notice it, it’s too much. And right about now, readers familiar with spontaneously fermented German Rieslings – spontis, as they are known – are asking “What about those stinkers?” I think that the young H2S stink from such wines is a nuisance, and I’m only partly persuaded that it confers an eventual beauty unavailable by other means. When the young stinkyness fades, I do like what remains, those milk-chocolate and balsam notes make me glad. I only wish it were easier to get there.
I also dislike pyrazines anywhere they don’t belong, and they only belong in Sauvignon Blanc and Scheurebe. Elsewhere it’s usually ladybug, and I detest it.
To conclude, most of the minor flaws may appeal to some drinkers and they’re obviously entitled to their preferences. I myself was blown away the first time I tasted an oxidized wine. The next bottle, which was in pristine condition, disappointed me! That was my ignorance, excusable of course but indefensible on the basis of everyone to his taste, because a taste for mistaken wines implies either inexperience or a skewed view of what wine is for. If a drinker’s approach is along lines of “It’s only rock and roll but I like it,” that’s fine by me. It’s when we get the double-think whereby flaws are defended as virtues and flawed wines are deemed to be more truthful or humane or authentic or soulful or whatever that I start thinking “I didn’t know Kellyanne Conway taught wine classes.”