“What do you think about Wine Number 4?”
The scene is repeated constantly in wine competitions around the world. Judges lift a glass containing an unidentified wine. They swirl it, raise it to their nose, and then notice something unpleasant, a little off—or even a lot.
The issue will mainly be one of three kinds: cork taint, oxidation or reduction, or Brettanomyces a distant third. In all cases, the wine is much less pleasant than it should be, sometimes to the point of being undrinkable. According to statistics from the International Wine Challenge, a major international wine competition held every year in London, England, over 6 percent of all wines judged between 2006 and 2010 were deemed faulty by the judges.
That’s a lot of faulty wines.
Whatever the prevalence, it’s easiest when the wines are obviously faulty, because then they can be readily dismissed. The tough part is when things are more unclear.
If a young Bordeaux blend feels a bit drying and flat, for instance, is it just the dusty character of some Cabernets, or perhaps tannins in need of a little time—or is it low-level TCA? More and more studies are showing that TCA, even below the sensory thresholds at which most people will be able to identify it, will dull fruity aromas and alter perception of the wine as it affects olfactory receptors.
Is the jammy, cooked fruit character of another red a stylistic choice, an effect of a hot vintage, or a matter of excessive exposure to oxygen in the bottle (or even just at bottling)? If oxygen comes in contact with a finished wine at higher levels than it should, whether during cellar storage or in the bottle, the effects on the wine’s expression can be quite dramatic.
At the other end of the spectrum, some winemakers like to make their Chardonnays a bit reductive, which results in a struck match or flinty character. But when that character tends to take over the aromas, is it because the wine is too young and will show better later, or was there a problem with the way the wine was handled in the cellar?
These are the questions that trained professionals with considerable experience will ask themselves as they are judging wines. If in doubt, they will send back the bottle and get another one to compare, giving the wine another chance. Sometimes, though, they may just think a wine is unremarkable and give it a low mark—which means a winery went through all of the trouble and expense of entering the wine essentially for nothing.
This kind of reaction becomes even more important in the marketplace. The vast majority of customers will probably not bother with the questions that go through professionals’ heads. Only a minority of wine buyers have the expertise to clearly identify the problem in the first place.
At lower levels of faultiness, where even judges might have a hard time identifying a problem, an occasional wine drinker may not understand what is going on and just decide never to buy that wine again because it didn’t live up to expectations. Which then means that a winery went through all the trouble of making the wine, bottling it, and sending it into distribution, without reaping the results it expects.
In short, it’s crucial that the wine be handled in a way that will avoid wine faults and ensure that the wine performs reliably and consistently. That includes taking care in the winery (use of neutral gases, care in moving wine, proper sulfite levels, etc.), but also using proper closures at bottling and ensuring proper storage afterwards. After all, quality and reliability are among the best marketing tools a brand can have.