What does a wine reviewer say when they encounter a wine with a wine fault? The answer depends on who the audience is for the reviews. For the most part, wine reviews are for public consumption, and with the greatest kindness, the general consumer is unaware of the presence of wine faults, while being more in tune with stylistic balances which result in their ‘liking or not liking’ a wine.
There is the case and indeed a responsibility for wine reviewers to educate and bring to the attention of general consumers and the public that faulty wines do in fact occur and are seen in and released on the marketplace. Following this scenario, wine reviewers should point out oxidation, reduction, volatility and the likes of brettanomyces and microbial spoilage.
If the audience is more industry-geared, and includes winegrowers, winemakers and marketing people, then the reviewer should be more specific in their identification and reporting of wine faults. After all, it’s for their benefit and the betterment of the industry.
What to do about Brett?
At Raymond Chan Wine Reviews, my audience is both industry and general consumer oriented. I have been pondering the issue of how the report and describe brettanomyces in particular, but other wine faults concern me too. At present, I am using euphemisms such as “funky”, “meaty”, “game-like”, “farmyardy” in my descriptions of this wine fault. Those readers with any inkling of what brettanomyces is will recognise these descriptors, understand, and avoid these wines.
For many wine drinkers, including wine industry people, such aromas and flavours of brettanomyces are tolerated to varying degrees and in fact enjoyed by some. My approach in describing brettanomyces is a kind and holistic one at present. My scores and star-ratings reflect this approach too. My mission statement at Raymond Chan Wine Reviews is that “I look on the bright side of wine”. To that effect, I truly believe that the vast majority of wines show positive and less than positive characteristics to some degree, but I try to focus on the good things of any particular wine.
In the final analysis, my descriptions and ratings are an assessment of how a wine will appear, taste and appeal in a general and overall sense. I’m not ‘black or white’ and my judging, tasting and selling experience over the decades has provided me with a point on the scale of ‘grey’ where to pitch a wine. That is why a wine that will be ‘thrown out’ in wine judging might achieve a 4-star rating at Raymond Chan Wine Reviews.
Perception and Goal Posts
The same philosophy also applies to other wine faults. It is important to recognise two further aspects on the matter. Firstly, my reviews are based on my perception, thresholds and recognition of these faults. Being a sole taster, I have my strengths and weaknesses, and I’ll admit that I’m less perceptive of volatility than other tasters. I’m also tolerant of high SO2 levels, as most of the wines I taste are new and fresh bottlings! I’ll also state that I’m a consumer judge, and my understanding and recognition of faults has developed slowly through wine judging. I’m more a ‘style judge’ with a broad experience of wines of the world, rather than a taster honed on winemaking technique.
Secondly, the goal posts are continually changing on some of these faults. Brettanomyces was not understood properly until the mid-1980s. Before then, it was seen as complexity or ‘terroir’, and usually in a positive light! We now see a greater acceptance of sulphide reductive characters. I was trained to see reduction as a definite fault; nowadays many use the term ‘noble sulphides’! Winemakers and judges are developing more critical and finer-tuned acceptance and rejection points for reduction and its effects on a wine.
There will come a time when I’ll have to use wine fault terms such as brettanomyces and oxidation in my reviews. As the general consumer becomes more educated, they will be more aware of faults, and as a reviewer, as mentioned above, it’ll become a responsibility. I’m not sure when this turning point will come to Raymond Chan Wine Reviews. I’ll need to discuss this with other reviewers such as Sam Kim of ‘Wine Orbit’ and Bob Campbell MW of ‘The Real Review’. At present, I’m not aware of any reviewer in the public domain in New Zealand who reports wine faults as such in their reviews apart from Geoff Kelly of ‘Geoff Kelly Wine Reviews’. Some reviewers will be and need to be very critical. Others will have a softer approach, such as I take at present. Are reviewers ready to do so? Are the public ready?