Popular Wines / Popular Music
Music that hits the charts often tends to be music that is popular by the dictionary's definition, “intended for or suited to the taste, understanding, or means of the general public rather than specialists or intellectuals.” There are wines that are like this too; reliable, pleasing and sometimes excellent wines that you can’t stop thinking about, not dislike Coldplay, Ed Sheeran or Adele. Popular wines have few or no quirks.
Breakthrough Wines / Breakthrough Music
Some wines become famous for being excellent and a little different; they are wines that push boundaries and challenge conventions. They are often even described as “rock star” wines, and this is no coincidence. These are the QUEEN, the Donna Summer, the Billie Eilish wines of the world. They are even like the Monteverdi wines of the world, as wine journalist Felicity Carter suggested. Without Monteverdi, we might not have opera as we know it today. In the wine world, there are wines like these too. There are certain wines that break down doors, paving the way for other wines to emerge too. These tracks, like these wines, have anywhere from some to several quirks.
Underground Wines / Underground Music
Then, there are wines that are unlike wines you’ve ever had before. They may surprise you, or even be challenging at first, but they may become the wines that you obsess over for months on end. This compares to underground electronic music, punk rock, or even metal. Acts like Burial, The Libertines and John Cooper Clarke spring to mind. Underground wines, like underground music, have many quirks.
& into the Obscure…
These are the wines and the tracks that at first, you might struggle to comprehend. You may grow to love them, or you may hate them at first sight. They are divisive. In music terms, think the melodic and totally entrancing Aphex Twin, or the clashing, emotional screams of Enter Shikari. There is even the downright weird Merzbow that makes you wonder, “is this even music?!” Wine can be like this too; with their own liquid version of nonsensical lyrics and genre blends. Obscure wines, like obscure music, are full of quirks.
… so what are these quirks, in wine terms?
There are many stylistic decisions that can affect a wine’s personality and taste, for example different vessel choices and skin contact. These can also add quirky characters. However, there is also a whole world of microbiology and nature that can alter a wine’s ethos.
Sometimes, a fault is just a fault.
However, taste, like music, is subjective. Wine faults (and how to measure them) remain an extremely grey area, and the law is arguably outdated in certain regions and countries.
We could argue that certain unmeasurable “faults” are in fact only deemed faults due to societal conventions. Other “faults,” that are measurable, should perhaps be considered in a different light; as these faults have the capacity to add character to a wine, and in some cases the fault in question can entirely dissipate with time. These might be better referred to as “quirks.”
So what causes these quirks?
Human beings have been conditioned by recent wine society to believe that wine, in particular white wine, should be clear. However, if someone pulls out an old bottle of Bordeaux, dark and fuzzy in colour, with so much sediment at the bottom of the bottle that you have to leave a quarter of a glass behind in the bottle, that’s perfectly acceptable, right?
Right. White wine, and particularly skin contact wine, may also appear cloudy simply if they have been left unfined and unfiltered, much like apple juice, and it is nothing to be afraid of and should never be classified as a fault. Unfined and unfiltered wine may also be crystalline clear; but generally this is the case for wines that have been left to naturally deposit their sediment over a long period of time.
“Garrigue” is a French word used to describe the herbal and floral elements often found in wines from regions where vineyards share their soil with other plants such as rosemary, thyme and lavender. It is caused by plant oils travelling through the air and settling on berries. It adds immense character, and one wonders whether there might be a deeper connection between the plants via their root systems. Some of the most famous are wild thyme and lavender, particularly found in southern French wines, and in Australia, eucalyptus, for example found in Coonawarra Cabernet. Here, it adds gorgeous subtle minty tastes, and arguably helps to define the wine.
This is not seen as a taint or flaw: rather the opposite; although coming from "MOG" (Material Other Than Grapes), it brings another dimension to the wine.
However, if a lot of "MOG" ends up in your harvest bins, it can dominate the wine. Eucalyptus is famous for “contaminating” wines like this.
Without Kingdom Fungi, we would not have wine. Yeasts are often friends, both in the winery and in the wine. However, in certain cases, they may begin to dominate and “take over” a wine; a little like if you put far too much cinnamon in a dish and then all you can taste is cinnamon.
This is also commonly known as “Brett”, (making it pretty unfortunate for anyone working in the wine trade whose first name is Brett).
In small doses, Brett is not an enemy. It might be Brett’s subtle presence that makes some wines great, adding spicy complexity, savoury elements and warming leathery notes.
However, when Brett dominates a wine, it elbows any pleasant fruit notes out of the way, and takes centre stage. The leather notes are no longer subtle, instead dominating, and the wine can taste almost like a sweaty towel after your gym workout. It is most common in red wines with higher pH levels, but it can also appear in other wines.
Volatile acidity (VA for short)
What? Why is it volatile? Is the wine going to change suddenly on me?! Can I not trust it!? No… not that kind of volatile. This refers to the scientific definition of volatile, which means evaporated vapour (thus detectable by your nose) at room temperature. It is either caused by acetic acid bacteria, or from ethyl acetate, which is produced by esterification of acetic acid.
In large doses, acetic acid bacteria makes the wine taste like vinegar. Not only does it taste like vinegar, but in fact it is becoming vinegar; this is how it is made. Meanwhile, ethyl acetate smells pungently of nail varnish. If something happens in the winery and these aromas become overbearing, they can be fixed using many different methods.
However, in small doses, volatile acidity can actually add great character to a wine; it acts as a lift and can help an otherwise rich or alcoholic wine seem much more fresh. In some examples, you would not even realise that the wine has any volatile acidity whatsoever, because it can bring balance.
Mouse taint is actually somewhat of a misleading term, but it seems to have stuck. Some refuse to use it, because it gives the impression that a mouse has somehow been involved. Jean-Pierre Frick says,
“There’s been a lot of discussion in recent years about mouse taint. Firstly, I don’t call it that, nobody has eaten a mouse so it’s stupid. It just muddles the message. Organoleptically, if you blind taste the wine, you can actually compare it to rice, basmati rice - or foie gras - and other food tastes like that, but not a mouse! This might appear because there is no sulphur used, and there is oxygenation at bottling.”
In French, it is also known as “le gout de souris;” the taste of the mouse. Who wants to eat a mouse? In the worst instances, it really tastes how you would imagine a dead mouse to taste, or a hamster’s cage. In the best instances, it may present itself as the taste of “cheese cracker;” savoury, or like oatmeal. With air, it deteriorates, until the wine is undrinkable.
Perhaps the most shocking part of this taint is that you cannot smell it, nor can you taste it on first sip. The bacteria that cause it are only detectable at a certain pH level, so once the saliva of your mouth has raised the pH of the wine, BOOM: squeak.
Mouse taint, although documented as far back as 1891, has boomed in recent years. Some winemakers believe it to be an entirely new strain of bacteria or yeast. Most commonly, it seems to be caused by various members of the Lactobacillus family.
The most likely explanation for its sudden prevalent squeakiness is due to many factors; primarily a rise in pH level, perhaps due to global warming, and many winemakers using no sulphur (or very little). Some fortunate people cannot detect it at all, due to genetics, so if you are a winemaker who cannot detect mouse taint, that is perhaps not ideal.
It is under-researched. However, it has been noted that it can disappear entirely with time. Many winemakers believe it may appear as a reaction to bottling; “bottle shock”; and that if the bottle is left to rest over time, it may disappear. In addition, it may be a case of bottle variation.
So, if you’re unfortunate enough to experience a wine that squeaks, be patient and wait a while to open the next one.
Ropiness / Oil sickness / Maladie de la Graisse
“What?!” You cry. “My wine can taste like a dead mouse and be sick with a disease called Oil Sickness?!”
It is very rare in wine, although fairly common in sour beers. Via a bizarre process, certain bacteria form long carbohydrate chains, which make the wine thick, gloopy or viscous, almost like olive oil. Ageing can resolve this problem. If the problem needs to be resolved quickly, the chains can also be broken down simply by moving the wine from tank to tank or barrel to barrel, or alternatively with intense batonnage.
Reduction vs Oxidation
An enormous topic; but the key word here is oxygen. A wine devoid of contact with oxygen will enter a “reductive” state, versus a wine in contact with oxygen will enter an “oxidative” state. Reduction expresses itself in various ways; when subtle it can help to create some of the finest white wines in the world (white Burgundy is a good example), but it can also make a wine positively stink of cabbage and sewers.
Meanwhile, oxidation plays a key role in some white wine styles (for example the famous vin jaune of the Jura, various sherries, as well as iconic Spanish wines such as Viña Tondonia). However, in cases where oxygen is not wanted, it can wreak havoc, causing fruit notes to entirely disappear.
Wine Diamonds (Tartrate Crystals)
Last but not least, we have perhaps the weirdest quirk; things that crunch and sparkle.
“Help! There are weird little things at the bottom of my glass of white wine that look like bits of plastic, or even shards of glass! What’s going on? Are they dangerous?”
These bizarre little things that might appear at the bottom of your glass do indeed look like shards of glass; they are even nicknamed “wine diamonds.” They are completely harmless, and are either formed during vinification or when a bottle is exposed to 0°C or below. If you have ever left a bottle of white or rose wine in the freezer and forgotten about it, then defrosted it, you will most likely find that these “diamonds” have formed at the bottom of the bottle.
Your wine might sparkle. It may have scents that you’ve never come across before; scents that come from the plant world. Or, there might be a tiny microorganism party happening in your glass that you can’t see. Whatever the cause may be, it’s refreshing to know that some aspects of wine are out of our control; they are little gifts from nature to us via the medium of wine.