Finding faults in wines

Judging in an Australian wine show this week has been educational. I've learned many new profanities, some quite elaborate in their obscenity, and none of which are repeatable here. I've been humbled by the drinking stamina of Australian winemakers. I've also seen a new perspective on faults in wine.

As I mentioned in this post, the Australian show system does not tolerate faults. Most of the judges have been through technical winemaking training and are united in criticising wines that display aromas related to volatile acidity, Brettanomyces, rot, and other perceived baddies.

The problem with this approach is that it is absolutist. Identifying any flavour perceived to relate to faultiness means the wine is usually dismissed at once, regardless of its other qualities. Not only that, there is no concession to the possibility that these 'faulty' characteristics might actually be a good thing.

To figure this one out, you need to define what is or is not fault in wine. I think the most liberal and fair interpretation is as follows:

A fault is an aspect of a wine (that is, aroma, flavour or texture) that was not intended by the winemaker.

When tasting a wine blind, that means that there is only one true fault: TCA, or cork taint. Because this is a random infection it cannot be said to be intentional - and besides, no sane winemaker would want this flavour. There are plenty of insane winemakers in the world, mind.

The argument goes that anything else should not be classified as a fault. (The same sort of logic is often applied to gardening: a weed can be defined as 'any plant that you don't want growing there'.) But this interpretation would be unworkable in a wine competition because it would become impossible to make qualitative judgements.

This brings us back to the eternal argument over objectivity versus subjectivity. Regardless of all other factors, influence and intentions, a wine is ultimately assessed on its own merits, as they are perceived by the taster. Yet these perceptions can become homogenised when a group of people have very similar educational and cultural backgrounds. Furthermore, the desire to conform with your peers is a strong force, allowing a consensus to form that is too rarely challenged.

It is for precisely those reasons that international judges are brought in; to contradict embedded preconceptions and offer an alternative perspective. It often puts me in an antagonistic position. Hence the profusion of profanity I've been hearing this week.

Tomorrow is the final day of judging, and I get to elect an International Judge's trophy (alongside my fellow international judge Martin Moran) - that means all the 'faulty' wines I've liked during the week get a second chance!