Faults, Flaws, & Natural Wine
The conventional wine people lovveeee to hate on natural wines, claiming that they're chock full of faults. And, as much as it bothers me to admit, it's not completely untrue. Low-intervention winemaking is more difficult. There's more risk involved. There's no retroactive "corrections," alterations, or any other cheating or tinkering. You really need to be anal af and constantly monitor the chemistry of the vineyard's grapes and the winery's fermenting juice. It's not like natural wine is immune to bad vignerons. So do these wines have faults? Flaws? What's the difference?
Fault vs Flaw: What's the difference?
- Fault = the wine is so fricked up we can deem it undrinkable
- Flaw = the wine is not perfect. There are notes that are not considered normal, but these imperfections are minor and we'll still party with that open bottle.
Critics of natural wine will tell you that it too often has faults that create aromas/flavors reminiscent of a barnyard or a hamster cage. Some of these faults are more prone to minimal intervention, while others are just as likely in conventional wine, but bullies are gonna bully, you know?
So what are these faults?
1. Brettanomyces aka "Brett" is a wild yeast strand that typically needs to be subtle in order to contribute any charm to a particular wine. It is usually described as having the aromas of a barnyard, horse blanket, or band-aid. If you've never sensed it in wine, you may have experienced it with craft beers, particularly sour ales, saisons, and other Belgian beers.
Typically it's more "accepted" in the Old World, while oenophiles in the New World tend to shun it. Many (myself included) consider a chef's kiss of brett to be pleasant, while too much of it can totally takeover and dominate the rest that the wine has to offer.
Brett is not unique to natural and low-intervention wine.
2. Mouse/Mousiness is a fault that is significantly more likely to occur in natural wine. It's not necessarily uncommon, but it's not necessarily common either. (What?!) And it's certainly one of the biggest critiques that dogmatic zero/zero producers receive. It is a bacterial infection that develops when the wine has been exposed to oxygen, often after racking (pouring wine from one vessel to another to remove sediment) or after bottling. When the wine goes back to an anaerobic (no oxygen) atmosphere, its tastes disappear.
It's kind of a confusing fault until you become familiar with it (and hopefully you never do). You can't really smell mousiness until you've taken a sip of the wine. Then, after the wine has been in your mouth, and your senses comprehend wtf is going on, smells/tastes of off-milk, hamster cage, or cracker biscuit may be apparent. And it's really hard to ignore it. Some folks are more sensitive to mouse than others. Lucky for me, I'm not sensitive to it.
Mousiness is significantly more likely to appear in natural and low-intervention wine than it is in conventional.
3. Oxidation and oxidative are NOT the same thing. Let's make that clear.
Oxidation = fault.
Oxidative = style.
Some wine producing regions, like the Jura in France, are known for their oxidative winemaking techniques. So are many fortified wines like Port, Madeira, and Sherry, which are deliberately exposed to oxygen to inhibit certain developed characteristics. Oxidative wines can have flavor parties of fresh nuts, apples, marzipan, toffee, or even caramel. Faulty oxidized wines can smell like sherry (not in a good way) and taste bitter. Oxidized wine is transforming into vinegar.
Oxidative winemaking techniques are simply exposing the wine to oxygen, sometimes for years! Natural wines, especially whites, made with little to no added sulfites (sulfites are a preservative) are more exposed to oxygen, and therefore, more oxidative.
A word on color. White wines get darker and browner as they interact with oxygen. Red wines get lighter in color... like a brick-ish, tawny hue. Keep in mind, when you age wine, it's slowly oxidizing, which is why those old Riesling's have that brownish color (kind of like a sliced apple that you let sit out too long), and those old Barolo's have that brick/tawny color.
Oxidation is not unique to natural & low-intervention wine.
4. Volatile Acidity (VA) is present in virtually all wines. It's not so much a matter of whether or not it's present, it's more so a matter of how much is present. In excess it can smell like a Sharpie marker (yeah I sniff Sharpies sometimes, get over it), nail polish remover, or vinegar. If you're getting into the nerdy math and science of it, a wine can have "unacceptable" levels of VA but still taste great if, for example, there's plenty of aromas to balance everything out.
VA is not unique to natural and low-intervention wine.
5. Ropiness is a very rare fault that you will likely never encounter. When some forms of lactic acid bacteria form a chain, and make the wine unpleasantly viscous and almost oily. Many wines may undergo a period of ropiness before bottling, but time will make them fo back to normal. This can happen in bottle too, but again, the wine will turn back to normal at some point.
Ropiness is way more likely to appear in natural and low-intervention wine than it is in conventional wine.
6. Corked Wine or TCA is probably the most common fault that one might come across. It's actually a fault of the cork rather than the wine itself. The cork (and subsequently the wine) gets contaminated with trichloranisole (TCA), making the wine smell like wet newspaper, wet cardboard, wet dog, or wet wool. So if you ever find yourself waiting tables, and some rich guy who wants to show off in front of his boring friends, says the New Zealand Sauv Blanc with a screw top closure is corked, yes! You should go to the back, laugh, and make fun of him with your fellow hospitality compatriots. And then bring him back the same exact bottle, so he can nod, approve, and say "nOw ThAt'S mUcH bEtTeR." Sound oddly specific? 🤭 🤭 🤭
TCA is not unique to natural and low-intervention wine.
While natural wines may not be perfect, frankly most wines are not. You could even argue that natural wines are perfectly imperfect. They have character, personality, uniqueness. You may open a bottle that's shy and boring only to come back to it the next day, and it's a gregarious extrovert with a plethora of aromas and flavors. After all, it's a living thing, just like you and me. Like people, whether perfect or flawed, enjoying the wine is all that matters. Drink what you like. But maybe purchase some juice from, eh hemmm, rampantwine.com.
Thanks for reading!
-Charlie O'Leary, Founder, Rampant Wine Co.