Appreciating wines that aren't flawless

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Sometimes it's the imperfections that can make a wine great.

Some wines are perfectly imperfect. Photo / Thinkstock
Some wines are perfectly imperfect. Photo / Thinkstock

Mona Lisa's crooked smile; the raw edge to the voice of Maria Callas; the veins of mould threading a blue cheese: these are all examples of imperfection that would be regarded by many as making for a more intriguing product. It's true in wine too: I'm often most excited by wines that walk closer to the wild side.

Modern technology has given winemakers the ability to sculpt their wines to an ideal and polish them to near perfection. Though this has certainly improved the general quality of wine, character can be lost in the process.

What makes a great wine of course is highly subjective, and changes with the times. In Western thought, perfection is often regarded as something flawless and complete and this is echoed in the approach taken in New World winemaking in particular, with its show system based on the eradication of faults.

However, there is a growing assemblage of wine critics and winemakers who question this angle. One of these is Adelaide-based wine judge, ex-sommelier and natural winemaker James Erskine of Jauma, who was raised in this hub of Australian winemaking technology and education.

"Here you grow up to look for faults first before beauty in the wine you could be enjoying," he notes. "The general culture within the industry is almost a witch hunt for faults where a 'good' taster is deemed someone who can pick up faults faster than others, rather than someone who can spot subtle nuances in olfaction."

Even faults themselves aren't always a bad thing, maintains expat Kiwi international winemaker and consultant, Sam Harrop, who in his Master of Wine dissertation explored the controversial yeast, brettanomyces, which some regard as a fault, while others - like him - consider that in moderation can create complexity. He also notes that in some great burgundy wines the "sulphide" component, some pick as a fault could well contribute to their prized mineral character.

"It's not the silicon enhanced Venice Beach-style perfection that I and many of my peers are looking for in quality and maximising potential in our wines," Harrop observes. "It's something that's slightly different that adds personality: if it's too clean and perfect it can be fantastic but not quite as good as something that's slightly flawed."

I agree, as does one of our top winemakers, Felton Road's Blair Walters, who cites the example of the 1990 Chateau Montrose. "It's one of the greatest wines I have tried", he states, despite the fact analysis suggested the presence of a high level of brettanomyces. "This is a classic example of imperfect wines being the more interesting ones."

Don't get me wrong, if a wine reeks of pigsty or rotting cabbage, then faults have spoiled it by swamping its most interesting and individual attribute, the taste of the place where it was grown. But conversely, this can also happen when heavy-handed winemaking erodes provenance by forcing wines into the overripe, oaky mould considered the ne plus ultra by some wine critics and consequently one of the current ideals of vinous beauty.

When appreciating wine, the Western idea of perfection - which derives from the Latin, meaning finished - seems somewhat inappropriate for a product that's constantly evolving as it ages in bottle and even in the glass as it's being drunk. Better suited is the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi, which embodies a more modest kind of beauty, embracing the imperfect, transient and incomplete.

Though vinous airbrushed perfection regularly rings hollow, what fascinates me are wines with soul and real personality.

NATURAL CHARACTER

It could be because organic or biodynamic producers tend to let their wines follow more of their own path that they've been making some of the most characterful examples, like these:

Black Estate Omihi Series Waipara Chardonnay 2010 $32
An enthralling chardonnay of a more edgy cut that's grapefruit and mineral-driven with a hint of white peach and a rich savoury undercurrent. (From Caro's, Glengarry, Village Winery.)

Vindemio Regain par Jean Marot Ventoux 2009 $19.95
This great value biodynamic blend of grenache and syrah combines rich notes of black cherry liqueur with spice and a dynamic minerally undertone. (From wineimporter.co.nz.)

Pyramid Valley Growers Collection Riverbrook Vineyard Marlborough Riesling 2009 $27
An intense, intriguing, ethereally textured riesling that layers acacia honey, honeysuckle, marzipan, lemon, mineral and toasty notes. (From Kemp Rare Wines.)

- NZ Herald

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