If a characteristic can be applied to any wine, no matter where it is from or what it is made of, how do we value it? Are generic flavours ever interesting or worthwhile?
This is a particularly thought-provoking question for those of us interested in Traditional Method Sparkling Wine, which deliberately adds flavour through induced, repeatable processes. Robert Walters, the author of Grower Champagne manual Bursting Bubbles, doesn’t think that the Maillard reaction, for example – toasted and caramelised flavours that he links to the sugar addition at dosage – is worth much. He quotes his friend wine consultant Dominique Denis:
‘Sugar is like the fourth musketeer of Champagne: there’s only supposed to be three: Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Meunier. Then you read the book and find out, to your surprise, that there is in fact a fourth musketeer and, even more surprisingly, that he plays a major role in the story!’
Walters has learnt to recognise a flavour of process, and now finds it intrusive. Is this fair? Or can we be triggered into forming opinions by generic flavours that we pluck out of context?
This is an area where personal taste matters. I know I have mine, and I also know that I have to keep re-assessing whether my reactions are reasonably fair and balanced. None of these flavours have hard boundaries, and we only really interpret them as combinations with other elements. Wine is more than the sum of any of these parts, but it is still useful to to take it apart and use this knowledge to reflect on our own reactions.
This is particularly true if we are trying to judge its quality. Is this wine really flawed/superb or does it just display a character I associate with other flawed/superb wines? When I return to a wine with the feeling that I misjudged it the first time, this is usually the culprit.
A Very Personal Run-Down
There’s a lot of ‘I’, here, but when it comes to flavour it makes sense to talk in the first person.
New oak is an obvious flavour. It is also delicious. We bemoan its dominance in wines, but it would be a hard heart that always recoiled at the slightest whiff. An observation; people that complain about overt oakiness in still wines sometimes don’t notice it in sparkling wines! Perhaps we mistake it for Maillard flavours? Or because we don’t think to look for it?
I usually find high levels of sweet new oak (and even new-ish oak) distracting in champagne and sparkling wine. It also doesn’t tend to integrate over time in the same way that we think of in still wine. But those arguments are for another time…
Verdict: Gets a pass if used as part of a genuinely long-lived style. Otherwise, flashy.
Volatile Sulphur Compounds (VSCs) and ‘reductive’ aromas –
Winemakers have broadly understood how to hone and cultivate some of these flavours for a while now. The classic example is the ‘matchstick’ or ‘gunflint’ aroma, which is found in more and more moderately-priced still wines. It can provide some distraction, although it can seem a bit ‘bling’ in basic wines, to me at least. Great wines manage to incorporate reductive qualities with more elegance.
Sparkling wines cannot be made without the reductive environment of lees-ageing, but this does not mean that they always show reductive characters. These are still usually cultivated, to some extent. I would argue that there is a generic reductive ‘signature’ in sparkling wine, found especially in long-aged blanc de blancs and magnums. It doesn’t seem ‘tacked on’ in the best Traditional Method wines; it sits comfortably in the complex crowd of flavours that arise through bottle fermentation, autolysis and disgorgement. Even the SO2 addition at disgorgement can add to it!
Verdict : it’s about how you wear it, darling
I’m staying clear of the M world – minerality – but I will say a word about ‘saltiness’. It often strikes me as a generic term that people use to describe wines that show some combination of mild oxidation, phenolic grip, and…well, the buzz around the water cooler is all about succinic acid at the moment. Yeast behaviours are responsible for the formation of this weak, bitter and slightly salty-tasting compound. Whatever it is, it can be an interesting element to a wine, but I’d stop short of automatically declaring a great terroir whenever I taste it. How interesting it is depends on how interesting the rest of the wine is.
There are kinds of stoniness, chalkiness, flavours that seem carbonic…things that a bit more mysterious, ethereal almost. The lines are blurry. But as I drink a very cool, acclaimed Grüner Veltliner that appears dull and pudgy at heart despite being dressed up in this sort of lightly-oxidative, salty coating, I wonder if it is easy to get seduced. I saw someone write the words saline acidity recently. What does that mean? Perhaps this will soon be one of those words that goes out of fashion.
Verdict: Part of some great wines, yes. A sign of a great wine? Probably not.
These are straight from hell, where Satan is almost certainly sucking on peardrops. The product of cool fermentation, especially with certain yeast strains, these banal, confected fruit flavours are seen in poor Prosecco and rushed or cynical Traditional Method sparkling wines. They are perhaps a necessary evil in cheap wines, where ‘fruitiness’ has to be added in the cellar if lacking in the grape material itself. Disappointing to find in high-end wines.
Sometimes oxidation can seem quite exciting. The toughness, nuttiness and bitterness it brings is heavy, though, so it needs fuel to propel it. Sugar and/or alcohol usually work, together with lowish acidity (i.e. tawny port, amontillado sherry). Wines can be made with oxidative processes that nevertheless avoid flavours of oxidation by the time they are in bottle.
I have a theory: some people to oxidation as a marker of seriousness. It triggers them, in quite a guttural, instinctive way (I wonder whether there is some kind of physiological reasoning behind this!?). Those of us that are wary of oxidation need to take this into account. I almost always find oxidation frustrating in sparkling wine, which has neither enough sugar, alcohol or flavour intensity to ride out the sort of gnarly, heavy energy it brings. Oxidative flavours just seem, to me, to jar with very dry, high-acid styles.
Verdict: Marmite. Divisive, but not worth losing friends over
Now here’s an interesting one. Anyone can age their wines on lees. Red, white, sparkling, whatever. So is it a boring flavour? No. I don’t think so. It is subtle, textural and, in the case of sparkling wine, a breeding ground for compounds that will do interesting things later in life.
Can you overdo it? I think so. Most of the sparkling wines that feature heavy-handed autolytic characters seem to be those that have seen a lot of action before bottling – perhaps long ageing on primary lees with bâtonnage. If autolytic characters get too broad in sparkling wines, winemakers either disgorge the bottles or turn them on their heads to reduce the surface area in contact with the lees (ageing sur pointe).
Verdict : Yeast, in death as in life, are always fascinating
Caramelised flavours. These are largely – but not exclusively – developed after disgorgement (edit – thanks Tom Stevenson for pointing to ongoing research in this complex area. Something I hope to report more on!).
How we get on with these flavours comes down to personal taste. Some producers aim for a very biscuity, caramelised style and work to achieve this from the beginning. Other wines seem to take forever to develop these characters.
I agree with Walters that some wines use them to mask deficiencies elsewhere. I don’t agree, however, that finding rich, toasty characteristics is always boring. In good wines these are part of the whole picture: filters through which other flavours are sent, mirrors on which other flavours are reflected. They are only maquillage – make up – when there’s something to hide.
Verdict : Delicious enough to arouse suspicion.
Where do we stop?
Is it even possible to assign some flavours as ‘natural’ and others as ‘unnatural’? The waters get murky when we start talking about the effects of yeast strain, malolactic fermentation and perhaps even Noble Rot formation on grapes for dessert wines. Those of us with unhealthy interests in wine flavour can learn to spot these characters without being blinded by them. Open-mindedness always rests on a tiny speck of naivety, even if we have to suspend some of our knowledge to maintain it.
Unless, of course, we get a glassful of peardrops and almond essence. In which case the sink is the only way out.