Matt Kramer’s article articulating 5 fundamental rules of wine continues to bother me. Recently, I took issue with his claim that expression of place is always the primary aim of quality wine. This week his second fundamental rule strikes me as equally misguided.
A Wine Has Got to Be Clean. I can’t put it more plainly than that. How can a wine possibly meet its highest calling of expressing its place if that expression is distorted or obscured by one or another winemaking flaw?…But if that sought-after purity is besmirched by unclean or off flavors or by the presence of brettanomyces (a yeast that creates a musty, funky odor in a finished wine) or by noticeable volatile acidity (think vinegar), well then, the very purpose and intent of “natural” has been defeated hasn’t it?
There are some flaws that must be avoided at all costs. Corked wines or maderized (cooked) wines are never pleasant. No one wants to smell rotten egg or burnt rubber aromas from certain sulfur compounds. But some of the most intriguing wines in the world have minor flaws that give them character. Brettanomyces and volatile acidity are flaws if too excessive but in the right proportion produce wines of interest and depth. Some of the best of Bordeaux such as Petrus often have subtle brett aromas, traditional Northern Rhone Syrah such as Ogier (when it was a father and son operation) employs Brett to good effect. Volatile acidity, another wine flaw, is the hallmark of some great Barolo’s giving them a balsamic vinegar note. Volatile acidity and Brett together make the Lebanese wine Chateau Musar one of the most sought after wines in the world. Too much exposure to oxygen makes a still wine smell like sherry, but just the right amount of oxidation gives both reds and whites an appealing nut-like aroma.
Kramer’s judgment seems to presuppose rule #1 that vineyard expression is the highest calling of the winemaker. We could argue about whether the presence of Brett or VA always diminishes the vineyard character of a wine. But even if we accept that premise, as I argued in the previous post, there is no reason to think that is the only approach to wine quality.
Kramer is of course aware of these controversies about brett and volatile acidity. He apparently prefers wines with no hint of these “flaws”. All well and good. But to make this a fundamental principle of all quality winemaking requires an argument which he has not supplied.
There is nothing wrong with clean wines and any successful winemaker must know how to control the so-called “flaws” to make sure they aren’t too prominent. But by insisting that all wines must strive to be clean is a recipe for boredom and a failure to recognize the variety of expressions of which wine is capable. Why make wine less than what it can be?