Flaws in are a lot like flaws in people. Sometimes they can be small differences that make a wine distinctive and exciting, and other times they can be so overpowering you want to storm out of a restaurant yelling about how you don’t know what you ever saw in that wine to begin with (!). Unlike flaws in humans, though, we don’t usually have to deal with wine flaws every day, which makes them harder to spot. Here’s how to recognize some of the most common wine flaws and understand how they’re affecting your wines, for better or for worse.
Flaws vs. Faults
It may seem like I’m splitting hairs here, but wine flaws and wine faults are two different things. A wine flaw is considered a minor flavor or characteristic that isn’t “normal” for a wine, but doesn’t bust in and crush the rest of the wine’s flavor profile. Some people find flaws make a wine more unique and delicious, others find it distracting or downright not good.
It’s important to understand and be able to recognize flaws in wine because these flaws are often mistaken as a flavor of a specific varietal or the wine’s terroir (that fancy French word for the environment where a wine is produced including the soil, climate, and surrounding vegetation). There was a good six months of my life I thought that all wines from the Loire tasted like barnyard. It turns out, I was just drinking wines that had a lot of Brettanomyces, a yeast that has nothing to do with the Loire. Too much of a flaw, like Brett, can cover up all the other flavor characteristics of a wine—the grape, the terroir, the winemaker’s techniques. When a flaw becomes so pervasive that it is all you taste, that flaw is now considered a fault.
When it comes to picking out flaws and/or faults, all you have to do is taste wine. This is a little different than drinking it, because if you’re slugging back glasses, you may miss some things—both good and bad! Always take a moment to be present with your wine. Get your nose in there and give it a good whiff, and take a couple concentrated sips without scrolling through your feed.
Now let’s talk about those flaws.
Symptoms: Generally, smells and tastes like a barnyard—manure, stables, sweaty saddles, gamey meats, and also sometimes Band-Aids.
Brettanomyces is a type of yeast and is mostly known around town as “Brett.” Yeast is everywhere. Seriously, it’s naturally all over the place—in the air, on the grapes, in barrels, in the winery itself—meaning Brett can get into a wine at any point while making it. Too much Brett can make a wine taste like it was poured off the backside of a horse, but many people find small amounts of Brett in wine (and even beer) a positive thing that can enhance dark, brambly fruit flavors and also elevate floral notes, like jasmine.
Symptoms: Wine will have a finish that leaves your mouth feeling like a dirty mouse cage. It’s not exactly a taste, but more of an odor sitting in your mouth that you can taste. Like an “air” of something, but that something is, no joke, a urine-soaked sawdust cage full of mice [shivers]. It can also have notes of old cured meats, or the breath of my thirteen-year-old Pomeranian whose teeth are starting to rot out.
If you didn’t glean it from the descriptors above, mouse is pretty gross. Most common in made without added , mouse is particularly pesty for a couple reasons. First, what causes mouse to begin with is still constantly debated—some say it’s from lactic acid, some say it’s from Brett, some think it’s from the wine sitting too long with the lees (dead yeast cells that settle after fermentation). Second, mouse is very rarely detectable by smell because its compounds only become perceivable when the pH of the wine changes, like when it mixes with your saliva and suddenly your whole mouth tastes like the time your class pet died over the weekend.
Some people say that mouse is something that can subside with bottle aging, although once you open a wine and find out it’s mousy, that’s not very helpful. Mouse often becomes more apparent the longer the bottle is open, so don’t be surprised if something that tasted great when you first opened it, tastes like wet hamster bedding after an hour (or tragically, sometimes in 20 minutes). If a wine tastes mousy, you should stop drinking it because that horrible finish sticks around for a while and you don’t want it ruining the taste of your dinner, or worse, your next wine.