Flawless…it pretty much is

Flawless is the latest book by Dr Jamie Goode. It’s slightly unusual. The book is, as its sub-title explains, about understanding wine faults. This is a highly technical subject, but one that is naturally of interest to keen amateurs as well as winemakers and other wine professionals. The question is how to make the subject accessible to those amateurs, and indeed wine pros, who lack a scientific background, whilst at the same time explaining the science, as it stands today, for those who make the stuff.

Flawless is actually a study of faults and taints. Why it is called Flawless, rather than “Flawed” will, I hope, soon become apparent. The distinction between faults and taints is easy to follow. The major faults covered in their own chapters are Brettanomyces (Brett), Oxidation, Volatile Acidity, and Reduction and Volatile Sulfur Compounds. Under taints we have a whole range, including eucalytus and smoke taint, which readers may have come across, although for me, the most important and/or interesting are cork taint (TCA), Ladybug (sic) taint and mousiness (a particular issue with some so-called natural wines).

The author also touches on one taint which is misunderstood, and often completely ignored by producers: light taint. We get just a few pages on light taint, but that’s all it needs. Easy to explain and even easier to avoid, yet Champagne and sparkling wine producers still insist on bottling in aesthetically pleasing clear glass when coloured glass will protect the wine at no extra cost (or faff!). This chapter should come with a free hammer to hammer it home, especially might I say, in Reims and Epernay.

Each of the subjects are covered in quite a bit of detail. The key to the book’s success is how well it explains the difficult science, whilst keeping the casual reader engaged in the wider perspective of the issues. I think Jamie managed to keep me on board almost all of the time, although I have not studied chemistry since the age of sixteen, so this achievement by the author was perhaps something of a feat in itself.

This would be a somewhat pedestrian review if I were to go into any detail about the science and explanations involved. What is more interesting is something the author introduces in the first few pages, something actually quite close to my heart as a lover of this country, the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi.

Put at its simplest, wabi-sabi is a world centred on the total acceptance of transience and imperfection, including the belief that far from spoiling, for example, an object, what is normally perceived as a flaw actually enhances the object, makes it more beautiful. The author uses several examples which show different aspects of the concept.

Take, for example, a walk in the forest. I was transported, when reading the Introduction, to the UNESCO biosphere ancient forest above Nagano in Japan’s Alps, or indeed more recently, on a freezing December day, above Arbois. Imagine the silence. It is so silent that when the birds begin to sing, their song is somehow more beautiful, more profound, than when heard in the bustle and traffic of the town, but we know that the silence will become shattered and the birds will flee.

Another example of wabi-sabi is in music. I love this aspect of the philosophy. The wrong note, whether in Wagner (the famous Liebestod in Tristan is an obvious example), or indeed in pop and rock, can have an unexplained emotional effect which transcends mere musical notation and theory. It’s not always for the good. I know people who almost can’t listen to some music because of its (sometimes dark) intensity, yet others find the same music wonderfully uplifting.

Wabi-sabi applies just as much to people too. Some people prefer conventional beauty, and personality, whilst others see something far more interesting in what others perceive as people’s flaws, especially in the way they look or dress. I sometimes like to think of so-called perceptions of classic beauty as being synonymous with a rigid taste for classic wines (Bordeaux in particular), but that is both unfair and too provocative, and of course I do like fine Bordeaux occasionally.

And so it is with wine faults. Some wines are deliberately oxidative. How many of us have now discovered the fabulous sous voile wines of Jura. What about Brett? A well aged Hermitage with a little brett can be a very (more, even) interesting wine, whilst those of us who like Château Musar have tended to have quite a high tolerance of brett. The reductive matchstick whiff of a Roulot Meursault is something I cherish. Even a modicum of volatile acidity can make a wine somehow more refreshing.

Whilst no one really likes, nor wants, the taints (although Jamie confirms that around 30% of tasters cannot actually taste that very nasty taint, mousiness, and my own experience shows that sensitivity to TCA around a table of wine lovers can vary one hell of a lot), there’s a lot of mileage in the suggestion that so-called wine faults can enhance a wine at lower levels. I think some of the most adventurous, and experienced, wine lovers have felt this for a long time.

What the author has to do in some respects, is to weave a path between what you might call the New World viewpoint, that which suggests any perceived fault (whether perceived by chemical laboratory analysis or by tasting) is to be considered a failure to be eliminated, and perhaps a more nuanced European view.

The classic example of the first approach is that of the Australian Show Judge, whose reaction to any perceived “fault” is the classic “computer says no!”. Their view is very much that European wines have for centuries been riddled with faults, and that the scientific approach of the New World has taught winemakers how it should be done. Of course, the Europeans simply point to the world’s finest wines without feeling the need to comment further.

One of the most controversial “faults” is that which we call minerality. I say “we”, but I know that many writers and wine scientists with a background in plant biology and/or geology get upset at the use of the term. What is most interesting (and enlightening) about the discussion of minerality here is that far from being a result of “soil to glass transfer”, it may actually be a result of reductive winemaking (shock horror).

The idea that minerality could be not something from the vineyard, but something resulting from chemical reactions inside the winery (as Sam Harrop, long time collaborator with Jamie, suggests) , changes the concept completely. It immediately puts minerality up for criticism by those who see reduction as a fault in all circumstances. I adore what I continue to call minerality (for me, a wholly apt sensory description, and not a scientific claim for stg-transfer). I think it can be one of the major complexing factors in wine, and one that can also add refreshment value. But the idea that it might not be the expression of the vine’s underlying geology in the wine is bound to disappoint many.

As I’ve already said, this is a book of science. The author goes deeply (for a lay reader) into the chemistry of what is going on by way of various reactions when these faults and taints affect the wine, although it’s not a true scientific work to the extent that the author does not back up every single contention with a footnote (there are just fewer than sixty footnotes in 214 pages).

Another achievement of this book is the avoidance of “the curse of knowledge”. There’s a really interesting section in Steven Pinker’s 2014 book, The Sense of Style (Chapter 3), where he elaborates on this tendency, which often plagues experts when they don’t remember (in fact, they often can’t possibly conceive) that the level of subject knowledge of the audience may well be way below their own. All writers should read it.

We’ve all been there, myself as a new School Governor faced with dozens of acronyms and a barrage of jargon from the Head Teacher in my first ever meeting. But as my wife rightly pointed out, we are all guilty…in my case using the word petnat at the neighbours recently, occasional wine drinkers who had probably never come close to one before (though at least I didn’t launch into a dissection of the méthode ancestrale versus the méthode traditionelle).

Anyway, Jamie treats us like adults, but he does go to some pains to explain the science without too many digressions into places we ordinary folk can’t follow. Almost without exception, you can read the book as prose, with the argument following a logical progression, so that if we concentrate we stay with him.

There is discussion of what can be done in the winery, from pre-fermentation up to bottling, in order to address these faults and taints. There is also a very interesting discussion of closures, conducted remarkably objectively considering the tone of the debate between cork suppliers and the screwcap manufacturers.

On the other hand, there’s not much discussion of what can be done after opening a bottle that one determines is faulty. I’ve never tried putting a copper penny in wine to rid it of sulfur smells. I have many times (after having been taught this by Wink Lorch) not only carafed a reductive young wine, but shaken it vigorously to get even more oxygen into it. I’d be interested to delve deeper into what happens here because I know it gets rid of reductive elements of most wines if I do this. I just don’t know what else it does to the wine. Things like this are not discussed.

There is some discussion of that thorny subject, natural wine. But not a lot, and here, Jamie plays quite a straight bat with no rash lunges outside the off stump and not a reverse sweep in sight (apologies to readers from non-cricketing nations are due at this point, but I know Jamie is also a big cricket fan). From his other writing, especially on his blog on the wineanorak.com site, we all know that Dr Goode, however much the scientist, is broadly supportive of the natural wine phenomena, and the excitement these wines can bring.

Of course he’s right to steer away from too much discussion of natural wines in the wider context of wine faults. The area is controversial in the extreme, with so much said about the genre which is not wholly based on fact and reality (especially the belief often ejaculated into the debate from some quarters that all natural wines taste of cider). Where there is likely to be prejudice rather than evidence is no place to go in a serious book like this.

So who should read this? Clearly just about anyone making wine who has a good grasp of English. It is also invaluable for a range of wine professionals, including sommeliers, wine buyers, and (of course) wine writers (so we actually have a clue about what we are writing when addressing these issues).

I would also add to this the interested wine lover, or perhaps the passionate wine lover. If the science turns you off, don’t go there, but if you are truly interested to get deeper into what happens inside that liquid as it’s transforming from grape juice into the nectar of the gods (or mere vinegar), then Flawless will not only be interesting, it will be like nothing you have read before.

There are, of course, other books touching on wine science which have been aimed at the ordinary reader. Hugh Johnson paired up with James Halliday in 1992 for “The Art and Science of Wine”, and Bordeaux Professor Emile Peynaud wrote “The Taste of Wine” back in 1983 (English translation, 1987). A quick search on Amazon throws up many more. Even the currently prolific Dr Goode has another book due out on 30 January this year, the Second Edition of The Science of Wine: From Vine to Glass (also University of California Press). But Flawless is unique in addressing in some detail what can go wrong in winemaking, and explaining how, when it does go wrong, it needn’t be the end of the world.

And I do agree wholeheartedly with Jamie when he suggests that wine faults are interesting. He suggests it’s “a rich, nuanced, complicated subject that strays from wine chemistry through microbiology to human perception and quality judgments (sic)”. I think that’s a pretty lucid advertisement as to why a wider audience than merely wine professionals will really enjoy this wonderful book. A book which I think is actually a major achievement. Pretty much flawless. But I shall need to read it a second time for some of the science to sink in more deeply.

Flawless by Jamie Goode was published in late 2018 by the University of California Press. It runs to 214pp and has a rrp of £20 (hardback). It can naturally be found a little cheaper online for those who do not wish to get hold of it via their local independent bookshop.

Flawless has been shortlisted for an André Simon Wine Book Award 2018.

About dccrossley

Writing here and elsewhere mainly about the outer reaches of the wine universe and the availability of wonderful, characterful, wines from all over the globe. Very wide interests but a soft spot for Jura, Austria and Champagne, with a general preference for low intervention in vineyard and winery. Other passions include music (equally wide tastes) and travel. Co-organiser of the Oddities wine lunches.
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3 Responses to Flawless…it pretty much is

  1. amarch34 says:

    It’s next to my bed, ready to read next. Looking forward to it, a fascinating subject


  2. frankstero says:

    I am refraining from reading your review until I’ve finished the book and written my own review!

    Liked by 1 person

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