Is it Terroir or a Wine Fault?

By John ~ August 21st, 2009.

Wine GrapesI always find it interesting when I hear or read someone describe a wine, that I consider to be terrible, as complex or a product of unique terroir. Who is right in a situation like this? Fortunately, in wine, there is no right or wrong answer. It’s what you like that counts.

But be sure to ask yourself, do I like this wine because it is “supposed” to be good according to some expert, because it has developed a cult following through great marketing, or because of a $100+ per bottle price tag? I do not believe that any of the foregoing is a good reason to believe you need to like a certain wine.

In fact, I’ve found several great farmers in Pacific Northwest wine country who are poor winemakers, yet they’ve developed a cult-like following. When you sample their wines, you get a telltale “funk” that they’ll say is unique terroir, but which I believe is a wine fault. In one case it is actually brettanomyces; in another, mercaptans. In other words, it is just sloppy winemaking.

The true test is when you find wines made by other winemakers with virtually the same fruit as those poorly made wines, and they are technically perfect. However, those “perfect” wines may not have the cachet of the faulty wines. Fortunately, I’m already seeing some pushback from consumers away from some of these faulty wines, and I’m sure there will be more who do the same as savvy wine consumers ignore the labels and reputations and really understand the difference between unique terroir and a wine fault.

For those of you who don’t know how to spot some of the common faults, here’s a brief primer:

Brettanomyces – mousy or yeasty
Mercaptans – garlic or onion-like odors
SO2 – burnt matches smell
H2S – rotten eggs
Volatile acidity – rancid butter, sauerkraut, vinegar, fingernail polish remover

If rotten garbage or a dirty locker room smell turns you on, then go for it. Since that doesn’t appeal to me, I’ll leave that “unique” terroir to you, if that’s what you believe it is!

Filed under: General Wine Information

Reader's Comments

  1. Alex Duran | August 21st, 2009 at 7:58 am

    Great comment and once again, not all is terroir!!

  2. Sean | August 21st, 2009 at 11:03 am

    Are you saying that terroir elements in wine are faults, which are the result of sloppy winemaking?

  3. Bas | August 21st, 2009 at 11:20 am

    Terroir is terroir and sloppy winemaking is easy. People mix these up, ask any oenologue.
    Good list! Can you elaborate on the ‘pipi the chat’ phenomenon’. People mix this one up with another winefault, only I can’ t remember which one

  4. John | August 21st, 2009 at 8:53 pm

    Alex, You hit the nail on the head.
    Sean, no I’m not saying at all that terroir elements in wine are faults. My point was that sometimes elements in wine that people attribute to terroir are actually a wine fault.
    Bas, I’m going to have to do some research on “pipi the cat”.
    Thanks to all three of you for your comments.

  5. Jared | August 25th, 2009 at 4:12 pm

    You wouldn’t be intimating that my favorite winery, Cayuse, is in the faulty winemaking business? Since their wines bring on the funk…:)

  6. John | August 25th, 2009 at 9:30 pm

    Jared, As always thanks for your comment. I wasn’t trying to point the finger at any winery in this post, just to help folks discern for themselves between unique terroir and a wine fault. If you believe this might apply to Cayuse, I’ll try to keep that in mind the next time I have one of their wines.

  7. Jared | August 26th, 2009 at 11:30 am

    John, Just giving you a hard time. Christophe is as talented a winemaker as there is and I truly believe his wines exhibit Walla Walla terroir. I just brought Cayuse up because their wines a funk-delicious…For me, at least!

  8. John | August 26th, 2009 at 3:08 pm

    No problem, Jared. Keep the comments coming. I always enjoy them.