Wine faults

By Ian Hickinbotham
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Wine bottles in a South Australian cellar

Wine bottles in a South Australian cellar [©Winepros/]

Ian Hickinbotham, author of Australian Plonky


International wine writing is dominated by the English and a high percentage are Masters of Wine, the qualification based on ability to recognise the regional source and variety of wines respected by oenophiles everywhere.

The dominance is unlikely to be challenged, as increasingly prosperous people of developing countries eagerly seek wine and food knowledge, so they covet the opinions of the established wine writers.

The scenario is rather classical, as history confirms that it has ever been thus. As the wealth of civilisations improve, people turn to interest in food and wine, which we know happened in Australia in our lifetimes and is very current in China now.

The exalted positions attained by some international wine writers causes them to increase the boundaries of their influence and it is when they transgress into actual winegrowing that relevant professionals become disturbed. Unfortunately, such professionals are usually employees of some type and are very reticent to criticise such intrusions for fear of adversely affecting their company’s exporting trade.

I have just read an article by an international wine writer concerning wine faults, and as an oenologist, I found it worrying, to say the least. True, the most common fault of late is ‘corkiness’, but it is actually not a fault of the winemaker’s but the maker of the actual cork used to seal the bottle. However, this fault is no longer ‘universal’, as cork manufacturers have at last addressed the problem, though their tardiness has been a fillip to use of the new sophisticated screwcap closures.

It is claimed that the next most common fault is sulfur spoilage and as an oenologist, I again disagree. But, firstly, and importantly, it is not ‘sulfur’ that is added to wine, it is sulfur dioxide which is formed when sulfur is burned and combines with oxygen, hence the correct words, ‘sulfur dioxide’. Importantly, if ‘sulfur’ was added to wine, development of revolting ‘rotten egg’ smell is the likely consequence.

I further disagree as an Australian oenologist because this ‘spoilage’ is a consequence of poor (or ignorant) winemaking and Australian winemakers are generally qualified, if not the best in the world. The handing down of winegrowing businesses from father to son, so entrenched in the old countries, is not prevalent in this country and rather conversely, being qualified to make wine is of more relevance.

Specifically, for an Australian wine (and it would be a white wine) to have the acrid smell of free sulfur dioxide, excessive use of the additive by the winemaker would be considered the ‘fault’. Thus, where 400 parts per million was a common addition rate when I was an apprentice, a quarter of that rate would be considered a heavy dose nowadays.

The author correctly extrapolates that in mature wines, the sulfur (dioxide) can ‘form sulphide smells’ which, again, we associate with eggs or farmyards. Such a smell can be likened to that of domestic gas because Australian authorities add that chemical, mercaptan, to our gas to ensure we do smell it and take precautions.



Ian Hickinbotham, one of the most innovative and influential oenologists in Australia over his 50 year career, is the author of Australian Plonky (see related reviews below).



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September 15th, 2011
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