Spin and predictions

June 29th, 2009

Burnt rubber.

Burnt rubber.

In a New York Times article about South African wines, Wines of South Africa spokesman, André Morgenthal, is quoted questioning the presence of “burnt rubber” character in South African wines.

…it has not been scientifically proven that the flavor even exists“, says Morgenthal.

The article relates that a team of researchers has been fast at work (late into each night, presumably) trying to understand this phenomenon.

It’s not like the burnt rubber character has not been widely identified as a real sensory finding in South African wines. And it’s not like the character has been understood as a real chemical phenomenon by others (….) or that it has been linked to disulfide flaws (….) or even published anywhere (certainly not summarized here or here).

The flaw is not unique to South Africa (sorry guys, can’t chalk it up to terroir). I’ve detected it in numerous wines from all over the globe. It certainly can be very off-putting, even in tiny amounts. This flaw has been studied in the past. The aroma has been linked to oxidation of ethyl mercaptans resulting in sulfides and disulfides.

So the question now is what to do about it. I don’t mean in the cellar or in the lab. Yes, they could take a critical look at growing and production methods and identify and prevent the causes of this flaw. But Morgenthal’s deliberate dismissal of the presence of this flaw indicates that the South African wine industry rightfully perceives this as an economic threat. What is not acceptable, is a blatant attempt to spin the facts and dismiss a real phenomenon.

Morgenthal is not alone in this spin campaign. Scientist Florian Bauer is doing nothing short of helping cloud the issue. Another case in point of how convenient the “cult of subjectivity of wine” is in deflecting criticism and protecting business.

So here are my predictions for how this will be resolved:

First a mixed cohort of subjects will be selected to “assess” how people perceive this wine flaw. Of course, no screening will be done to separate informed wine assessors from neophytes. It will also be helpful to the cause to not screen the subjects for history of allergies, brain trauma, depression, PTSD or ADHD (all conditions that affect sensory perception). This will result in “evidence” that burnt rubber is not as prevalent (or at least as detectable) as those picky wine critics say it is.

Subsequently, work will be done to identify the cause of the burnt rubber aroma (because nobody has done it yet…). When that substance is “identified”, the results will be trumpeted all over the world and in-boxes will be cluttered with press releases. Lab work will continue to explore ways to alleviate the problem while other “empirical” studies will be conducted (with similarly selected cohorts) to find a sensory thresholds for burnt rubber. These results will further muddy the realm of sensory perception of wine.


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7 Responses to “Spin and predictions”

  1. Jeff Miller Says:

    I have always understood rubber to result from poor winemaking practices, resulting in hydrogen sulfide, which eventually, left unchecked, progresses to disulfides. As well as rubber, disulfides can also manifest themselves as garlic, onion, canned corn, asparagus. So I guess I don’t see what the big mystery is. Especially since it’s pretty easy to avoid in the earlier stages of winemaking. There is some truth to the different effects on different people. I personally don’t mind a little rubber (though I do mind all the others), though I’m definitely in a minority there. And people’s sensitivity to these substances does vary considerably. And, without doubt, these problems are not unique to South Africa. Plenty of this in California.

  2. Thomas Pellechia Says:

    Interesting stuff. My training told me that burnt rubber is one of the aromas of H2S, which can be put here by lack of proper nutrition in the grapes for the particular yeast used to ferment them.

    It’s such a basic situation that I can’t believe they haven’t tested for it, but I also haven’t heard any of them say that they have tested for it.

    Oh, well. I don’t drink enough SA wine to worry about it right now. Maybe when I geta round to drinking more, they will have fixed the problem–or spun it better…

  3. Ron Washam, HMW Says:

    As I said in a previous HoseMaster of Wine post, many people believe wine is aged in oak but, in fact, much of it is aged in Goodyear, Pirelli and Michelin. The Michelin Man is actually a puncheon.

    Or maybe there’s just too much “necklacing” going on in SA.

  4. Arthur Says:

    I am partial to Toyo, medium-plus toast :)

  5. Samantha Dugan Says:

    I find that rubber/tar thing pretty vile, my simple solution is keep drinking French wine. I do know people that claim to find that flavor interesting, of course those are the same people that say they love the smell of bovine fecal matter pleasing…whadda ya gonna do?

  6. Thomas Pellechia Says:


    Have you ever tried to puncture the puncheon?

  7. Galen Struwe Says:

    I can’t even believe I’m reading this.