Telling Gout from Gonorrhoea

February 28th, 2011

Differential diagnosis paradigm. From:

Differential diagnosis paradigm. From:

The past year’s happenings – in my professional and personal lives – have me thinking about the idea of a “differential diagnosis”. In medicine, this refers to a list of the most common possible diseases likely responsible for a particular symptom or complaint. Ultimately, to help the patient, the list must be reduced to one disease process and that must then be treated.

Thus, the title of this post: Both Gout and Gonorrhoea can present to the physician with a single swollen, painful joint. It is up to the clinician to tease out (using history, physical examination and tests) what is ailing the patient and then treat that appropriately.

I recently wrote an article for about the spectrum of North American Aglianico and Montepulciano. In the process of tasting these wines I came across one wine which had been quite well received at an area event (I can’t recall now if that was a competition or a walk-around tasting). While the producers (and sommeliers from the event) describe the wine as “earthy”, the wine reeked of manure. If you’ve worked with cattle, you know the smell.

The odor dissipated somewhat over time but persisted in the wine. I tasted the wines over several days to see how they hold up. At the end of the tasting, I still had about a third of a bottle of each left. I re-corked the bottles and left them in my cellar for a couple of weeks. I checked the wines again, before emptying the bottles and the wine in question still had the off-putting smell. This common with bretty wines: the smell does not blow off.

I had several conversations with the winemaker about this wine. This is not an easy conversation to have when the wine is clearly faulty and flawed. It is even harder to have an open discussion when the wine has enjoyed some measure of success. What I was interested to know was if the cause of the stink was Brettanomyces or some other taint. This is hard to determine when the winemaker prefers the praises of somms (not all of whom are created equal) over my disturbing finding. This was not a faint trace of an aroma or some subtle varietal variation, so I felt we both had something to learn from the experience. Unfortunately, this was not to be.

Following the tasting, I also had several conversations with knowledgeable and experienced winemakers and enologists about this flaw. As a result, I have expanded my “differential diagnosis” of “barny” and similar off odors in wine. Besides Brettanomyces, sulfides and other compounds like putrescine can create these aromas.

In addition to learning to distinguish these by smell, I was reminded to pay attention to pH and other technical information provided. Things like pH, sulfur and nitrogen additions, racking, topping, etc can contribute to the development of certain flaws. These are the additional “signs and symptoms” or the “clinical history” that help narrow down the possible offender.

Just as in medicine, some situations need no further tests to confirm the diagnosis. In other instances, lab testing is necessary to identify the problem from a narrowed-down list. This requires learning, training and experience applied to a systematic and deductive process.

This post has a greater purpose than just academic musings. Certainly, it would be reasonably argued that none of this is relevant to the consumer/enthusiast. The point of this missive is, however, that wine evaluators have several responsibilities: They need to tell their readers not only how the wine smells and tastes but also if it is a sound, quality product, if it will do well with food (and which types of dishes) and if it will hold up to time in the cellar. In the process, evaluators become educators.

A final, perhaps now forgotten, task of the wine evaluator is to feed back to the producer about the wine so that if there are flaws or problems the producer can make changes and adjustments to improve their product. This contribution pertains to correcting flaws and improving integrity of a product, but not style.

Today, the select few evaluators of high influence do not do this. Instead of making informed judgments based on established and closely followed criteria, they rate wines based purely on their tastes and preferences. These, then, are catered to without regard for the consequences on the wine as a consumer good (which should meet some standards of soundness and quality) or the scope of preferences in the market place. And so, wines replete with Brettanomyces and devoid of true varietal character are often rewarded.

While the consumer does not need to, the wine professional should learn to tell the difference between the “Gouts” and “Gonorrhoeas” of wine.


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One Response to “Telling Gout from Gonorrhoea”

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