It's not normally the job of this column to regale you with the horror stories of wines tasted on your behalf. While wine writing is the job everyone except my teetotal aunt wants, especially those who don't regard it as a job at all, it does have its pitfalls, and sorting out the wheat from the chaff is one of them.
So it was that along with a group of journalists, educators and wine-trade buyers, I found nose, palate and ego being road-tested on a challenging wine course put on by the Australian Wine Research Institute (AWRI) aimed at training Australian wine-show judges.
As a prelude to the big test, Con Simos, the course instructor, reminded us that the stats from one of last year's biggest consumer competitions showed more than six in every 100 wines as faulty. Of those six-plus bottles, three of them suffered from cork taint, 1.5 from wine's equivalent of athlete's foot, known as brettanomyces, or brett. Knowing your onions then, or at least being able to sniff them out, was a pre-requisite for the job in hand.
In the morning session, the AWRI had kindly spiked 11 white and 11 red wines with chemicals representing the commonest wine faults, with the exception of one unspiked wine, to see if we could spot the clean one. Actually, Mr Simos suggested we didn't taste the wines but just smell them, a good idea given the number of horrors that emerged. These were wines, no part of which you would wish to put anywhere inside your body.
Cork taint, or TCA, was there, as expected, giving off a mouldy cardboardy aroma, but there was also a wine which smelt corked, but had a screwcap. This was thanks to a similar compound, TBA, an infection from warehouses and cellars.
We also found brett, the character giving off a horsey odour, a problem which can be rife in ripe wines with high levels of alcohol coming into contact with oak. And so it went on and on: bruised apples and pears from acetaldehyde, caged mice from a "mousy" compound, geranium from sorbic acid, onions from mercaptan, rotten egg from hydrogen sulphide, nail-polish remover from ethyl acetate and vinegar from acetic acid.
Cork taint has a zero tolerance, but brett, and some other faults, have a threshold of acceptability. In fact, some people even seem to like a bit of horse in their wine. The dividing line between what's acceptable and what's not can be a subjective one and it was interesting to see that some tasters are more susceptible to certain taints than others.
I'm sensitive to cork taint, for instance, less so to sulphur, which has some tasters gasping and coughing like asthma victims.
The rest of the day was spent testing the accuracy of our palates by blind tasting, evaluating and scoring 20 white wines and 20 reds that had been awarded a gold, silver or bronze medal or commended in this year's International Wine Challenge. So far so good, until we found out that each wine was repeated. Since each wine had its pair in both whites and reds, our suitability as judges depended on how consistently we were able to match each wine with its pair. The AWRI took away our scores to let us know if we passed our MoT (Master of Tasting). A daunting prospect, the results of which I promise to put up on my site.