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stirring the lees with james molesworth

My Old Friend Brett

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Nov 7, 2007 8:41am ET

George Brett was the most feared hitter of his generation, next to Mike Schmidt. He’s not the brett I met on this trip, however. No, that brett is brettanomyces, a spoilage yeast that typically infects old, unclean barrels and results in (depending on the strength of its presence) either faintly sweet or downright nasty barnyard odors.

My favorite moment in the long and tangled history of brett came at a group tasting of Rhône wines, all served blind. A rather funky red wine was being poured for the crowd and much debate ensued about the wine, which had split the room right down the middle into an equal number of "yeas" and "nays." A brave but clearly nervous attendee finally got the courage to raise their hand to ask, “You mean, the wine is supposed to smell like s&*t?”

When it comes to Rhône reds, flavors and aromas of game have always been accepted. When they became too severe in a wine, they were typically explained as coming from the terroir. That lazy, apologist route has since been easily debunked: Brett is a flaw, plain and simple. And that‘s coming from a Rhône lover.

But is it a flaw at any level? And with people having different thresholds of tolerance for flaws, when does a delicate beauty mark above the lip become a disfiguring scar?

As one vigneron told me, “All wines have flaws. It’s just a question of whether or not one particular flaw outweighs the wine as a whole.”

I’ve met brett a few times on this trip, notably in a 1989 Côte-Rôtie from Bernard Burgaud, which he opened during my visit a few days ago. He served it blind (I guessed ’83) and in the discussion that followed he openly admitted that it had brett. He also detailed his efforts to eliminate the problem in his wine since then (and I think his current vintages are excellent). The wine had aged well. It was supple in texture (brett can often result in a slightly edgy, peppery feel) and there was still plenty of honest fruit and iron notes as well. I think most wine lovers would have loved drinking it.

The second time I met brett on this trip was with a bottle of the 1999 Jamet Côte-Rôtie Côte Brune. The Côte Brune is Jamet’s small parcel selection cuvée that is among my favorite wines in the region. It typically offers notes of freshly roasted coffee, game, black olive and beef along with robust structure. It’s not a step up as much as a step sideways from his normal Côte-Rôtie, which is what you’ll typically find in the marketplace. Let me clearly state this for the record: Jamet is one of my favorite producers, and his ’03 Côte-Rôtie is a screamer of a wine.

This particular bottle showed aromas of dark olives macerated in roasted beef pan drippings, along with dried currant, black tea and sandalwood notes. When each glass was poured, a very slight layer of bubbles formed on the surface of the wine, before quickly dissipating. The texture wasn’t edgy—1999 is a very rich vintage for Côte-Rôtie, so that may be the reason—but the gamy aspect was, shall we say, noticeable.

No, I didn’t have time to send it to a lab for analysis—I admit to drinking it all before I had a chance for that. But for me, the unmistakable presence of brett was there. It didn’t turn me off, but it’s not the kind of wine I’d serve to dinner guests uninitiated with old-style Rhône wines (as opposed to the Burgaud).

Brett is no longer the widespread, openly accepted flaw it once was. The Rhône has cleaned up its act over the last decade. Increased competition within the world marketplace, access to more modern vinification and better barrels and a better understanding of the problem have resulted in most Rhône vignerons working to eliminate the problem. Only the truly lazy now accept brett in their wineries.

But sometimes a little brett is OK in those old wines. Sometimes that beauty mark above the lip is a turn on.

Adam Lee
Santa Rosa, CA —  November 7, 2007 1:44pm ET
Hey James, the problem with that "beauty mark" known as brett is that it tends to grow and grow as time goes by. Brett in a bottle (unless filtered out or killed with velcorin) is a living thing and the bottle that you get now which is acceptable to you may well be fully overcome with brett in 5 years. Is that acceptable? -- Adam Lee, Siduri Wines & Novy Family Winery
Larry Schaffer
Central Coast —  November 7, 2007 2:58pm ET
I agree with Adam . . . And the one HUGE unknown is that with unfined and unfiltered wines, what will the specific wine 'go through' before you actually open it? Will it be shipped across the Atlantic in a boat, with a chance of 'heating up' and causing the Brett to bloom? Will it be shipped cross country in a non-cooled truck or train, thus giving it ANOTHER opportunity to heat up?I guess my big question to the vignerons you talk with in France is this - what if their 'little baby' is mishandled along the way and the brett level is MUCH higher than they experience out of the wines in their own cellar . . . Would they be pleased? PLEASE ask away and let us know their answers - inquiring minds want to know!
Dennis E Perkins
November 7, 2007 4:00pm ET
If I were a winemaker, I don't think I'd want to play with the fire that I understand brett to be. As a consumer who regularly commits vinous infanticide, low levels of brett don¿t bother me at all: if the levels are higher, I just pretend that I¿m experiencing the inexplicable funk I recall in Rhone wines before brett was on every tongue.
Paul Lin
Irvine —  November 7, 2007 4:10pm ET
Along the same lines with what Adam said, a little brett in an old wine is OK, even enjoyable, because it's usually offset by a complexity that can only come with age. But I'm less tolerant of brett in a young wine, because I usually know that it's going to get worse with time and ultimately overpower the wine.
Greg Piatigorski
CA —  November 7, 2007 6:17pm ET
Main issue with brett is, if one does a double blind tasting of 12 different bottles comprising a number of varietals, can anyone really tell me which varietals are in those bottles? Brett is brett, whether it comes from a vineyard or barrel in France or California and the only distiniguishing common mark is that it smells and tastes like brett, terroir be damned. Unfortunately, too many consumers tend to "like" brett only because a wine critic says it represents terroir and a sense of place. NOT! Barnyard is the only sense of place all bretty wines exhibit, to a lesser or greater degree of course, but not a sense of place related to wine from where I stand.

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