The Brett Bugaboo

When is it too much?
Jun 16, 2010

The sommelier brought the bottle and displayed it with pride. It was, he said, a particular favorite of his boss, the owner of the wine-savvy restaurant where I was dining with some friends. He decanted it, and poured me a glass. I frowned.

The wine, a Cornas, showed some gorgeous fruit character. On first impression, the plum and blackberry character rode easily over the silky tannins. Those tannins were a revelation. I did not expect such polish in a Cornas, a Syrah-based red wine from the France's Northern Rhône Valley. On first impression, it was everything the sommelier said it was.

But what was that hovering in the background? It was a taste of leather, coupled with a metallic note. As the finish lingered, a dank farmyard note, familiar to anyone who has been around horses, rose higher in the flavor profile. But the fruit prevailed in the end.

“What do you think?” asked the sommelier.

“Well, there’s a war going on in the glass between the fruit and the funk,” I said. “But the fruit wins.”

The funk, of course, is one of the telltale signs of brettanomyces, a spoilage yeast that’s not harmful to one’s health, but maybe for our taste buds. For some, a little brett ruins the taste of a wine. For others, it makes a wine complex and wonderful. I am not talking about neophytes here. I am referring to some of the most highly respected tastemakers. Are they blind to brett? Maybe, but the sommeliers in this instance both recognized that the wine had it, and they liked it anyway.

After about 10 minutes in the glass, that funkiness overwhelmed the Cornas’ fruit. Fortunately, the sommelier sensed something was amiss and brought out another decanter. It was a Côte-Rôtie, on the wine list at about the same price. It had none of that funk. Although it was not a topic of discussion around the table, the Côte-Rôtie disappeared while none of us finished the first glass of the Cornas.

Three times in the last month I was served wines in restaurants that, to me, reeked so much of brettanomyces that I could not drink them. One was a Bordeaux, one Burgundy and one southern Italian red. And yet these wines were proffered to me as special, wonderful examples of their craft.

So I have been fretting. Am I missing something? Is this a weakness, some un-masculine lacking on my part? Why do I not like these flavors in my wines when expert sommeliers and a few other notable critics plainly love them?

Perhaps it’s what I taste for my job. Not much brett rises up in the wines I have been reviewing for the past couple of decades (from Australia, New Zealand, Oregon and Washington). And when telltale funkiness does appear, I tend to downgrade the wines, because I know that character does not go away; it gets stronger as the wine ages. If so many palates like the character, maybe I should rethink my position.

But no. I am sticking to my guns. Brett is a spoilage organism. So are dekkara, excess volatile acidity and other chemical bugaboos that produce characteristics that get in the way of a wine’s character, derived from its place of origin. I can accept a hint of those aromas and flavors, but not when they prevail.

And don't give me any nonsense about brett being a natural byproduct of winemaking. André Tchelistcheff, the renowned California winemaker who made Beaulieu Vineyards' great private reserve Cabernets of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, once told me: "When you crush grapes, God will make vinegar. Our job is to intervene to stop that process and make wine."

To me, the presence of brett in an otherwise fine wine is like a loudmouth at a dinner table full of good conversationalists. Diverting for a moment, perhaps, but not for a full evening.

Wine Flaws Brettanomyces

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