After reading through some of our tasting notes on a particular Rhône producer’s wines recently, a reader asked me if I had any problem with brettanomyces (commonly called brett), a spoilage yeast that can crop up on either grapes or in barrels. The reader picked up on some descriptors in tasting notes that they thought were red flags for brett, yet the wines scored highly and had long cellaring recommendations. They asked, "How could it be?"
Is brett a flaw? Technically, yes. But it's not TCA taint or Volatile Acidity in my opinion. In small amounts I feel it does add nuance to a wine. I don't discount a wine completely when and if there's a little brett. Too much however, and yes, I would downgrade the wine. Typically if it shows up on the palate, resulting in some astringency and even a little spritz, then the wine is too flawed to be considered, in my opinion. If it's just an aromatic touch however - a hint of saddle leather, for example - I don't have a problem with that.
Brett is a problem that pesters winemakers, however. Few will admit to liking it (even in small amounts) and almost no one wants to admit having it, even when they do. It can be difficult to get rid of once it inhabits either a vineyard or old wood barrels. And it's a tough litle bugger too, since it's a yeast that manages to survive the forces of fermentation.Scientists are now working to unravel the yeast's genome, in hopes of either developing an eradicating agent, or perhaps even creating a designer strain of it.
I think sometimes New World winemakers are on the brett war path - shaking a stick at anything they think is brett. Conversely, some Old World winemakers look at fruit forward wines as only jammy. It's a home court thing, but there's more middle ground than people think.
Now, as for the producer in question, I personally have never found a bottle of their wine that I thought had any brett. I visit the domaine regularly, I taste in the cellar regularly and I buy and drink the wines myself. In addition, I took an informal poll of sommeliers who have extensive experience with this producer's wines, and only one said he ever had any brett experiences with the domaine.
Some people draw a line in the sand when it comes to brett, recoiling at slightest hint of it. A tasting note that mentions saddle leather might make someone think the wine in question must be brett-y. But if wines smell of vanilla or mocha, does that mean they had vanilla beans or mocha chips dredged through them? Of course not. There are too many aromatic compounds with similarities to make a call on a wine based on its aromas alone.
As for aging, does the level of brett increase in the bottle over time, becoming more unstable and more damaging to the quality of the wine? Not in my experience. Some wines may lose their fruit over time, allowing any brett nuances to seem more apparent, but assuming the wine was stable when it was bottled, with enough sulphur and acidity, then a touch of brett shouldn't be able to take off and ruin the wine over time. There are a few big name wineries (in Bordeaux, as well as the Rhône) that are notorious for their history with brett, yet they have track records for aging extremely well. The balance of acidity, tannin and fruit all help to determine a wine's ageability - more so than a drop of brett here and there. I've had my fair share of older Rhône wines where I picked up on some brett - yet the wines were still drinking well.
In the end, brett tolerance is different from person to person. And it's also fueled by one's cultural approach to wine - what wines was their palate raised on? In the end, for me brett comes down to this - what are you personally willing to accept? It's just not as cut and dried a topic as other flaws ...