What's That Smell?

Even if you can't identify brettanomyces, study confirms you could love it, hate it, or not even notice
Jun 6, 2014

One sure way to start an argument when tasting with others is to decry the effects of the yeast organism brettanomyces in a wine. Someone is bound to roll eyes and proclaim the opposite. I know. It's happened to me. A lot.

I am acutely sensitive to the leathery, gamy, barnyard and medicinal flavors this yeast organism can produce. Others, apparently, either don't notice or they just love it. Literally, they adore the decadence brett introduces.

Actually, I am glad that there are those who will drink these wines that I won't. On the other hand, in reviewing a wine, I always make reference to the particular aromatic that clearly presents itself to me. When it's a grace note, such as a hint of sweet leather or coffee, I can even like it myself. When it announces itself as a strong gamy flavor or makes me think I'm drinking the wine in a horse stable, not so much.

A recent scientific study conducted in Bordeaux sought to determine just how acutely a range of experienced wine tasters could sense the presence of aromatic chemicals brett is known to produce. Researchers doctored a red Bordeaux with various levels of these ethylphenols and gave them to 87 professionals—winemakers, growers, merchants and brokers, all of whom taste wine regularly.

Some tasters needed more than 30 times as much as the most sensitive tasters to notice. Turns out the winemakers and those with academic degrees identified the presence of these organisms better than the others. That winemakers were so good at this is not surprising. They need to pick apart the samples they taste to figure out what needs their attention.

Which leads one to wonder, if it takes an academically trained pro to detect brett, should it matter for ordinary wine drinkers? I say it does, and here's why.

Most wine drinkers don't play what my colleague Matt Kramer likes to call the "I Spy …" game, as in "I taste rose petals and coffee" (Or maybe "saddle leather"?) So they may not be able to identify precisely what it is about a wine that makes them smile or frown, but a strong presence of brett will make some significant percentage of wine drinkers turn up their noses.

Since wine labels won't tell you whether a wine has such characteristics, that information has to come from us tasting pros. Winemakers adjust their practices according to whether or not they like the effects of brett. Those who sell wines to consumers, especially wine shop personnel and sommeliers, should know their wines well enough to warn off someone who doesn't like brett and make sure those who love it can get it.

In choosing unfamiliar wines in restaurants I'll come right out and tell the sommelier, "I don't like gamy flavors." Saves a lot of trouble. If you are similarly inclined, I encourage you to do so too.

Wine Flaws Brettanomyces

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