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Brettanomyces: Beauty or Beast?
By Jessica Dupuy
Aug 11, 2015
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When it comes to styles of wine, personal preferences for individuals can spread widely across the board.  Whether you like vibrant and crisp dry white wines, or deep, brooding, fruity red wines, it’s generally accepted as your preferred taste.  But when a wine begins to attract descriptors like rustic, barnyard, wet leather, stinky and just plain funky, a few red flags begin to fly.

While many have mistaken this funkiness to just be a normal characteristic of certain wines, the reality is that it’s really the result of the presence of brettanomyces, a natural yeast that tends to thrive on fruit skins and can create a number of aromatic compounds in wine that evoke stinky, barnyard-esque descriptors.  It tends to be most prevalent in wines with minimal sulfuring and cellar intervention.  It’s commonly found in the red wines of Spain, Bordeaux, the Rhône Valley, and in new world regions like California, New Zealand and Chile.  In smaller, emerging regions like my home state of Texas, it has had a history of being a prerequisite to play in the game.

Yet it seems wine professionals are torn on whether or not “brett” is a good thing. A few years ago, I sat in on a vertical tasting of a unique set of wines from Chateau Musar from Lebanon's Bakaa Valley surrounded by a fleet of sommeliers and wine professionals at least 400 strong. The tasting, led by winemaker Serge Musar--who recently passed away--both inspiring and intriguing.  But did some of the wines have brett on them?  Yes.  Did it change the uniqueness and intrigue?  Not really.  Did it seem to disturb the many Master Sommeliers eagerly gathered in the room?  Not that I could tell.

Some winemakers and consumers alike feel that low levels of brett bring an appreciated quality of complexity and depth to a wine.  But there are others that see it as a complete nuisance. And it seems there’s no real middle ground between the two.  The opinion on bretty wine is divided by a deep, cavernous, craggy line of those in favor and those against.

The first time I heard the term in its most elaborative form, it was from Austin-based Master Sommelier, June Rodil, who took a whiff of a Rhône Valley red and remarked, “mmmm, smells like sweaty horse butt!”

When asked if brett is an ok flavor profile for wine, Rodil is fairly positive.  “It’s definitely ok.  Is it okay to have volatile acidity in Italian wines?  Mold on cheese?  Small signs of brett are good when it comes to classic regions like the Southern Rhône and Bordeaux,” says Rodil.  “As long as a winemaker knows what he’s doing.  It gives complexity and a lot of people really like that dank, stinky quality.  But it can be overwhelming when overdone.”

Many retailers and wine stewards have often misrepresented the qualities brett imparts to wine as being a natural part of the wine’s terroir.  But while the wet leather and barnyard dust aromas derived from brettanomyces in a wine are indeed natural, in truth, brett has nothing to do with the natural environment, soils, climate or growing conditions of wine grapes at all.  In fact, at its core in the world of wine, it's a winemaking flaw.

Brett has often been referred to as a cockroach in the winery as it is almost impossible to fully get rid of it.  If it makes its way into a barrel and later into a bottle, it can have profound effects on the wine that is beyond what the vintner can control.

“I have zero tolerance for brett in wine,” says Master Sommelier Thomas Burke of Chateau Margaux.  “In beer, the esters brett can produce can make pleasant aromas and interesting complexity, but it’s not the same thing in wine.”

For Burke, it’s less about the “rustic” characteristics the pesky yeast imparts on wine, and more about its ability to ruin it over time.

“There was a time when I think I liked it,” says Burke.  “But when I learned more about it, I began to see that it’s really a flaw.  It’s such a survivor and can feed on anything. It’s bad enough for it to be in a winery, but once it’s in the bottle it can grow more and completely overpower a wine.  When I smell it on a wine, it tells me that it was made in less than hygienic conditions, and that’s just not appealing to me.  I think a lot of people think it’s part of the character of a wine.  And if you’re working as a sommelier in a restaurant, you should probably have a few wines available for customers who like that funky quality.  But for me, I won’t drink it.”

If you do need a little funk in your wine, by all means, seek it out.  But a word of caution, if you find it in a wine consider drinking it sooner rather than later, as it will invariably get worse with age.

“Brett in a young wine and in an older wine show dramatically differently,” says Houston-based sommelier David Keck.  “It chemically changes the way the aromatics work.  In a young wine, it will spike floral aromatics and show more volatility and dramatic characteristics, but it has the opposite effect as it progresses.”

For me, the jury is still out.  I like the idea that the wine I’m drinking is clean and was well cared for from vineyard to bottle.  But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t like a little sweaty animal on my wine in certain circumstances.  Just like I like a strong vein of bluish green running through my gorgonzola.  (And if you give me a nice glass of botrytis-laden Sauternes to go along with it, I’m even happier.)  As a Texan, a mildly bretty wine is pretty magical with a nicely charred hunk of smoked brisket.  It’s not as if the carcinogenic soot crust surrounding the meat is all that “clean” either.