Brett: What's that 'barnyard' smell?
In the sometimes slightly wacky world of wine evaluation, it is entirely possible for a wine taster to say, "This wine tastes like $#@*!" ... and mean it as a compliment.
Let's take a look at bad flavors in good wines, and specifically brettanomyces ("Breh-TAN-oh-MY-sees" or just plain "brett" for short). Brett is a wild yeast that's sometimes found on grapeskins and that can get into wine barrels, where it resides and grows and can be almost impossible to remove. When brett appears in a wine, it creates earthy organic aromas and flavors that don't sound appetizing. The aroma of brett-afflicted wines may range from leathery to mousey, wet-fur, or "barnyard" aromas like chicken manure or horse sweat. Some tasters also find a twangy metallic quality in the aftertaste of bretty wines. In short, it's no coincidence that many wine scientists refer to wines with brett as "afflicted" or "infected."
Brett is often found in red Rhone wines and Burgundies, where no less a luminary than Voltaire once commented, apparently favorably, that Burgundy smells like "merde." Chateau Beaucastel and Domaine Tempier, both from Southern France, are two well-known names that almost invariably show brett, but it is not unknown in wines from other parts of the world, even California, where the noted (and expensive) Dominus is known for it. (And, in a slightly different category, the style of Belgian beers called "lambic" also rely on brett for their unusual character; it's reported that some of the most famous lambic breweries dare not sweep the cobwebs from their production rooms for fear of banishing the native yeast.)
Brett is controversial because some wine lovers enjoy a touch of it in wines and feel that it adds complexity, while others consider any trace of it a significant flaw. And just to make things a little more complicated, wines made from certain grapes - most notably Mourvedre - may show a similar-only-different earthiness that's easy to mistake for brett.
Personally, I can take a little of it, as long as that "barnyard" quality forms an elusive overtone that evokes country lanes on damp summer nights; but when it gets excessive (the country lane leads into a working chicken farm), it's a little too much for me!
Have you ever encountered a wine that made you think of barnyards or worse? Is a little brett just right for you or way too much? If you've got an opinion to share, drop me a note.