Phew! What's that smell?
Sugar, spice and all things nice, or snakes and snails and puppy dogs' tails ... what do you like your wine made of?
Squeaky clean or down-to-earthy: This great philosophical issue divides wine lovers as surely as the one's preference for earthy Old World or fruity New World wine styles.
A modest but deliciously funky French red wine enjoyed at a local bistro last night prompts a periodic dissertation on brettanomyces, the wild yeast implicated in some of the more peculiar aromas to come out of your wine glass.
Pronounced "Breh-TAN-oh-MY-sees" and usually truncated to "brett" in tasting reports, this wild yeast sometimes finds its way into wine barrels and other hard-to-clean spots around a winery, where it can be almost impossible to remove.
When brett gets into wine, it causes earthy, organic aromas and flavors that range from sweaty horses and their old leather saddles to, well, the other end of the horse, often accompanied by a sour, twangy acidity in the aftertaste. It's no surprise that many experts - particularly those who favor the antiseptic cleanliness of modern industrial wine production - consider it a fatal flaw.
But is it always? Here that great philosophical divide raises its head. Historically, some of the world's greatest wines have boasted a touch of "manure" (there's no other way to say it) in their aroma, prompting no less an authority than Voltaire to liken the scent of Burgundy to "merde." He apparently meant this as a compliment. Nor is this phenomenon limited to Old World wines. I've tasted it in Australian Shiraz, top-rank Sonoma Cabernet, even a highly regarded Northern California Zinfandel.
Personally, I like a little of it, although as I've said before, a distant scent of country roads on a humid summer night is one thing, while taking us into the stable with hip boots and a bucket is quite another.
Last night's sample fell on the safe side of the line for me, although those who demand cleanliness in a wine might beg to differ. Since the wine was tasted from small glasses in a less-than-analytical restaurant setting, consider this a brief, informal report. Depending on your interest in investigating brett, you might want to seek out a bottle ... or avoid it.
(Bear in mind also that your sample may vary. In its nature, brett may not affect all bottles equally, particularly in a relatively large-production wine like this Southern Rhone red, a mass-market item from the Perrin family, producers of Chateau de Beaucastel - a high-end Chateauneuf-du-Pape that, historically, has fought its own battles with brett and those who love or hate it.)
Perrin 2000 Réserve Cotes-du-Rhone
Something looks a little funky about this dark-garnet wine, which shows a scattering of tiny bubbles on the wine's surface that resembles proofing yeast. A strongly "horsey" and "barnyardy" aroma mingles with but does not overwhelm its ripe, plummy fruit-forward flavor. I have no question that it's brettanomyces-affected, with "barnyard" and ripe black fruit on the palate, too, with tart, lemony acidity through a rather long finish. Not bad at all with bistro fare (a blue-cheese burger and a pork chop Dijonnaise). Anyone who's wary of brett will find it right on the edge, but I liked it.
Imported in the U.S. by Vineyard Brands Inc., of Birmingham, Ala., this wine was $17 on a relatively affordable restaurant wine list (the Bristol Bar & Grille on Louisville's West Main Street). It should sell for $10 or less at retail. To find sources and check prices at Wine-Searcher.com, click
SUGAR AND SPICE, OR PUPPY DOG TAILS?
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Monday, Feb. 23, 2004