Randal Caparoso Wine & Food Advisory
from the Melting Pot of the Pacific

The taste of "brett" in wine
© Randal Caparoso

For a lunch of duck liver paté followed by a roasted leg of duck in an Oakland restaurant just a few days ago, I ordered the latest vintage of one of my favorite Pinot Noirs from Santa Maria Valley in California's Santa Barbara County. As expected, the wine delivered a sweet cherry perfume and smoky, spicy incense-like fragrances on top of a velvety textured flavors. But it also had an aroma that I found jarringly distracting - reminiscent of something half way between sweaty saddle leather and a faint, manure-like earthiness. Ah, the smell of spring and recently fertilized gardens!

Ten, fifteen years ago, when a number of well heeled California wineries began to turn out wines with distinctively leathery, earthy, or even barnyardy aromas and flavors, critics began to fall over themselves praising the "French-like" qualities of these wines. Leather and earth, after all, are nuances commonly found in some of France's most famous reds, such as Chateau Pichon-Lalande from Bordeaux, Chateau de Beaucastel Chateauneuf-du-Pape, and Domaine Tempier's Bandol from Provence.

But most recently other critics have begun to wise up, deriding such wild and wooly characteristics as nothing more than a preponderance of a certain natural wine yeast known as Brettanomyces; often shortened to "Brett" in the parlance of winemakers and professional wine tasters.

Brett is basically one of the many natural species of yeast that begins to make its presence known in red wines after fermentation, while they are aging in the barrel. Although I have found few vintners anxious to discuss this, in recent years it has been understood that Brettanomyces, more than anything else, is largely responsible for the earthy, leathery qualities long associated almost exclusively with European wines.

A number of wine writers and professionals still mistakenly attribute this earthiness to terroir or climat - that is, qualities derived from specific soil types or environmental conditions in European vineyards - and speak of this taste in rather reverent, sometimes mystical, terms.

The "glove leathery" nuances found in red Burgundy, the "sweaty saddle" common in Southern French reds and Spanish Rioja, and even the handsome, leathery complexity common to many of Bordeaux's grand crus: as it turns out, all of this was essentially the work of a component that wine scientists (known as oenologists) generally classify as a "spoilage" yeast. At worst - when left uncontrolled in wineries by judicious use of sulfur dioxide (the most effective method of suppressing Brett whenever it creeps into wine barrels) - Brettanomyces affected wines begin to taste "mousey," strangely metallic, or else stinkingly manure-like. It is not surprising, however, to find deliberate, and sometimes even aggressive, cultivation of this yeast in New World wineries that are trying to imitate the taste of European wines.

I have found the strong taste of Brett in many of the new Pinot Noirs of New Zealand, some highly regarded Rhone style red wines (such as Torbreck's) from Australia, and in a number of Cabernet Sauvignons from Chile (those of Errazuriz and Almaviva), and California (past bottlings by Robert Mondavi and Chalk Hill). Particularly distressing is the fact that some of these high Brett wines have been retailing in the $45 to $85 range - as if achieving this stinky "European" taste qualifies for ultra-premium prices!

The Brettanomyces factor has become something of a controversy among winemakers as many of the more innovative New World producers have turned to traditional European styles of vinification simply to achieve more intense, natural flavors; if anything, a laudable endeavor. Techniques such as natural yeast fermentation, minimal sulphuring and cellar intervention, and greater tolerance of high pH levels (the level of wine's acidic strength) have all been calculated to achieve more intense, unbridled expressions of the grape, especially when grown in special vineyards known to produce higher quality (hence, more prestigious and higher priced) wines.

Perhaps the most vociferous critic of this characteristic when it occurs in California wines is Ronn Wiegand, an influential Master of Wine and Master Sommelier. Says Wiegand, "As far as I'm concerned, Brettanomyces is a serious flaw that tends to blur grape and regional distinctions. I never really liked it in French wines, and I certainly don't think it belongs in California wines."

There has to be some irony to the fact that after all these years of being compared unfavorably to French wines, California wines are being knocked when they taste too much like them. In contrast to Wiegand, however, the two most influential American wine magazines, Wine Advocate and Wine Spectator, have definitely been known to favor wines with distinctive Brett.

David Ramey, one of the California winemakers Wiegand admires most, has shared this view: "Although I'm not a big Parker or Spectator fan, in my experience wines that are known to be made as naturally as possible, particularly those of France's Bordeaux and Burgundy regions, are often found to taste better. No question, Brettanomyces plays a part in these wines. So where's the problem?"

Tony Soter, one of the winemakers I admire most, and whose wines at Etude have never been accused of being French-like, takes a more tolerant stance: "This is a sad issue, because it takes all the mystery out of those great French wines that, frankly, I love." As for his own wines, Soter admits, "I've played with Brettonymyces, although at relatively low levels, because it does compliment a wine somewhat. The point, however, is that ultimately it should be wine drinkers, not writers, who should decide what they like, and whether Brett in a wine is good or not."

Brettanomyces - a quality or flaw? You make the call. After all, in the end that's all that matters.

April 29, 2002

To contact Randy Caparoso, write him at randycaparoso@earthlink.net.

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