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

The taste of "brett" in wine
© Randal Caparoso

The line it is drawn, the curse it is cast. One of the controversies that emerged in the 1990s concerns an extremely common, but seldom discussed, taste factor in wine called Brettanomyces; often shortened to "Brett" in the parlance of winemakers.

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 it, 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. Not too long ago, many wine writers and industry professionals mistakenly attributed this taste to terroir or climat - that is, the unique environmental conditions of specific regions and vineyards in Europe - and spoke of it in reverent, and sometimes even mystical, terms.

The "glove leathery" nuances found in red Burgundy, the "sweaty saddle" common in Provence's Bandol 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 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) - Brettanomyces laden wines begin to taste "mousy" or metallic, or else barnyardy and all-too-often, manure-like. The latter, in fact, can be tasted in a number of new, up-and-coming Pinot Noirs coming out of New Zealand and Australia. I have found distinctly leather-like, verging on manure, qualities in a number of Cabernet Sauvignons from Chile as well as California and Washington State. Particularly distressing is the fact that many of these high Brett wines have been retailing in the $35 to $75 range - as if having this stinky "European" taste qualifies for an ultra-premium price!

The Brettanomyces controversy within winemaking circles began to heat up when more and more New World producers turned to traditional, Old World styles of vinification; particularly involving natural yeast fermentation, minimal sulfuring and cellar intervention, and greater tolerance of high pH levels (the level of wine's acidic strength) than previously accepted. The goal, of course, is to preserve more intense, unbridled natural flavors, particularly when sourced from special vineyards. As further incentive, it has not been uncommon for wines that retain that French-like, or "rubber boot," quality to achieve higher ratings from well-known wine writers. Result: more prestige, greater demand, and higher prices.

Perhaps the most vociferous critic of this characteristic when it occurs in California wines is Ronn Wiegand, an influential MW/MS. He says, "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, The Wine Advocate and the 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, like France's Chateau de Beaucastel and Pichon-Lalande, 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 Brettanoymyces, 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."

The Ideal Food Matches for "Brett" Nuanced Wines

But is Brettanomyces a welcome "food" component? I would agree with Mr. Soter that as one of many nuances of complexity - something that can subtly highlight delicious qualities of a wine rather than overwhelm any of them - this cannot be wrong, especially if it can make your food matches that much more interesting. Some guidelines and experiences:

  • There is probably nothing you can do in the way of food to make an over-the-top high brett wines (pervasive tastes of leather to the detriment of fruitiness, or a basically unpleasant barnyard stink) taste better, or make a dish taste better. Unbalanced wines of any sort always have a low percentage chance of working with food.
  • I've enjoyed softer, moderately scaled reds with leather or even gamy undertones in seafood settings; particularly fish or shellfish with strong marine notes of earthy quality. Who wouldn't, for instance, prefer a light, snappy Sangiovese based red over any white wine with pasta and mussels in an herb scented tomato sauce? Earthy red Bandol is often served with saffron laced bouillabaisse to delicious effect, especially with dabs of garlicky aioli; and in the Bay Area, I've enjoyed some funky, small batch Pinot Noirs with their many variations of cioppino.
  • For deeper, sturdier red wines (like Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, or Southern French style blends) tinged with brett, gamy meats like venison and leg of lamb are no-brainers, and meaty birds like squab, pigeon, Muscovy duck and even goose are not a bad idea either. But you can play with lightly gamy notes in a wine with any meat, gamy or not, with the use of earthy ingredients such as wild mushrooms, organ meats, bone marrow, lardons or pancetta, homemade sausages, horseradish, root vegetables, varieties of Chevre, and in more elegant settings, truffles and foie gras.
  • Just as use of fruit (fresh or dried) in dressings, finishing sauces, or condiments compliments a gamy meat, it goes a long ways towards brightening the fruit qualities of red wines with low key brett.
  • Some brett-laced wine and food matches I have known and loved:
    • In Berkeley, a succession of mildly gamy 20 year old reds (a Chave Hermitage, followed by a Vieux-Telegraphe Chateauneuf du Pape and Domaine Tempier Bandol) with a potato casserole generously layered with black truffles
    • In Australia, a lamb's brains in mustard sauce with a wildly earthy Rockford "Basket Press" Shiraz.
    • In Santa Cruz, a ravioli of escargot, herbs and truffle oil with a lush but leathery Au Bon Climat Pinot Noir.
    • At home in the Islands, an oyster stuffed game hen in a ragout of giblets, onions and porcini with a leather-on-lace Allegrini "La Grola" Valpolicella
    • Even lustier, a confit of duck, roasted garlic and offal in a white bean cassoulet with a mild but pungent, unsulfured, unfiltered, un-nothinged Morgon by Foillard.

But maybe you don't dig snails, lamb's brains, cioppino, or the taste of Brettanomyces in your wine. That's your call. After all, in the end that's all that matters.

Revised and updated, Jan. 18, 2005

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

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