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What is that smell?
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What is that smell?

My comments about "barnyardy," "horsey" and "saddle" aromas in the Argentine Malbec reviewed yesterday prompted a number of you to ask whether I thought the 2000 Altos Las Hormigas was affected by "brett."

The answer: Only laboratory analysis can say for sure, but when I find those organic scents of the farm in wine - particularly when they're accompanied by a twangy, almost metallic acidity in the flavor - I assume that brettanomyces ("brett" for short) is the culprit.

It has been almost three years since this topic came up in The Wine Advisor, so this might be a good time for to review.

Brettanomyces ("Breh-TAN-oh-MY-sees") is a wild yeast that can get into wine barrels and other hard-to-clean spots around a winery, and it can be almost impossible to remove. Even in small doses, it causes earthy organic aromas and flavors in wine that don't seem appetizing - that range of horsey, sweaty and even manure-like scents, along with a metallic aftertaste. Many wine experts, particularly in New World wine regions, consider any presence of brett as an "affliction" or "infection."

As I have pointed out before, though, in the wacky world of wine evaluation, it is quite possible for a wine taster to say, "This wine tastes like $#@%!" ... and mean it as a compliment. A touch of brett is not at all uncommon in Burgundies and wines from Southern France, and many wine lovers enjoy it, especially in reds, arguing that it adds complexity to the drink. Hundreds of years ago, the French author and philosopher Voltaire is said to have commented, apparently approvingly, that Burgundy smells like "merde."

I like a little of it, and occasionally make the point that a whiff of "barnyard" can be a pleasant thing if it evokes the memory of a country lane on a summer night. But when a little turns into a lot, few tasters would disagree that the wine is flawed.

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Friday, March 15, 2002
Copyright 2002 by Robin Garr. All rights reserved.

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