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Thursday, January 27, 2011

Getting to Know Mr. Brett Bruxellensis

Yesterday over at 1WineDude.com, the Dude proclaimed his disdain for wines affected by the yeast Brettanomyces bruxellensis. Piggybacking on his post seems appropriate as I was at a faults seminar last week at VinCo 2011 in Grand Junction, CO conducted by Lisa Van de Water of Vinotec Napa. While I've read about Brett, I had never really had the opportunity to taste the specific effects of this oft-maligned yet sometimes praised yeast. While Brett in and of itself is not bad, the resulting aromas and flavors of the compounds that it produces are. Terms often used to describe the effects of Brett are band-aid, smoked meat, stinky feet and barnyard. Not exactly what you want to think of when you think of wine.

Brett is not associated with soil or grapes but likes to live in wine barrels. Low sulfur levels, high pH, warm temperatures and old barrels are all conducive to Brett growth. These conditions are all associated with winemaking and therefore it CANNOT be attributed to terroir as so many people have tried to suggest. Bordeaux and the Rh├┤ne valley are wine regions often associated with Brett. Despite what should be an obvious flaw, these two regions are often associated with high scores from Robert Parker. Part of the growing opposition to Robert Parker and his 100-point rating system is that he obviously appreciates the characteristics that many people find off-putting.

Along with a group of local winemakers, I was able to smell and taste the three most prevalent compounds produced by this mean little guy. Lisa set out a variety of doctored wines that showed Brett flaws along with various other flaws such as 2-4-6 trichloroanisole (TCA), volatile acidity (VA), acetaldehyde, excess sulfur and oxidation. I learned that 4-ethyl phenol produces the band-aid aromas and isovaleric acid produces the funky cheese and barnyard scents associated with Brett. Those two were definitely deal killers for me. However, 4-ethyl guaiacol produces the pleasant (at least for me) smoked meat and spicy aromas. I do not think that the benefits of 4-ethyl guaiacol outweigh the gut-wrenchingness of 4-ethyl phenol and isovaleric acid. There are other ways to achieve smokey aromas than with Brett. If you're wondering exactly what this smoked meat smells like, find a bottle of liquid smoke at the grocery store and take a whiff.

In the seminar, we also tasted two actual wines from a mystery winery that had to be pulled from shelves due to excess faults. The first wine had moderate amounts of 4-ethyl phenol and 4-ethyl guaiacol. The smokey aromas and bacon flavors  were much more prevalent to me and I could barely identify any band-aid characteristics. While I was not completely put off by this wine, it was not pleasurable wine to taste. Judging by my experience with this wine, I'd be willing to bet that brettheads, such as Parker, are actually more sensitive to 4-ethyl guaicol than the other two compounds. The second sample was loaded with VA and isovaleric acid. This wine was so fully of vinegar and vomit aromas that I could barely bring myself to smelling it after my first attempt. So, next time you you smell or taste these characteristics, you are most likely seeing the effects of Brett.

While I am not trying to tell people that they are wrong for enjoying the effects of Brett, the idea that it is somehow a characteristic of terroir and not flawed winemaking IS incorrect.

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