We need to talk about brett

Few things are more satisfying than an earthy, rich red wine from the south of France. Those deep, dark fruit flavours. That whiff of garrigue. The hints of herbs and spices.

But…maybe not the stench of barnyard so strong that it seems as though a horse has dropped its posterior onto your nasal passages.

Blame brett.

Experienced wine drinkers will already be familiar with brettanomyces, that naturally occurring yeast that is either loved or loathed and can enhance or destroy a wine depending on its potency.

Brett can divide a room. The Aussies? They hate it and the style of wine they make down under reflects their dislike for the whiff of barnyard and sweaty horse that it adds to a wine. The French? Well they don’t mind.

At its best, a dash of brett can add a bit of tobacco, leather, bacon, smoke and so on. At its worst you wonder if the winemaker blended in a few bushels of manure from his neighbour’s grazing livestock.

DSC_0074It isn’t often that a wine’s aroma actually makes me recoil, but in the case of this bottle of Les Obriers de la Peir Terrasses de Larzac 2012,which was part of a review case that Berry Bros sent to me, the odour of manure dominated the wine and diminished anything else that was good about it.

I recall the first bottle being a little stinky, but nothing could have prepared me for the blast of cow dung lurking in this bottle’s inner recesses.

For £18.45 a bottle as listed on the BBR site, this wine isn’t exactly on the value end of things. I would expect a higher quality level, but the fact remains that something like brett can’t always be controlled. Had I bought it myself, I would have taken it back — and that’s saying a lot because most of the time I like a little barnyard in my wines. It’s precisely the reason I prefer the earthy wines of the Rhone and Languedoc to the typical laser-sharp Aussie shiraz.

UPDATE: A day after opening this bottle, the overpowering aroma had diminished and fell away to the background, although there were still clear barnyard notes. This wine is apparently not known to be bretty, so did I misinterpret it? It could have been something else, but it doesn’t change what I first picked up when I opened the bottle.

So what is this thing called brett and how prevalent is it? Jamie Goode did an excellent job explaining brett back in 2003. In short, it is a yeast — a unicellular fungus — that appears regularly in winemaking. It is often believed to spoil a wine, but this is the topic of hot debate.

During the winemaking process, all of the yeasts that exist in the grape juice usually get eliminated as fermentation progresses and the alcohol level rises. Normally, all these critters disappear when fermentation is complete, but if there are sugars and nutrients left over, this can open the door to our little friend brett.

Brett is a big fan of juicy, opulent red wines (like the Obriers de la Peira above) that are made with ripe grapes, have higher alcohol levels, high pH levels and low acidity. It likes to lurk in the vineyard on the grapes as well as in the winery. Good hygiene and clean winemaking equipment can go some way to holding brett at bay, but the fact that it exists on the grapes themselves means that it can pop up any time it likes. Filtration helps to hold it at bay.

At lower levels, brett is often one of the main contributors to a wine’s aromas and complexity. For example, it has a long history in Bordeaux wines, but its effects have been reduced over the years as winemaking practices have modernised and improved.

I’ll come out and say that I don’t mind a little bit of brett. But only a little. I draw the line at the point when my wine glass smells as though it’s filled with manure.

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