You “brett” Your life

You “brett” Your life
Contributed by Dan Berger
Exemplary wines ideally should smell like grapes, or flowers, fruits, and other pleasurable scents including fresh or dried herbs, lilac, lavender, berries, lemons, apples, and pears.

Not swamp gas, burnt asparagus, compost bins, smoldering leaves, baby diapers, or moldy dishrags.

Good wines provide pleasure. People usually don’t seek out strange aromas, austere tastes, or strangeness. When a wine elicits a taster’s response, “What’s that?!” chances are it’s a wine that the British call “off” – a gracious term for spoiled.

Winemakers try to avoid spoilage. Occasionally they cannot. Every winemaker has encountered unsolvable problems. When that occurs, solutions are either to pour it out or blend it with something that dilutes the spoilage, so it can be sold in bulk for someone else’s inexpensive blend.

Most wine writers ferret out spoiled wines –- and eschew writing about them. Early in my wine writing career, I realized that there was an unspoken courtesy some writers used to refer to spoiled wine: euphemism, creatively speaking positively of bad wines!

When a wine is what Brits would call “off,” some U.S. wine writers used the word “complex,” a synonym for, “This stuff is weird; I don’t know what it is.” So, it was obvious I had to identify what, precisely, the bizarre smells and tastes were, and how they developed.

Technical wine books often have chapters on wine spoilage and how to avoid it. Early in my wine education, I went to wineries to get data on spoilage and to smell bad wines. Yeah, some of it was off-putting.

(I once asked a lab tech for a vial of acetaldehyde, to show wine-collector friends. The lab tech complied, but the cap came off in the glove box. The rental car smelled awful for days!)

I never realized how many elements of ruination existed in the wine world. The more I experienced, the more I saw winemakers’ challenges. There are aromas that seem so awful that even a trace is enough to discard the wine. And yet, interestingly, here we reach a conundrum: some of the world’s finest red wines are technically spoiled.

Take the aroma often described as “sweaty saddle,” Band-Aid, wet wool, horsey, or (as a friend once said), “wet dog in a phone booth.” Yes, unappealing – but it’s what I occasionally find in some of the most highly praised wines in history. It’s the aroma of spoilage called Brettanomyces (or in winemaker lingo, Brett). This volatile rascal is found in many wineries and it is hard to eradicate. It’s a reason winery sanitation is one of the industry’s most vital tasks.

But there also is a “good Brett” variant, which we’ll mention later.

Brett is found mostly in reds and is more common in Europe than here, where winemakers fear it. Winemaker Clark Smith says Brett is an astonishingly difficult subject, which he learned decades ago while earning a master’s degree in the subject at UC Davis. Smith says Brett isn’t one thing, it’s a series of things and it appears to exist in different forms in different countries! Australia has found six different versions. The Brett versions found in Burgundy and Bordeaux, he says, are radically different strains.

Brett can rob some red wines of the fruit that consumers desire. It produces at least two elements. One, called 4-ethylphenol, or 4-EP, increases astringency and can create odd aromas. Another, 4-ethyl guaiacol, or 4-EG, smells like smoked meat.

Brett appears in some French red wines including some expensive and highly praised wines that sell for outrageously high prices. But in some French wines, it can be appealing! It’s the “good Brett.”

When exalted red wines have a little bit of Brett aroma, some buyers accept it as part of the wine’s persona. They see it as complexity. Yet others detest it in any amount.

Some wineries believe Brett can develop if a wine is aged in older barrels, so they use only new oak barrels for aging. But Smith has shown that trace sugars from new oak are perfect for Brett to develop!

Since there are so many forms of Brett, it’s impossible to say how a young red wine with it will develop over time. As these wines age in cool cellars, the “spoilage” element can be subsumed by the complexities created by age, and many such wines turn out to be fabulous after decades.

By then, the Brett is merely a part of the wine’s nuances. One of Brett’s mysteries is the temperature of the wine in storage. If a Brett-infected red wine is held at 59° or less, Smith showed in his master thesis, the spoilage aroma may remain so low that the Bretty aroma will be invisible.

That same exact bottle stored at, say, 65° for the same length of time might display some slight Brett aromas. At 75°, the same wine may be a barnyard complete with chicken droppings.

Another mystery is that bottles often develop independently. In 1990, I opened two identical bottles of a 1977 Merlot. The two bottles were stored in adjacent spots in the same case. One was Bretty, the other was free of it.

Brett so fascinated me 30 years ago that I drove four hours each way to Fresno State University for a seminar staged by the late Dr. Ken Fugelsang, enology professor emeritus and co-author of the acclaimed textbook Wine Microbiology.

At the seminar, Fugelsang served attendees four glasses of wine, two each with Brett and its cousin Dekkera. (Smith says the two are basically the same.) Fugelsang infected French Colombard juice with both spoilage elements. (With white wines, we could more easily distinguish one from the other.)

I rarely see Dekkera in wine these days because it’s alcohol-sensitive; when a wine gets to 12% alcohol, Dekkera generally is gone. (It may be found in some beers.) At a seminar, it smelled like powdered concrete mixed with water. With U.S. wines, you rarely see Brett. Almost every U.S. winemaker is so sensitive to spoilage that they’re almost all fanatically committed to sanitation. Some are so obsessed they own expensive ozone machines. Some winemakers are so proud of their sanitation they say I could eat off their floor. I prefer ceramic plates.

If you’re buying a long-aging red wine and fear Brett becoming an issue, and your storage conditions are 60° or higher, I would buy one bottle and try it, preferably with someone who has made wine for many years. If he or she detects Brett, buy more of the wine, cautiously. Smith says some wine industry techy types “think that if you can detect Brett at all [in a young wine], it’s going to get worse in the bottle, and that’s just not true.” It all depends, he said, on how the wine was treated at the winery.

And then there are examples of wines in which a trace of Brett poses no problem at all, especially for those who understand what’s really going on.  Some of the finest wines I’ve tasted from the Rhône Valley have low levels of “good Brett,” which seems to work in the context of what the wine offers – a kind of rustic, tree bark, earthy scent that’s wonderful when paired with wild game. Some of these wines age phenomenally.

Unlike those who might discard any wine with a trace of Brett, I appreciate the complexity and accept small levels of Brett when it’s compatible with the fruit and other elements of the wine’s intricacies.

As for wet dogs, leave them outside the dining room.

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