Brettanomyces in winemaking: flaw or feature?

The debate over brett in wine: a question of taste


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The wine world, with its vast palette of flavors, aromas, and textures, offers a unique canvas for the expression of its creators' artistry and the terroir from which its grapes emerge. Among the myriad elements that contribute to a wine's character, few are as polarizing as Brettanomyces, commonly known as "brett." This yeast, a natural part of the winemaking environment, can impart a range of flavors that stir debate among enthusiasts, experts, and producers alike. The discussion centers on whether the presence of brett constitutes a flaw or if, in certain contexts, it contributes positively to a wine's complexity and appeal.

Brettanomyces thrives not only on grapes but also in the barrels used for aging wine, as well as in the very air of wineries. It is distinct from the yeasts typically employed in the fermentation process, capable of producing compounds that evoke strong reactions. These can range from barnyard, spice, and sweat to the less appealing dirty socks and smoke. Yet, the perception of these flavors is subjective, varying widely across the spectrum of wine consumers and makers.

Heather Hyung Chang, a leading consumer and sensory scientist and CEO of Advintage Wine, posits that brett, in moderation, can add an intriguing layer of complexity to a wine. She draws an interesting comparison between the chemical composition of the flavors associated with brett and those found in aged cheeses, suggesting that some palates may interpret these notes as cheese-like rather than off-putting.

The debate extends into the realm of wine styles and regions, with Anthony Clark, Chang's business partner, highlighting that the nuanced characteristics brett can introduce to red wines, particularly those that are aged, are often intentionally sought after. He cites examples from renowned wine regions such as Bordeaux and Châteauneuf-du-Pape, where the "funk and soul" imparted by brett are considered integral to the wine's identity.

Mary Ewing-Mulligan, president of the International Wine Center, champions brett's contribution to the flavor profiles of certain varietals, like Syrah from the Northern Rhone and Grenache-based wines. She argues that the earthiness, leather, and barnyard notes—frequently attributed to the finest wines from legacy regions—are, in fact, hallmarks of excellence when balanced correctly.

However, not all voices in the industry echo this sentiment. In regions like Australia, where technological advancements such as screwcap closures have been embraced to combat flaws like TCA (cork taint), the tolerance for brett is significantly lower. Prominent figures such as Peter Gago of Penfolds and Gwyn Olsen of Henschke Cellars view any detectable presence of brett as a flaw, arguing that it detracts from the wine's expression of time and place.

The question of brett's role in wine extends into the realm of food pairing, with proponents suggesting that its unique profile can enhance certain dishes, much like the judicious use of salt can elevate a steak. From grilled meats to earthy stews and charcuterie, the argument is made that brett, in the right measure, can add a dimension of flavor that complements a wide range of cuisines.

The debate over Brettanomyces in wine is emblematic of the broader conversation about purity, tradition, and innovation in winemaking. While some view its presence as a defect, others see it as a natural and desirable complexity that, when managed skillfully, can elevate a wine from merely good to memorably distinctive. As tastes and trends continue to evolve, so too will the discourse on brett, reflecting the ever-changing landscape of wine as both a science and an art.

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