The battle against Brett: how technology is transforming wine quality

The advances in genetic understanding and analytical tools in the fight against Brettanomyces

2024-02-22

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The wine world is a fascinating blend of tradition and innovation, where age-old practices meet cutting-edge technology to create magic in a bottle. Among the myriad challenges faced by winemakers, the control of Brettanomyces, colloquially known as "Brett," stands out as a formidable opponent in the quest for quality wine production. This yeast, while sometimes contributing to the complexity of a wine's aroma in small amounts, can become a vintner's nightmare, transforming a potentially exquisite wine into one with overpowering and often unpleasant odors reminiscent of leather, barnyard, or medicinal qualities when left unchecked. The evolution of technology in the field of enology, particularly in understanding and managing Brett, illustrates a compelling story of scientific advancement meeting artisanal craftsmanship.

The role of Brettanomyces in winemaking is a double-edged sword. On one hand, its presence at low levels can add desirable characteristics to certain wines, providing complexity and depth. On the other, when populations explode, the resulting aromas can dominate and spoil a wine's delicate balance, leading to significant economic losses and damaging a winery's reputation. The challenge, therefore, lies not in the complete eradication of Brett (which could diminish the complexity of the wine) but in its meticulous management to ensure it contributes positively without overwhelming the sensory profile of the wine.

The advances in the genetic understanding of Brettanomyces have been nothing short of revolutionary. Discoveries around polyploidy and phenotypic variations within the species have opened new doors for managing these microorganisms more effectively in the winery setting. This genetic insight has led to the development of new strategies and analytical tools for detecting and controlling Brett, highlighting the importance of precision in winemaking. The resistance of Brett to traditional control measures, like sulfur dioxide (SO2), and its ability to adhere to winery surfaces, underscore the necessity for innovative approaches to its management.

One of the most significant technological advancements in this battle against Brett is the application of digital PCR technology. Inspired by its use during the COVID-19 pandemic, digital PCR offers an unprecedented level of sensitivity in detecting and quantifying Brettanomyces populations. Traditional PCR methods could only indicate the presence or absence of target DNA, but with the evolution towards quantitative PCR, and now digital PCR, winemakers can monitor the exact levels of Brett, allowing for timely and precise interventions.

This precision is critical, especially considering the factors that increase a wine's vulnerability to Brett contamination, such as higher pH levels, residual sugars, and the presence of phenolic precursors in more mature grapes. The ability to monitor Brett populations in real-time and with great accuracy enables winemakers to adopt more effective preventive strategies, minimizing the risk of spoilage.

Moreover, the refinement of these techniques, including the ability to identify specific strains of Brettanomyces, offers a more nuanced approach to managing these yeasts. The development of tools like TYP\Brett, which provides insights not only into the total population of Brett but also the proportion of strains with particular characteristics (such as resistance to SO2 or propensity to adhere to surfaces), represents a paradigm shift in the industry. This granular level of understanding allows for targeted interventions, reducing the reliance on broad-spectrum practices that may have unintended consequences on the wine's quality.

The evolution of technology in enology, particularly in the fight against Brettanomyces, exemplifies the delicate balance between maintaining tradition and embracing innovation. The advances in genetic understanding and analytical tools have equipped winemakers with the ability to finely tune their practices, ensuring the production of high-quality wines that express the best of what their terroirs have to offer. As technology continues to evolve, the wine industry stands on the cusp of new possibilities, where the control of Brettanomyces is but one example of how scientific progress can enhance the art of winemaking.

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