Brett May Not Be The Enemy (Talking Brett With MW Christy Canterbury, And Tasting WineSmith’s Crucible)

Vinted on July 18, 2013 binned in going pro, kick-ass wines, wine review

I’ve long waged a sort of mini-war (no height jokes!) on brettanomyces.

Equating it to barnyard, horse sweat, and Band-Aid stinkiness in vino, as someone who’d personally rather go for the naked, unabashed, nowhere-to-hide purity of wines like Mosel Riesling over the bombast of overdone modern red wines, I hated how Brett buried wines in its heinous off aromas.

Or so I thought.

It turns out that I actually like Brett aromas, and that my previous stance on Brett equated to blinkered, philistine, pig-ignorance on my part. That’s the conclusion to which I’ve come after chatting with Master of Wine and all-around vino bad-ass Christy Canterbury.

After watching a replay of Canterbury’s webcast on Brett for the French Wine Society, I was so shocked-and-awed that I asked to feature her in a quick introduction to Brett for my Answers.com gig (graciously, she agreed).

It turns out that Brett is not only responsible for much, much more than Band-Aid, horse sweat, and sheep excrement (which I hate) in wine, but also in some cases imparts several other more pleasant aromas like  bacon (which, of course, I like, because everyone likes bacon).

Now, I knew that already, but what I didn’t previously know turned out to be downright revelatory for my future wine enjoyment. [ Editor’s note: I am quite sure that some of you geeks are going to laugh heartily at the fact that I didn’t know this already. Cut me some slack, I’m not a winemaker, nor am I a chemist (my PhD-holding older sister is, though). For those geeks among you who do not want to cut me the requisite slack, I’ve got a middle finger to which you need to be introduced.]…

Anyway… What Canterbury revealed in the FWS webcast (but which didn’t make it to the Answers.com article) are the ratios of “good” Brett aromas caused by 4-ethylguaiacol (4-EG) to “bad” Brett aromas from 4-ethylphenol (4-EP). Both are volatile phenols readily synthesized by Brett during fermentation.

Specifically, the ratio of “bad” 4EP to “good” 4EG can be about 10 to 1 generally in red wines, but like all things wine-related, it just ain’t that simple. According to Canterbury, that ratio can be found as 8 to 1 for Bordeaux style red blends, 3 to 1 for Pinot Noir and an “astonishing” 24 to 1 for Shiraz (I don’t know about you, but that last one sure as hell explains a lot to me… talk about a light-bulb moment…).

As Canterbury put it, “if you want to play with the good stuff  [as a winemaker], you might be getting a lot more of the other stuff than you might think.”

Tread carefully, winemaking peeps, tread carefully!

What’s most shocking about all of this for me personally is how many of the good Brett aromas I like. Love, even. It’s humbling; I’ve now found myself in a position of having to retroactively add a caveat to all my (numerous) previous Brett diatribes, in that I’ve been bitching about the (admittedly much more prevalent) bad Brett only, when its good counterpart has been providing me years of drinking enjoyment.

As for whether or not Brett should be considered part of terroir, Canterbury’s quick “it’s really not” about sums it up for me (I agree – Brett can live in the wooden doors of your winery, but so can termites, and they’re not terroir, either).

The Brett talk is a long way of getting around to this week’s wine, which is made by my friend and Postmodern Winemaking author (and general wine biz iconoclast) Clark Smith:

2005 WineSmith Crucible Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley, $100)

So why are we talking about Clark’s icon-series red blend? Because I tasted it (all classy-like, from Styrofoam cup) during a break at the 2013 California State Fair commercial wine competition, at which Clark was also judging. According to Clark, this wine is practically oozing with Brett. “There’s a ton of Brett in this,” he told me when we tasted it. “It just doesn’t show, because of how the elements all interact. It’s like this: you can have diamonds, and you can have coal; it all comes down to the structure.” Clark meant “structure” as in chemical structure, not tannin or acid structure for aging. And so the Brett rabbit hole goes even deeper, in that you can actually have a higher good/bad phenol ratio going on, and at relatively high concentration, but not have the “bad” stuff manifest.

The wine itself is chewy, powerful, dark, but with clean lines of acid running through it, along with a lovely herbs-and-spices complexity. It’s an embryo now, ready to awaken like Solomon Grundy in the Batman series and kick you all over the place (in a good way) by unleashing X-box style combat takedown combos of flavor and depth on your ass. As for the Brett content, I’ve got to take Clark’s word for it since I didn’t have access to a lab at the time. I’ve no idea how that Brett will bloom (or not) later in the bottle, but even at the steep price I’d be willing (the blasphemy!!!) to chance it based on on how good the wine is now.

Cheers!

28

 

 

    Comments

  • Thomas Pellechia


    Joe,

    What was Smith's reply when you asked about the possibility of Mega Purple and Velcorin in the wine?.

    • 1WineDude


      Thomas – we didn’t go there, but now I’m planning a post about how those aren’t bad, either… ;-)

  • Whitey


    Joe – This post makes very little sense. You need to stop drinking and writing at the same time.
    It is well documented that brett makes some good aromas; this is not revelatory stuff. Who doesn't like bacon, or cloves, or a touch of leather. But that doesn't mean you now like brett. Right in your own post you use science to support the fact that the bad (4-ethyl phenol) outweighs the good by up to 24 to 1. Would anyone really risk going after brett aroma on purpose when this is known to be true?
    You might have said you like some things brett does, but instead you slanted this posting as you tipping the apple cart over, that you've had a come-to-Jesus moment with Brett and that it is all good. I know you don't believe that, and neither does most of the rest of the educated wine world. RECANT!

    • 1WineDude


      Whitey – agreed totally that the original post was missing part of the clearer explanation, and I’ve added a paragraph that’ll hopefully lower your blood pressure on that. Your point about Brett being a playing with fire scenario is totally true.

  • Thomas Pellechia


    Joe,

    Whitey points out what is the most unspoken when it comes to conversations about Brett. It is risky to knowingly bottle Brett-filled wine, no matter how good or bad it smells. You can cover it up with Mega P, maybe clean it some with Velcorin (if you are lucky, without striping the wine) but you cannot predict if and when Brett will make its move in the bottle.

  • Thomas Pellechia


    stripping–not striping the wine… although that would be pretty.

    • 1WineDude


      Thomas – that's long been my fear of Bretty wine. Aside from ph, you're mostly rolling the dice on whether out not the stinky bad stuff will bloom in bottle later. How many 80s US cabs have I had that were disappointing because of that? I'm starting to lose count…

  • Thomas Pellechia


    Joe,

    At least those 80s wines aren't striped ;)

    • 1WineDude


      Thomas – yeah but what about micro ox & spinning cone… ;-)

  • Chile Copa de Vino


    There is a very famous Châteauneuf-du-Pape from a winegrower that starts with Chateau de Beauc……. that brett is part of the wines' profile ;)

    • 1WineDude


      Copa – I know it well. That fancy Brett is expensive! :-)

  • gabe


    Good post Joe. A lot of my friends who are negociant-style winemakers actually like getting small amounts of Bretty wine to add to their blend, because it adds complexity.

    The one thing that makes Brett more dangerous then other wine flaws is that it has the potential to worsen in the bottle. Some of the methods that other people mentioned, like velcorin or reverse osmosis, can remove Brett, as can simple filtration. However, those methods will not get rid of 4ep or 4eg, they will simply kill the Brett, and prevent those flavors from getting worse.

    Winemakers who bottle their wines unfiltered are at a much greater risk…even if they don't taste any 4ep or 4eg at bottling, all it takes is a little bit of brett to create those flavors after bottling. As you know, we bottle our Illahe pinot noir unfiltered, so Brett is about the worst thing that could happen to us.

    • 1WineDude


      Thanks, Gabe. Yeah, as I mentioned in another comment, it’s the blooming later in bottle thing that scares the bejeezus out of me.

  • Bob Henry


    Joe,

    According to the Anosmia Foundation, some 2 to 3 million Americans [circa 10+ years ago] were thought to suffer from this affliction.

    [See: http://www.anosmiafoundation.com/suffer.shtml

    If a consumer is unfamiliar with the smell of brettanomyces, then s/he would have no "internalized" reference standard to identify that defect.

    Similarly, if a consumer has no vocabulary for describing brettanomyces, then s/he would have no words to articulate the experience.

    The smell would be perceived as intrinsic to the varietal grape or the style of the wine. [See note below.]

    Consider the words used to describe brett in a wine: band-aids, barnyard, horse stable, antiseptic, bacon, spice, cloves, smoky, sweaty saddle, cheese, rancidity.

    [See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brettanomyces

    How many of these words are found in the lexicon of most wine consumers?

    ~~ Bob

    Aside: In certain professional wine circles, it is believed that Mourvèdre has an intrinsic smell akin to brettanomyces — separate from any consideration if a particular Mourvèdre-based wine is actually contaminated by that spoilage yeast.

    Further reading:

    http://www.slate.com/articles/life/drink/2007/07/

    — and —
    http://articles.latimes.com/print/2011/feb/10/foo

    • 1WineDude


      Thanks, Bob. I'd think that band aids, bacon, cloves, and cheese would be in the lexicon of almost anyone buying wine?

  • Bob Henry


    Joe,

    Somewhere I read this statistic: 88% of all wine is domestically consumed by 13% of all American wine buyers.

    The vast majority of wine consumers are not hobbyists. They don't read or subscribe to food and wine magazines. They don't read wine blogs. They've never traveled through the "wine country."

    (Aside: the paid circulation of Wine Spectator magazine is somewhere between 300,000 and 400,000 — which gives you a sense of how small comparatively speaking our hobby is.)

    Wine is an infrequently consumed beverage in their personal lives — most often while dining out or at "special events."

    Consequently, they don't have a wine enthusiast's lexicon.

    ~~ Bob

    • 1WineDude


      Bob – Understood. I've written about that at length before. But “Band Aid” isn't an enthusiast's term; there aren't too many consumers of *anything* in the U.S. who don't know what Band Aids smell like…

  • Bob Henry


    Joe,

    For those who wish to pursue the subject further, UC Davis has come out with a brett "aroma wheel."

    From Wines & Vines
    (April 4, 2013):

    "New Thinking in the Brett Debate;
    UC Davis researchers create Brettanomyces aroma wheel"

    By Andrew Adams

    [ Link: http://www.winesandvines.com/template.cfm?section… ]

    ~~ Bob

    • 1WineDude


      Bob – thanks, that wheel (as republished by PalatePRess.com, I think) is linked in the Answers.com article as well.

  • Bob Henry


    Joe,

    On the subject of "off" odors in wine and on the "wisdom' of crowds — from today's Wine Business Monthly e-mail news blast . . .

    "Your Bottle of Fine Corked Wine Has a Bouquet of Wet Dog? Here's Why"

    Now, researchers have found corked wine may smell so bad because the chemical culprit, rather than producing a yucky odor, actually suppresses the drinker's sense of smell.

    [ Link: http://www.nbcnews.com/science/your-bottle-fine-c… ]

    "Corked Wine Can 'Shut Down' the Nose"

    Scientists believe corked wine can taste awful because contaminants dampen the nose's ability to smell.

    [ Link: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-24108094 ]

    And on the subject of "key influencers" on wine buying decisions — be they wine writers or "crowd sourcing" . . .

    "Friends Most Influential in Wine Buying Decision"

    Wine drinkers still relied mainly on recommendations from family and friends when selecting the wine brand and variety they are likely to buy.

    [ Link: http://www.afr.com/p/national/friends_most_influe… ]

    ~~ Bob

    • 1WineDude


      Bob – thanks. I saw the afr.com article as well, that one is intriguing because it's Neilson data and so we probably ought to be taking that one seriously. The corked wine stuff is fascinating, hadn't seen that before. It's geekily-fascinating, but in terms of practicality it sounds like drinkers will simply smell an off aroma and so to them it won't matter whether or not their noses got tricked into smelling it or not :).

      • Bob Henry


        Joe,

        Nielsen data comes from grocery stores that scan UPC codes on bottles of wine that pass through the check-out cash register. They can't capture sales data from single proprietor wine stores.

        So brands by large wineries like Gallo and Kendall Jackson and Ste. Michelle Wine Estates are tracked, but not your favorite "boutique" winery.

        Nonetheless, some data are better than no data.

        A corollary subject to consumers experiencing "malodorous" wines: How many are aware that they can return the "defective" bottle to the store for an exchange or refund?

        (The distributor will credit the retail merchant for the bottle.)

        I've conducted my own informal, unscientific sampling "man on the street" intercept interviews in the wine aisles of grocery stores, and to a person not a single shopper was aware of that return policy.

        They tacitly thought buying wine was a "caveat emptor" situation: Don't like it? Too bad! Pour it down the kitchen sink — and absorb the financial loss.

        Educating risk averse consumers that they have an option could go a long way to fostering increased domestic wine consumption . . . when some 88% of all wine is bought and consumed by some 13% of all wine consumers.

        ~~ Bob

        • 1WineDude


          Bob – great point about the returns… I may have to tackle that topic…

        • 1WineDude


          Bob – yeah, my point was that having some data, even if incomplete, is probably better than relying solely on the conjecture that usually underscores wine market discourse these days.

  • Bob Henry


    Joe,

    "conjecture that usually underscores wine market discourse these days."

    Hmmm . . . "sounds" like crowd chatter to me?

    As Chris Mathews opines on his eponymous MSNBC show:

    "You are entitled to your own opinion. You are NOT entitled to your own facts."

    ~~ Bob

    (I just noticed this text:

    "By leaving a comment on 1WineDude, you accept the fact that you totally rock, and possess excessive amounts of intelligence and good looks."

    Do you have a large following by Lake Wobegon residents?)

    • 1WineDude


      Bob – yeah we’re all above average :-) . regarding the discourse, I was talking about the majority of wine *pros*, many of whom do not cite any data when blogging their opinions or writing their oped pieces.

  • Bob Henry


    Joe,

    The majority of wine "pros" don't subscribe to a philosophy of "lifelong learning."

    Rather than treat their profession like others do theirs (your doctor, dentist, lawyer, and accountant all have to take "continuing education courses" to retain their license), the wine "pros" don't necessarily read the trade press (e.g., Wine Business Monthly), or the consumer press, or the wine blogs, or the wine books that come out.

    They are almost "willfully ignorant." Knowledge-hunger consumers are many times better informed than the wine "pros" are.

    The wine "pros" make a "comfortable" living (largely) working for themselves as wine merchants and restaurateurs.

    It's a lifestyle as much as it is a vocation. And treated with that same level of seriousness.

    ~~ Bob

  • Bob Henry


    Erratum.

    Make that "Knowledge-HUNGRY consumers are many times better informed than the wine "pros" are. "

    [Sorry — I am dashing off to a wine industry trade tasting in town: Kobrand's Italian portfolio. "Continuing education."]

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