The Single Most Important Piece Of Wine News In Decades Is…

Vinted on December 5, 2011 binned in wine news

This.

No, I’m not kidding.

The fact that the Australian Wine Research Institute researches have sequenced the Brettanomyces genome is, potentially, the single most important piece of news to hit the wine world since it was discovered that malolactic fermentation could be controlled. In terms of newsworthy impact, it makes Scarecrow’s busting of the Premiere Napa Valley auction record look like the equivalent of your regional free paper running a headline like “Local Youth Paves Driveways.” And for me, it makes the recent Pancho Campo/JayMiller/Wine Advocate pay-for-play tasting controversy taste like small beer.

For those wondering what the hell I’m on about here, last week I was sent a link to a Decanter.com article titled “‘The enemy’ at bay: scientists crack brett gene code” by a fiend via email (the subject line: “Finally, some good news! What will Bobby P. do??”).

The story, in a nutshell, is that Brettanomyces – the spoilage yeast responsible for creating aromas in wine that range from a hint of smoky meat to horse sweat to downright pungent, mousy-barnyard-droppings-wrapped-in-Band-Aids – has had its genetic code cracked by a team of intrepid Aussie-based scientists.

Why the big deal? Because it means the wine world is closer than ever to finding a way to control Brett yeasts – and until that day comes, I stand fast in my resolve when I tell you that Brett is not terroir, and is not really an element of added complexity; it is a flaw (and if someone’s wine happens to have the relatively inoffensive meaty kind of Brett, they’re not necessarily uber-talented winemakers or viticulturists adding a dash of complexity to their final product; odds are they’re just lucky)…

Now, if Bret could be controlled, not unlike malolactic fermentation in principle, then – and only then – can vintners say that the Brett imparts complexity and isn’t just dumb luck or a flaw, because they will have cultivated it, at least to some extent, purposefully.And cracking the Brett genome is probably the first step in being able to fully understand and then control it.

When I mentioned the article on Facebook and twitter last week, one reaction – from @vtwinemedia – jumped out to me as particularly apt: “that news could threaten some traditional house styles ;).”

My response: “Good! It’s about friggin’ time!”

If you think I’m being harsh in my short but vitriolic condemnation of Bretty wines, consider this…

Over beers, I’ve spoken with more than a few oenologists who have told me the following interesting tidbits (they and their clients will remain anonymous for reasons that will be obvious in a few short moments):

  • While it’s commonly thought that Brettanomyces yeasts exist naturally in the vineyards and so the “interesting” aromas that they impart should be considered part of the natural order of a wine (i.e., its terroir), chemical investigation has shown in many instances that Brettanomyces yeasts are not natively found on the grapes coming in from harvest – that they are not the by-product of terroir, but are contaminants in the equipment (barrels, etc.) in the winery itself.
  • Ever sipped an older bottle of wine in which Brett has bloomed over the years? What was once considered a charming bit of background aromatic complexity can eventually dominate the bouquet of a wine as its primary fruit aromas fade. Some Brett, over many years, can refuse to play nice and act as a spoilage component, effectively ruining a wine. Not only have I had firsthand experience with this nasty situation myself, but I know of oenologists who have tested and confirmed increased levels of Brett in wines that have suffered similar fates.

In other words, there are good reasons why the good folks at the Australian Wine Research Institute called good ol’ Brett ‘the enemy.’

And when it comes to enemies like Brett, my sentiments lie with the bard himself; by which I mean, of course, Conan the Barbarian, when he was asked what was best in life:

“To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women.”

Ok, maybe without the lamentation part…

Cheers!

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    Comments

  • Jason


    You make a very interesting point about the role of intent versus luck in determining whether brett should be considered a flaw or a technique. But it does raise a whole bunch of other questions about the extent to which luck factors into wine. Even the most talented winemaker could fall victim to circumstances beyond his control (money, weather, fires) if they hit at the wrong time.

    In any case I agree that this is most definitely good news for the wine world, wherever one stands on the brett issue.

    • 1WineDude


      Thanks, Jason – I think some of the best winemakers I know often say that they’re lucky and they try to get out of the way of nature as much as reasonably possible. However, no one would put up with other spoilage contaminants in their fine wine products – Brett seems to be one that gets a leniency pass from time to time, maybe because of the difficulty in eradicating it. And if this development leads to a significant reduction in that difficulty – which I strongly suspect it will, based on the impact that genome-mapping has had in other industries such as medicine – then we should expect Brett to have less of a free pass, and hopefully soon. Cheers!

  • Ron Saikowski


    The single most piece of news in decades was the infamous tasting of 1976 in Paris. This biological break-through should have occurred in California,but it was done in Australia. That is as big or bigger than the break-through. Other break-throughs include fermentation temperature contros, malo-actic controls, generation of almost 4,000 strains for wine-fermenting yeasts, the recent discovery by the western civilization that the country of Georgia has another 4,000 grape varieties used in making wines,micro-oxygenation, wine-making additives, use of oak balls/staves/chips, and other major wine-making break-throughs. I think the major break-through in the USA would be a break-down of inter-state walls in shipping wines to consumers. That's a major country issue, just like the US consuming more wine than France (330 million gallons) per DECANTER.

    • 1WineDude


      Ron – no disagreement on the shipping thing… but I do not expect it to be happening too soon. Great list of those other development, btw! I see this Brett thing as more important than the 1976 tasting, and I am not being fatuous; the 1976 tasting was a big development for the U.S. wine biz, the BRett genome mapping will be a big development for all wine regions across the world. Cheers!

    • Jeff


      People in the wine business that are still referencing the Paris tasting of 1976, really need to get out and drink more wine from around the world and not the local kool-aid.

      • 1WineDude


        Jeff – I'm inclined to agree; important, yes, but sort of like how the Miracle on Ice is important to U.S. hockey (very important, but not the be-all-end-all of the subject).

  • Thomas Pellechia


    Not only could this discovery threaten some "house" styles, think of what it can do to the reputation of wine reviewing…

    • 1WineDude


      Thomas – exactly my buddy’s point when he sent me that note with the humorous subject line!

    • Jeff


      Do you mean like the latest WA reviews of CA Pinot Noir? If yes, then I agree, nearly everyone will be getting 90+ point wines once the industrialists get their hands on new "techniques". Looks like the effort to completely decimate vintage, vineyard, regional, winery differences is now in full effect. Horray for homogeneous wine!

      • 1WineDude


        Jeff – I have only had one beer tonight, but I do not follow that logic at all. Granted, it was an 8.7% abv beer, but still…

  • Todd - VT Wine Media


    I'm so very glad that Joe appreciates little good sarcasm, as others sometimes find it to be a flaw when experienced in higher concentrations.

    Houses that rely on the Brett factor for their wine's 'complexity', or to imprint a sylistic mark, will probably not change their ways until sales drop off, or the customers rattle at the chateau gates with their cork screws and salad forks. Despite my remark about this cracked code threatenening those styles, change is not likely to be looming, much to Joe's disappointment. The Wine-0-Scope makes some very good points about how mapping a genome, is only a baby step: http://wineoscope.wordpress.com/2011/12/04/wine-m

    Could this knowledge lead to the eradication of Brett? I guess so, but a lot of time money and effort will be required to move to that point. Are enough wineries afflicted by Brett, to move technology change on the scale that the closure industry has? Could it be, that rather than eliminate Brett, someone decides to modify the yeast DNA to enhance production of certain known compounds rather than others?

    4-ethylphenol: Band-aids, barnyard, horse stable, antiseptic
    4-ethylguaiacol: Bacon, spice, cloves, smoky
    isovaleric acid: Sweaty saddle, cheese, rancidity

    Just had a Bordeaux last week with "un petit gout de merde"…it did not ruin the wine. Some palates thought it complex and enjoyable. Mine did not see the advantage, was not insulted, but was certainly ready for a different bottle afterward. While the technology may evolve, and facilitate a fail-safe barrier against Brett, the question will be whether it would be broadly applied? Would their be stylistic hold-outs, and if not, will the natural wine movement be the last bastion and repository of this 'unique' influence?
    Cheers!

    • 1WineDude


      Thanks, Todd – The point for me is more that we will have the possibility to have wines with specific brett-induced aromas in the future. It also means that those who do want to eradicate Brett will eventually get cheaper and probably easier ways to do that eventually, as a result of this work. Not all older bottles of wine are lucky enough to have the Brett not bloom and take over/ruin it years down the line – and I am sure that there are some winemakers who would prefer NOT to have that happen to their wines. Cheers!

  • Thomas Pellechia


    "…will the natural wine movement be the last bastion and repository of this 'unique' influence?"

    Ominous wonderings, indeed.

    I can hear it all right now: after the code is broken, Lalvin creates a controlled Brett strain that producers begin to employ int he making of their s**t, soon followed by the cry of the naturals to use only the s**t that grows naturally on the walls ans barrels–anything else is industrial s**tmaking!

  • Charmion


    Unless wineries start to talk about brett improving their wines, and saying so on the label, in advertising, or via their sales & distribution channels, then brett is a FAULT, not a feature. I am glad that the Ozzies have typed the dna and maybe soon brett goes by by.

    All brett tastes the same. Brett in Grenache tastes just like brett in Cab just like brett in Sangio etc. etc. It doesn't add complexity.

    • 1WineDude


      Charmion – I know some who would disagree. :) I certainly agree *mostly*; I tend to enjoy a tiny bit of smoked meat aroma in wine once in a while, but still cringe if it is the dominant aroma. As for band-aids, poop, mice, horse sweat – those they can keep to themselves! Cheers!

  • John Skupny


    My grandmother used to say, "my house is clean enough to be healthy and dirty enough to be happy" – It is great that we will be closer to understanding this one little aspect about wine and it's microbes, not a game changer in my book.

    • 1WineDude


      John – I like that quote!

  • Charmion


    I don't think that the smoked meat or bacon aroma or taste in reds is from brett. I think that those reds do that bacony thing do it without brett. I think they are separate. Same with the black or white pepper. It seems elusive to cause or winemakers can't create it on purpose. I am open to hearing to the contrary about how to create the crushed pepper that shows up in some Zins, some Syrah, very rare in Pinot noir, For that matter how about the so-called lead pencil in Bordeaux but very rarely in Cab. Clarets etc. outside of France.

    • 1WineDude


      Charmion – the peppery notes are, from my experience, in the grapes themselves. Cool-climate Syrah grapes right off the vine have that pepper, baked right in so to speak.

  • A_Scientist


    Poor choice of words: there’s a big difference between sequencing a genome and having its “genetic code cracked.” Knowing simply a length of As, Cs, Ts, and Gs is not sufficient to understand that genome’s function. To date, the genetic code has not been cracked for any existing organism.

    • 1WineDude


      A_Scientist – Considering that I am normally a stickler for such distinctions, I fully concede!

  • Thomas Pellechia


    "I don't think that the smoked meat or bacon aroma or taste in reds is from brett."

    Charmion,

    To your opinion above, the wine scientists say: 4-ethylguaiacol

  • Marcia M


    Brett is a complete turnoff. I pick up the band-aid aroma from a good distance away, and it always spoils the glass for me. Drinking wine with a clothespin on the nose isn't particularly attractive or comfortable. Must say I agree with Charmion; I do not see/smell the meat/bacon aroma as associated with brett. (And I've never once had anyone in the industry say the brett was a planned or desired part of the profile.)

    Similarly last week I had a glass of merlot tainted with h2s that was unbearable to smell or drink. What a waste! Jeff Miller's post on that fault last week was most timely.

    Joe, I agree that the DNA mapping is the first step (of many to come) that will lead to improved wines (eventually) the world over where brett is prevalent.

    • 1WineDude


      Thanks, Marcia – oh glorious day, when it arrives! :)

  • Steven Washuta


    The reason I like wine and making it is because not everything is controlled. A good winemaker doesn't control everything; he lets the wine do its own thing up to a certain point; whether or not that point is past when brett can make an appearance is a personal opinion. Brett isn't a flaw – it's a natural part of wine. When no brett ever exists in wine and all wines taste like fruit roll ups is when I'll call it quits from wine. Hopefully it's not in my lifetime because I'm not sure what else I'd do.

    • 1WineDude


      Steven – I hear ya, but the ability to control brett does not necessarily equate to its total elimination.

  • eric


    Yay! the wine world is yet another step closer to making even more boring and homogeneous crap. I personally cant wait until every last little mystery of the vine and wine making are discovered so that every single wine in the world tastes the same regardless of where it comes from.

    • 1WineDude


      eric – that's a sad future; personally, I cannot wait until wine is free of Brett tainting and overpowering the true expression of place and the intricacies of fine wine's development in bottle over decades…

      • eric


        I see this the entire other way. Its more science in wine its more manipulation its more control. The worse that this gets and the more things that wine makers can screw with the more terroir is destroyed.

  • 1WineDude


    eric – I'm of the opinion that fear of the application shouldn't stand in the way of reasonable scientific understanding of how something works. Some will abuse the eventual knowledge, which I think is the point you're trying to make, and it is undoubtedly true. But can't that power and knowledge also be used for good? Those that want to keep brett that is infecting their winemaking facilities could conceivably do that eventually as a result of this research. Others who want to get rid of it could eventually do that as well, perhaps – and would likely argue that it allows their terroir to shine through more purely and develop in bottle without spoilage…

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