Who’s Afraid of Big Bad Brett?

Vinted on September 11, 2008 binned in commentary, wine tips, winemaking

If you’re talking Brett as in Brett Favre, then not me – I’m a Steelers fan, baby!

If you’re talking Brett as in the yeast Brettanomyces, then that’s a different story entirely. Lots of wine folks are scared of that puppy. And with pretty good reason – chances are that if you’ve ever had red wine, you’ve run into Brett. And unlike the Steelers rushing, hurrying and sacking the other big, bad Brett, when you run into brettanomyces, it’s you that could be the one on the wrong side of that meeting…

The trouble with brett is that it’s not all bad (although the jury is still out in the wine world on this one). In small enough amounts, brett creates compounds that potentially add interesting complexity to a wine, with smokey, spicy elements (yum!). Too much brett, and you have reduced fruit aromas, and wine reminiscent of medicine, Band-Aids, and stinky barnyards (yuck!)

Like a boring dinner guest, brett is notoriously difficult to get rid of. (Crap, did I just end a sentence in a preposition?). It’s been found lodged deep into the staves of new oak barrels (one of its favorite hideouts), to the point where no cleaning will ever get it out. And it can basically chill out in a dormant state for long periods of time until it finds food (in the wine) – and it doesn’t need much food to get its party started.

What’s a winemaker to do?

Well, there are plenty of cleaning techniques that help the situation, and some winemakers will carefully rack and test their wines at each stage of the winemaking process to minimize the impact of brett on their finished wines.

But there is something else that they can do to minimize brett. The trouble is, it goes against conventional marketing wisdom in the chase for high-scoring wines on the hundred-point wine scale!

They can harvest their grapes earlier.

According to a recent article on Sommelier Journal magazine, harvesting grapes earlier reduces the pH levels, which brett doesn’t like. Lower pH levels also help to make anti-brett initiatives (like using sulfer dioxide) more effective.

The trouble is, if you harvest earlier, your grapes can’t achieve the raisin-like ripeness and high alcohol extremes favored by some point-giving wine critics out there.

Just sayin’.

Reduce Band-Aid action, and increase the amount of lower-alcohol, elegant red wines available in the marketplace? Hmmm… I’m sooooo in on that, baby!
(images: maximumgrilledsteelers.com, vignaioli.it, jackstrawspizza.com)





  • john witherspoon

    good article Joe. Yeah Brett isn’t all bad, I’ve read before that some winemakers in Burgundy in particular induce Brett to a small degree to achieve the desired flavor profile! But when it’s bad it’s bad!! Old Band-Aid city!!

    nice post

  • Rémy Charest

    The modern winemaking take on brett seems to be: create a problem and then fix it. Like treating diabetes in people that have been overeating and not exercising for years.

    Indeed, lower pH and less bombastic sugar levels take care of balance issues in yeast and microbial activity in better, easier ways.

    An ounce of prevention…

  • The Beer Wench

    I think Brett is hot …

  • tish

    One man’s Brett is anothe man’s locker room?

    Question: do you see this as more of an Old World issue, or New World?

  • Joe Roberts, CSW

    Thanks for the comments, all!

    Wenchie – Brett might be hot (no opinion), but if so he’s gonna be hot and sacked on his butt when the Jets play BLITZBURGH…

    tish – Generally speaking, I don’t see brett as an Old vs New World issue (though you could argue that many old regions have mastered their containment to some extent). But, if we’re talking about harvesting very, very late and making busty, over-extracted wines that in turn more easily succumb to brett… I see that as a New World issue that is creeping its way into the Old World…

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