A Spice of Brett

Photo by Susan Slater. Released on Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 4.0
Recently I watched a webinar from The Wine Scholar Guild by Master Sommelier Tim Gaiser about wine faults. One of the topics covered was Brettanomyces.

Gaiser noted how the presence of Brett in wine is fairly controversial with some wine industry folks having zero tolerance, considering any occurrence of it as a fault in the wine. Others are more forgiving, taking the view that a little bit of Brett can add complexity.

I am in that later group. I actually like a little bit of Brett in wine. I think of it as a spice that can add a dash of character and intriguing aroma notes. But my tolerance is usually only for that dash. It’s like ordering Thai food where you specify the level of chili pepper spice. With chili spice, I’m a wimpish zero stars but my wife loves her dishes 5 stars. With Brett, I like wines in what I call the 1 star range. Give me just enough savory meatiness to make my mouth water and I’m hooked.

Sure there are folks who would like wines with more “Brett-stars” and, of course, there are folks who are decidedly on the “zero-star Brett” side of the spectrum. But I’ll disagree with the zero-star Brett folks who think any instances of it is a sign of a flawed wine. It’s like thinking anyone who orders a difference spice level at a Thai restaurant is ordering bad food.

Yes, it’s different. Yes, it may not be your style. But that doesn’t necessarily means it’s faulted. Now, I say necessarily faulted because I think the winemaker’s intent needs to be considered. There are certainly cases where there could be no intention to have any Brett develop in a wine but it occurred via faulty barrels or bad hygiene or, perhaps, emerged to a degree far beyond what was expected. Those are wines that could rightly be described as faulted but I’ll acquiesce that some souls may still find charm in those wines.

Though I should clarify here that when folks talk about Brett in wine, there are different types of aromas and flavors that fall under that catchall term–some of which are more apt to be described as positive notes than others.

Three types of Brett-related compounds

Photo by Oldsoft. Released on Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

Typically the more gooey the cheese, the more likely it is to have some funk.

A few things to keep in mind. One, not all of these compounds occur in every wine that has Brett. Two, everyone’s sensory threshold is unique and driven by genetics. What’s given below are the average sensory thresholds for the various compounds. Three, aroma descriptors are subjective. What is one person’s band-aid could be another person’s wet leather or iodine.

Isovaleric acid (sensory threshold >1000 µg/L or 1 ppm) Sweaty socks and rancid cheese. For many people (even those who tolerate a few stars of Brett) these aromas often fall into “wine fault” territory. However, there are pretty funky cheeses out there that some people would describe as “rancid” while others find them gorgeous. Different strokes for different folks. Heck, there are even folks who have fetishes for sweaty socks (which I’m not going to link to). While a wine with these aromas may have too many Brett stars for me (and probably most people), I can’t discount that there are going to be tasters that are fascinated with these wines.

4-ethyl phenol (4EP) (sensory threshold >140 µg/L) Barnyard and band-aids. For many people, these are the typical “tell-tale” signs of Brett and it is not surprising that these sensory notes are the most easily detectable among the Brett-related compounds. They’re probably also the most divisive. While I don’t find the smell of horses and pigs in the barn very appealing (That’s getting into “2 star Brett” territory for me), I can’t begrudge someone who like a little bit of odeur de cheval in their wine. Hey, if that rocks your boat then you go Glen Coco!

The wines of Washington cult producer Cayuse can be very divisive among wine lovers. For some they’re “too bretty”, for others they are savory, bacon-y goodness.


4-ethyl guaiacol (4EG) (sensory threshold of >600 µg/L) Bacon, smoke, mushroom, cloves. This is the bastion where I defend my spice analogy of Brett. A lot of people don’t realize that many of these savory aroma and flavors in wine are actually derived from the unsavory origins of the much-maligned Brettanomyces.

In fact, you can argue (and many wine folks do) that typical “terroir characteristics” of great Old World wines like Northern Rhone Syrahs, Ribera del Duero and old school Barolo and Bordeaux, are really just the earmarks of Brettanomyces. This is why, for me, Brett isn’t a bad word but rather a tool that a winemaker can use to add more layers to a wine.

Sure, there are things that can make a wine “too Bretty” for me. Bad hygiene in the winery and tainted barrels can pile on the Brett stars and take a wine far out of my pleasure zone. I’ll also confess that I’m not a fan of sour beers where Brettanomyces often plays a big role (though the “sour” part mostly comes from Lactobacillus and Pediococcus).

But variety is the spice of life and sometimes a little Brett can go a long way towards making a wine more interesting. I’ll drink to that.

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