Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Questions on Brettanomyces and Aging

Read about wine long enough, whether on blogs, in print publications, on bulletin boards (or on the throne), and you'll start to recognize some pervasive, recurring, seemingly endless threads. Discussions of certain aspects of wine — tannin, oak, acidity, sweetness, reduction, high alcohol level — that tend to spur differing opinions or even intense divisiveness. There's the crew that despises any whiff of oak influence, the other extreme that's drawn to the scents and flavors of new oak treatment like Morris to a can of 9-Lives, and then there's the middle ground that accepts oak influence as long as it's balanced by and makes sense within the structural context and organoleptic characteristics of the wine in question.

Image courtesy of the Vincent E. Petrucci Library at California State University, Fresno.

In the big picture, most if not all of the elements mentioned above are generally believed to be acceptable as long as they are balanced. All of them, too, are generally viewed as faults when they are too extreme or pronounced. It's when introducing the variable of aging that these lines begin to blur. Can a wine that's too mucous membrane-jarringly tannic or too enamel-strippingly acidic in its youth really find harmony with age? Do alcoholic heat and/or overzealous oak treatment ever stand a chance of being integrated in the bottle? Or is it once imbalanced, always imbalanced, once touched by a flaw, always faulty?

I'm asking big, broadly sweeping questions here, questions that to the scientifically minded or UC Davis-trained might seem easy to answer yet that to others will always instill an emotional response, no matter how strong their scientific understanding. What I'm looking to do is not so much to find answers as it is to explore the questions, to taste and learn and evolve in my understanding along the way.

Today, the wine-world bugger that's pricked my attention is brettanomyces; it's an old topic but one that was brought to mind by a wine I drank a few nights ago.

Côtes du Rhône Villages Cairanne "La Jean de Verde," Domaine Daniel et Denis Alary 1999
$24 on release. 14.5% alcohol. Cork. Importer: Weygandt-Metzler, Unionville, PA.
The Alarys' Cairanne "La Jean de Verde" is varietal Grenache, produced from low-yielding, 70+ year-old vines growing on a 1.5-hectare plot of land that the Alary family purchased in 1860 from a certain Jean de Verde. Denis and Daniel began producing this cuvée in 1998, making this only their second vintage of the wine.

Laced with wood spice and game aromas, the usual kirsch inflected fruit richness of Alary's Cairanne has subdued and mellowed with age. Wearing all of its 14.5% alcohol with ease, an up-front dash of brett brings mineral and animal savor to offset the wine's briary richness, yet it also imparts a definite angular, metallic aspect on the finish. As the wine opens with air, the brett becomes more problematic, rendering increasingly sour aromas and flavors, in stark contrast to its rich texture and relatively low acid profile. That said, it never completely lost its initial appeal on the palate.

By way of very simple explanation, I'll look to wine writer/scientist Jamie Goode, from his by no means simplified article on Brettanomyces at
"Brettanomyces [aka, brett] is... a yeast – that is a unicellular type of fungus, not a bacterium – that is a common spoilage organism in winemaking."
As I described earlier using oak as an example, brett is viewed by some as a fault at any detectable level, while considered to be acceptable, even desirable at certain levels, by others.

Brett is present at least to some degree in virtually every winery, in both the Old World and the New. If there's a region with which brett has been most strongly associated — though that may now be changing — I'd say it's the Rhône, and the Southern Rhône in particular, where it's often considered as an element of terroir and/or typicity.

I can't speak strongly to the Alarys' recent releases, as I don't drink their wines with the frequency that I once did, but they had a regular place on my table from the mid-90s through the early-00s. In those years, I can comfortably say that brett played a regular role in Alary's wines, adding a streak of meaty savor that helped make their reds so tasty and interesting when in their youth. As this particular cuvée has aged, though, that same brett influence has done it no favors, its character now divided in stark relief, with mature, subtle fruit standing to one side and metallic, sour, brett-driven notes to the other.

So, my questions remain. Today they were about the pros and cons of brettanomyces; tomorrow it may be something else. I hope, as always, that you've found the exploration compelling (or at least tolerable) and that you'll feel free to chime in with your own thoughts on the matter, whether scientific, pseudo-scientific or downright irrational.


Edward said...


That's a big can of worms to open at the start of a new year!

I find the subject interesting on so many levels. First many people think they can pick it (me included), but are often wrong (me included). Then as you say so many regions and some producers have endemic levels of brett.

It was rife in Margaret River in the late 1990s (corresponding to the low SO2 regimes), leading to one producer not releasing a vintage because of the taint (Cape Mentelle 1997 I think). I have various bottles that I know have been lab tested and are loaded with brett, but they remain drinkable. . .

Interestingly the rate of brett in Australia seems to have dropped.
In Halliday's encyclopedia of Australian wine he mentions that in 1997 the mean 4EP concentration in Aussie red wines was 1200ppb - 3 times accepted sensory detection level. By 2002 the mean 4EP across red wines was down to 400ppb (now below threshold), and in 2008 down further to 224.

Halliday mentions that the key recommendation from the AWRI was to add SO2 once only, at 50-60ppb rather than the previous practice of repeated small doses.

David McDuff said...


Thanks for the great comment. I like opening cans almost as much as bottles! (Sorry, couldn't resist.)

I obviously and purposely tried to avoid plunging straight into hard biochemistry but I'm glad you've taken up the invitation. There's no arguing that many brett-infected wines are not just drinkable but actually quite enjoyable, but my experience with this bottle from Alary as well as with a handful of other wines leads me to wonder how many will continue to remain as enjoyable with age as they were in their youth.

Regarding Halliday's piece, does he happen to mention at what point (i.e., at crush, at bottling...) the AWRI recommends pitching the single dose of SO2?

Bryan Kolesar said...

You are likely aware that certain segments of the beer brewing industry have taken great interest in and embraced brett to express creativity in brewing.

Over the last decade, I've had the pleasure of exploring the wonderful aromas and tastes that brett can deliver in a beer from breweries in (primarily) Belgium and the U.S.

Since I don't believe that I ever have, I'd be very interested in tasting the impact that brett has on wine. Is the wine mentioned above commonly available in better wine stores? Or are there others that can be predictably brett-laced that I could look for on store shelves? Or is it really more of an accidental anomaly to find these outside of wineries?


Director, Lab Outreach said...

Worms and cans notwithstanding, I'm just impressed you used the word organoleptic!

Edward said...


Will re read the article tonight, but I can't recall he mentioned at what point to make the addition.

The levels I mention are in finished bottles. Presumably the levels would increase in time, as it tends to bloom in the bottle.

David McDuff said...


Good to see you here.

You're right, I'm quite aware that brett also plays a role in brewing circles. I don't write about them as often as I'd like or should, but I'm a big fan of the beers (including the brett-influenced bottlings) from Jolly Pumpkin, Avery and Russian River here in the US, as well as the Gueuzes from Drie Fonteinen and Cantillon, just to name a few.

The big difference here is that while brett may be tolerated up to certain levels by some wine makers, it's rarely embraced and even more rarely, if at all, intentionally introduced.

As withe Gueuze production, where brett plays a natural if unintentional role, there are some winemakers who view brett as a natural part of wine production and are tolerant of it as long as it doesn't reach high enough concentrations to cause total spoilage, while others go to extremes of biochemical and/or microbiological manipulation to eradicate it at all costs. Again, though, I'm not aware of anyone in wine circles that's intentionally using brett as part of the primary fermentation yeasts or intentionally introducing it to their barrel aging regimes as are some brewers (Russian River, etc.).

All of that makes your main question a tough one to answer. You'll be hard pressed to find a '99 Alary on the shelves anywhere; this bottle had been resting in my cellar for the last 8-9 years. There is wine such as the Chateauneuf-du-Pape from Beaucastel that is (in)famously brett-laced, but that's a very expensive starting point and even then there's no guarantee that brett levels will be high enough to be overtly detectable. You could explore other less expensive Rhone wines, or try what some refer to as "natural wines" (no or low S02, no filtration, etc.) but, frankly, they're no more guaranteed to show brett influence than are new-oak-aged, modern reds from California or Australia.

It's not an accidental anomaly to find brett infected wines outside of wineries; it's just somewhat accidental (though not entirely uncommon) to find and recognize them, period.

Of course, you could always try asking the sales person in your favorite/local wine shop to point you toward an example... but good luck with that here in PA.

If anyone reading this would care to suggest a particular wine that should be at least reasonably easy for Bryan to procure, please do.

David McDuff said...

Mr. Director,

That one was just for you, JD. I checked and, sure enough, is still available and just waiting to be registered....


You make a great point:

"The levels I mention are in finished bottles. Presumably the levels would increase in time, as it tends to bloom in the bottle."

I must admit that I was thinking of the effects of an essentially static level of brett over time, how it might be balanced by young, primary fruit but become less palatable as the wine grows more delicate/tertiary with age.

But you're right, brett certainly can continue to bloom in the bottle. Perhaps my photo cropping left out a key piece of information -- "Vin Non-Filtré" -- that appears below where the label is torn/wrinkled. I'm all for not filtering but it's a practice (or a lack of practice?) that always carries with it some concomitant risk.

TomHudson said...

I personally like brett, to a limited extent.

Looking back at my early Rhone tasting notes from the late 90's, its now more apparent that the barnyardy, bacon fat notes I wrote were more likely the influence of brett.

My problem now with brett inflicted wines is their inconsistency. I've bought cases of the same wine, same vintage and have noticed that some have just the right amount to my liking, the next bottle way too much.

I'm also trying the brett tainted beers too, and I think, overall, it is a compliment to them, not a detriment like it is to wine.

The Bloggers @ 67 Wine said...

Hi all,
I'm not so sure that it is such a big problem as long as total spoilage is avioded, and barnyardy notes are acceptable with the pairing.
Some wines:
Traveres de fontanes
Maupertuis la guillaume

all of the wines seem to be in that vein, but brett is very touchy- and can appear or not depending on the bottle.

TWG said...

Traditional Belgian ales and milk stouts are apparently the most likely to have Brett

David McDuff said...

Tom H,

Are you currently pouring any brett-inoculated or brett-affected beers at Domaine Hudson?


Thanks for the supporting comments and for the quick list. Musar definitely came to mind, but then there's VA to deal with tasting/discerning on top of brett....


Thinking of any in particular?

TWG said...

None in particular but I'll try to get some ideas.

Gideon said...

A couple of thoughts.
First, the opening question: "Can a wine that's too … in its youth really find harmony with age? … Or is it once imbalanced, always imbalanced, once touched by a flaw, always faulty?"

I have been cellaring wines since the 70s and making wine since the early 90s, and have gradually come to think that, while there are trends and "general rules" to wine aging, there are exceptions to them all, which may or may not be predictable. So with that in mind...

It seems that, while some "flaws" and "imbalances" in wine tend to interfere with its ability to age harmoniously and/or become aggravated with time, others do not - at least not to the same extent - and some may vanish completely with aging. Some may even improve the wine's ability to age, though you may then not label them as "flaws" early on.

Examples of the first group would be high alcohol, low acidity, dilution, components related to rotten/moldy grapes (I am not a chemist, but surely others can fill in the blanks...), and "defective" or "weak" phenolic structure ("pickled" tannins, over-extracted "green"/bitter tannins, etc).

In the second/third groups I would put excessive oak (other than when the wood-tannins overwhelm the grape-tannin structure or the fruit concentration of the wine), low alcohol, high acid, high tannins, most forms of reduction, and leesy-ness.

The difference between the second and third groups may be mainly related to the balance or concentration of the various components in the wine, its variety, etc.

Phenomena like brett, bacteriological bloom (i.e. "lactic spoilage"), and some forms of reduction, I would put these into another category altogether. These appear at a point in the wine’s evolution, sometimes to stay, at times to increase up to the point of "destroying" the wine, and other times to diminish, vanish, or somehow get assimilated into the wine's aromas and/or structure with further aging.

Over the years I have grown to think of wine as a living being, with its own immune system. A wine, depending on factors like its constitution, balance, structure, intensity, may have varying degrees of "ability" to withstand and recover from various micro-biological blooms and the various "stamps" they tend to put on its aromatic entity.

In relation to Brett specifically, I have seen it going both ways. Wines which have shown a bloom while in the barrel only to get "cleaner" with further barrel- and bottle aging; wines which seemed clean in the barrel only to develop an increasing bretty character over extended bottle aging; wines which have shown a bloom early in the bottle only to "assimilate" or “integrate” them later on...

One observation is that specific grape varieties - such as Grenache and Pinot Noir - seem especially hospitable to brett, or at least to expressing its aromatic signature. Others - such as Syrah, Mourvedre, Merlot - seem to be a little bit less prone to that, while still others - Cabernet Sauvignon is the prime example – may be the least likely to manifest bretty character. Yet no one grape variety seems to be completely immune...

There seems to be a correlation between the wine’s phenolic concentration and “integrity” and its ability to resist or assimilate the expression of brett. There is some evidence that the chemical component expressing it, can be integrated into the evolving phenolic structure (e.g. the polymerization process), which may explain at least one scenario of the diminishing brett bloom over time. I have observed also some types of aromatic evolution in some wines, which seemed to have somehow assimilated the brett character into it over time and made it appear to diminish gradually, if not completely disappear.

Bryan Kolesar said...

Thanks David and others for all of the information and keeping the conversation going. Sorry I dropped off the "grid" for about the last week or so.

I look forward to doing more research on the topic of brett and wine......though, have one more question at this point. I think I've read closely and not seen anyone address this:

For those experienced with brett in beer, when I'm exploring wines for brett, will I look for similar flavor and aroma characteristics as I would in beer?

(btw, thanks David for conjuring up all sorts of excited memories of Jolly Pumpkin beers. I can never exercise enough restraint to keep them from disappearing from my cooler!)

TWG said...

More brett in US beer:

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