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.
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 wineanorak.com:
"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.