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The Brett Pack


One of the most widely acclaimed wines in the world is Chateau Margaux. Some people feel the 1989 vintage of this Bordeaux, which sells for roughly $100 a bottle, is about as good a wine as you can buy at any price.

Other people, including a number of Sonoma County winemakers, say the '89 Margaux is undrinkable--infected by a yeast-generated smell that gives it a horsey, leathery, barnyard quality.

In this case, the "spoilage" in the 1989 Margaux, as well as in many other Bordeaux wines, is caused by a strain of yeasts called Brettanomyces --either lambicus , custersii or bruxelensis-- known simply as "brett" to those in the industry.

Brett has long been known as a "wild" yeast strain that is difficult to control and that ferments in a way different from the more common yeast Saccharomyces cereviseae . Brett can leave a wine with an odd aroma. Some people love this character, which they refer to as cedar-like, earthy or mushroom-y. Occasionally one hears the terms "meaty" and "gamey" in reference to it.

But there are those who don't like the aroma, and I'm among them. I find that it leaves the wine with a dank, less-than-fruity aroma when young and sometimes a coarse, metallic aftertaste and a propensity to make the wine undrinkable when aged. I'm not alone; consider these descriptions of the brett aroma from other wine drinkers: "wet wool," "sweaty horse blanket," "mousey," "wet dog," "chicken droppings." And worse.

At a recent blind tasting of 1989 Bordeaux, a group of Sonoma County winemakers found the aroma of brett in the aforementioned Margaux as well as in wines from Mouton, Pichon-Lalande and other top-rate chateaux.

Bordeaux is not alone in this. One California winemaker who makes Rhone-style wines tells me he has almost never had a clean bottle of the Rhone wine from Chateau Beaucastel, which gets rave reviews in some quarters. "It reeks," he says.

Brettanomyces once was rare in California wines because winemakers fought its development by adding sulfur dioxide to wines and using prepared yeast strains rather than wild yeasts. They also filtered their wines before bottling.

But in recent times, at least two winemakers--in an effort to make more "complex" wines--have not been fighting the growth of Brettanomyces. In fact, they are actually encouraging it. Those winemakers, who acknowledge they allow brett to grow in their Cabernets, are Nick Goldschmidt at Simi Winery and David Ramey at Chalk Hill Winery, both in Sonoma County.

One wine that has a noticeable trace of brett aroma is 1990 Chalk Hill Cabernet Sauvignon ($18), a deep and concentrated wine with appeal. Some people like it a lot, but others are lukewarm because of the brett aroma. Another wine with a trace--but noticeable--amount of brett is the 1989 Robert Mondavi Cabernet. Industry sources say Mondavi's winemakers have fought brett for more than 15 years, some years more successfully than others.

Simi's Goldschmidt calls having brett aromas in a wine a style choice. "We're looking for fruit first and then complexity," he adds. "I don't like high brett character; I don't want to see it as a strong element."

Zelma Long, president of Simi, says she has been fighting brett aromas for two decades, sometimes unsuccessfully, and the decision to allow the organism to grow early in the fermentation of some Simi wines is simply to learn how to control it.

Ramey says he feels the use of wild yeasts (instead of prepared yeasts) makes for more complex, deeply flavored wine and he isn't opposed to having a trace of the aroma in his wine. "We don't encourage (brett) or discourage it. It's simply a part of the wild yeast and we're dealing with it in the winery."

To academics such as Roger Bolton, a professor in the Department of Enology at UC Davis, brett is just plain spoilage.

"Any time there is a microbial trace that is unintentional and not deliberately pursued, it is spoilage," says Bolton. "The same goes for volatile acidity (a vinegary smell), diacetyl (butteriness), and other wild yeast flora that are not Brettanomyces. "

Ken Fugelsang, a professor at Fresno State University, recently concluded six years of research into brett and an associated ailment called Dekkera intermedia. He describes wines intentionally made at Fresno with Brettanomyces under controlled conditions as "defective when they were young and over the long term questionable." He says his findings (a comprehensive review will be published soon by the American Chemical Society) conclude that brett is best avoided.

"We are advising people to proceed with extraordinary caution because there are several strains of Brettanomyces in the wild," says Fugelsang. "Some may add complexity, but others are clearly spoilage.

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