There is a video down below somewhere but first, let’s talk brett. Brettanomyces to give it its full name is a strain of yeast that has been around for centuries, but which began to appear on the wine radar around 20 years ago, and has really sprung to prominence in the last decade.
We’ll get on to why in a moment, but first, how do you spot its influence in a wine? Tell-tale signs of badly-affected wines are aromas of farmyards and horse-blankets, along with a metallic, medicinal edge like surgical bandages. And there’s never quite as much fresh fruit as you’d like – the wines smell quite developed, even when they’re young, and often finish with raspingly dry tannins.
Sounds horrible? Well, in large doses it can be, but in small amounts… Think of it in musical terms. One minor deviation from the score, and only the musician notices. Three or four, and there a light murmurs from a few members of the audience. Twenty bum notes, and widespread coughing ensues. So it is with brett. There are some who think that a small amount can add complexity to a wine, much as a touch of volatility, oxidation or reduction can, in the right places.
In my experience, the level of brett in a bottle of wine remains much the same as you chug your way through its contents. As some wines take a time to open up, this can mean that a wine that starts off in rather pongy fashion actually becomes more pleasurable the longer it’s been opened. But certainly not always, as was the case with the Chivite wine in the video (honestly, there is one, just keep scrolling down, I’ll shut up soon).
As for the reason we’ve become more aware of it in recent times, much of it can be traced back to winemaking hygiene. As producers around the world have adopted more sanitary working practices, some facets of certain wines that were once thought to be terroir-derived complexities have actually been revealed to be flaws, with brett being among them. An ex-Oddbins buyer recently told me that when he was looking for wines in the mid-1990s, he’d say to the suppliers that they didn’t want them with that stinky Rhône-like character: ‘We hadn’t heard the word “brett”, but we could spot it in a wine a mile off.’
Cleaner cellars should mean less brett, right? Well certainly the hike in hygiene meant that those wineries that hadn’t cleaned up their act began to stand out. But it wasn’t only ancient producers that were making bretty wines – often it was the swankiest of newcomers, looking to produce very ripe, low acid wine with the minimal of sulphur additions which was aged on the lees in 100% (and sometimes 200%) new, highly toasted oak, and then bottled (perhaps with a touch of residual sugar) with neither fining nor filtration. The trouble is, such conditions spell party-time for brett. The barrels in particular are brett heaven – the yeast has been found nearly 1cm deep in oak staves. And the result is wines that were intended to last 20 years or more, but which at less than half that age are dried out and charmless.
With the passing of the fashion for big oak and big alcohol, does this mean there’ll be fewer bretty wines in the future? Perhaps, but yeasts have been known to play dirty…
Nearly at the video, but what do you think of brett in wines? Can you spot it, does it put you off, have you ever sent a bretty wine back in a restaurant, and if so, how did it go down with the sommelier/waiter? Do leave a comment. OK, video time…
Ramos Pinto Duas Quintas Douro 2007, Portugal (£9.99 Whole Foods Market, Roberson, Partridges, Philglas & Swiggot, Planet of the Grapes, Wines of the World, The Vineyard (Dorking), The Secret Cellar (Tunbridge Wells), Wright Wine Company, Stainton Wines, D Byrne, Lockett Bros, L’Art du Vin, Villeneuve Wines, Henderson Wines, Peckham & Rye)
Appealing young red, with bright sweet (but not too sweet) blackcurrant jam, cherry and spice flavours and a firm but juicy finish. B+
Macià Batle Binnisalem Crianza 2006, Mallorca, Spain (£12.25 Bowes Wine)
Starts well with wild, warm, meaty aromas, and promises of sweet figgy fruit, but when you come to taste it, it’s a bit angular and dead-grape/raisinny, and flattened by brett. B-
Viña Pomal Centenario Rioja Reserva 2005, Spain (£11.99 Majestic)
Classic style, with aromas of vanilla and flavours of raspberry, strawberry and orange peel kept in check by a thread of acidity, tasty now, but good for another couple of years at least. B+
Viña Mara Rioja Reserva 2004, Spain (~£10 might still be in some Tesco stores)
A more mature and mellow style than the Pomal, with plush plummy red berry fruit that grows in the glass and a vanilla-tinged spicy warmth to the finish. This was still looking great a couple of days after first opening. S-
Chivite Gran Feudo Navarra Reserva 2004, Spain (£7.99 Waitrose)
The feral meatiness hints at the presence of brett, and while there is some reasonable blackcurrant and raspberry flavour, the dry finish and the dead grape don’t really give much pleasure. C+