Few things in life are as annoying as a smart ass. Unfortunately the wine scene is full of them. I’m sure the majority of people have come across the wine snob – you know, the guy that will casually compare the Chardonnay in his glass to the Chassagne Montrachet that he had the night before. If this does not impress or baffle his dining partners, he’ll chuck in a bit of jargon. Just as you are taking a sip of your red wine, he announces that he detects Brett on the wine.
You don’t know whether you should spit out or swallow the generous gulp you just took. I mean, it sounds like you might contract a life-threatening disease. Now this is not a new topic, but I still come across many people that don’t really know what on earth Brett is all about.
Brett is short for Brettanomyces – a spoilage yeast which was first discovered over a century ago when it caused problems in the British brewing industry. It should come as no surprise that the name was derived from a Greek word meaning “British fungus”. Today Brettanomyces is a worldwide problem; there is not a single wine-growing region on the planet that is free of this potential complication.
How does Brettanomyces get into a cellar? It is a big grey area as to exactly where Brett comes from. French researchers suggest that Brett can be found in the vineyard and carried into the cellar via the grapes. However, the latest research shows that the Brett in the vineyards is not the same strain as the Brett that is spoiling wine. Back to square one. Okay, so we don’t know what the source is, but we do know that there are countless ways of contaminating new, clean wineries: infected second-hand barrels, bulk wine, contaminated equipment, even little vinegar flies and human beings can bring in this unwanted guest into a clean environment. Problem is, once these little buggers get into the winery, it is really difficult to get rid of them.
How does one manage Brett in a winery? It all boils down to basic cellar hygiene. Taking into account the numerous sources of contamination, this is easier said than done. Brett can be detected via sensory analysis (smelling something funny in the wine) or more than likely with laboratory analysis. Once you detect the first signs of Brett in the winery you have to wash and sterilise everything that could be contaminated, or even better, chuck it out of the winery. This sounds pretty simple, but is takes major cleaning up to get rid of Brett contamination.
So what exactly does this Brettanomyces do to wine? When it grows in wine, it forms flavour components described as mousy, Band Aid, horse sweat and even spicy. Now, the big question is: Exactly how bad are these flavours? This is dangerous territory: Some winemakers and wine writers say that it is microbiological spoilage. Hence, they go for zero tolerance because Brett is bad and kills the character of the wine. Others argue that a low level of infection can actually enhance the quality and complexity of some wines. After all, quite a few of the top French wines show a fair amount of Brett.
I’m not going to stick my neck out and take a stand on this topic, but rather opt for a politically safe conclusion like: This is the beauty of wine; it is all about personal preference!