Is that a “horse” in my wine?

by Liz Caskey on September 19, 2006

smileI asked this somewhat grotesque wine question at a dinner party not long ago, although my intentions were quite innocent; I simply wanted to understand why more and more I was running across these somewhat jarring “mousey”, “poopy”, “sweaty saddle” or “barnyard” smells in Chilean and even Argentinean wines on a regular basis. Wasn’t that a “European” wine characteristic like in many Southern Rhone wines or Bordeauxs? Although some fruit aromas still persisted, they seemed to be shrouded in what could be called a manure-esque earthiness. “Liz”, said a winemaker friend across the table, “these leathery or earthy, sweaty notes are very common in European wines and add complexity in small concentrations. It’s caused by a natural yeast known as Brettanomyces.” Oh, what he meant to say was, in wine geek parlance, “it’s “Brett”. So why are they (deliberately?) appearing in New World wines here in Chile?

Fast forward to this past Friday evening, we pull a bottle of our house wine from the cellar, a Paul Bruno 1999 Cabernet-Carmenere from Viña Aquitania from the Maipo Valley. I am anxious to see how it will pair with my achiote-garlic rubbed flank steak, roasted baby potatoes and a watercress salad. To my utter dismay, upon opening it, there it is again, damned Brett…the barnyard in its full stinky galory (note: this is the second bottle in this case like this!).

What is Brett anyway and how does it “get” in wine and transform it, from leathery to pig-sty-esque?? Brett could be classified as a spoilage yeast where in most wineries it is controlled by carefully using sulfur dioxide during the barrel aging process. A couple winemaker friends seemed to imply that the increasing appearance of Brett in Chilean wines could be due to tendency to employ more European styles of vinification such as natural yeast fermentation, minimal intervention and sulphuring, and higher pH levels, all to produce more pure expressions of the grape, especially for higher quality wines with special vineyards. So if we have a European (or trained) winemaker does that make Brett more likely? To what extent is Brett acceptable?

Just to egg the debate on, I question is if Brett is truly an expression that adds to complexity or does it actually blur the wine lines confusing consumers about the grape and its regional distinctions (including wine geeks like myself). In my (limited) experience, I guess, like everything in wine, it all boils down to one’s own taste. I can remember some great left bank Bordeauxs with that musty, saddle component that added depth to the wine, but then as of late, I have come more across its “crappy” counterparts. Hmm…the only way to really come to any conclusion then is to keep on tasting.

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