There are a few common faults in wine; the most frequently encountered is wine that’s corked (discussed separately), but amongst other faults there is also wine that’s prematurely oxidised, wine that’s showing too much volatile acidity (or VA) and what we want to discuss today, wine that is infected by the naturally occurring yeast Brettanomyces, better known as Brett. So how would you recognise a wine that is infected by Brett and how did it happen?
Well, how it happened is easy enough to answer. The Brett yeast is often found around wine-making equipment and in particular old barrels (it likes wood) if all the equipment is not kept scrupulously clean. It’s more likely to infect wine made and matured in cellars where a more natural approach to wine making is undertaken and there is more old wood than highly scrubbed stainless steel. Generally speaking it’s something that you’re more likely to encounter in the Old World and in particular Burgundy, the Rhône and Southern France that you are in the New World, where cleanliness is usually regarded as paramount. It’s also far more likely to be encountered in red wine (though not exclusively) due to the higher pH (ie lower acidity) and phenols in red wine, which is just the environment the sweaty little chaps like.
So how does it effect wine? Well, it’s not the good and necessary yeast the converts the grape sugars into alcohol, but another one that masks the varietal character of the wine and imparts flavours variously described as sweaty saddle, barnyard, horse sweat (what’s that like?!), wet leather or wet dog. Lovely! It’s debatable whether a little Brett is a bad thing or not, but a lot is surely not a good thing. Debate rages as to whether it should be considered a fault or not if present to any degree at all (usually the Australian stance – “dirty wine“) or whether it should be accepted as an attribute of the practise of a more natural hands-off wine-making process. In the New World you have more winemakers aiming for scrupulously clean stainless-steel fermented wine making with the varietal fruit to the fore, where Brett is unlikely to be encountered. In the Old World however the is a more laissez-faire attitude with lots of old cellars and old wood and the punters are used to wines that have quite a bit of Brett and they are often comfortable with it. However, an old cellar and natural practices doesn’t mean you have to have high levels of Brett and things are changing in France where people are realising you can still have wines with great local character but without Brett. Ultimately you just have to trust what you like; there isn’t a precise level that once crossed the wine becomes faulty – each individual will have their own threshold below which they can tolerate or even enjoy the Brett character and above which they find it OTT, masking the character of the wine.
I gave a tasting the other day that included a bottle of 2006 St. Joseph Cuvée Prestige from the quality co-op Cave de Saint-Désirat. You can get it from Waitrose for about £12.50, though it’s sometimes reduced to about £10. I’ve had this wine quite a few times and it’s always been very good, with pure Syrah expression and a lovely perfumed lift. It’s also won several awards, the 2007 vintage taking a bronze recently. However, this particular bottle was too high on the Brett for me, making it more farmyardy than I would have expected and detracting from the joy of the pure Syrah – the base fruit flavour was really masked by the sweat. It makes it hard to assess in a way, as it still had the lovely peppery and perfumed lift synonymous with Syrah from cooler climates and was long and complex. This is normally an excellent wine, but with this bottle of 2006 I couldn’t get past the Brett. Oh well.
So once you’ve got used to identifying it, you’ll have to work out for yourself how much Brett you can tolerate in a wine. Only you can decide.