Tuesday, August 03, 2004

"Waiter! There's a horse in my glass..."

A Short Discourse on the Evils of Brett (Brettanomyces yeast)

One wonders why anyone would ever seek out a wine described as "horsey", "barnyard", "manure", "fecal", "band-aid", "animal", "leather" or "medicinal".

I'm not sure where (or when) those descriptors even become desireable.

I'll be honest - I'm a prude - my parents raised me not to think of ever putting manure into my mouth. I can't imagine after avoiding such an experience for all my life, why I'd fall off the wagon now.
And what a marketing "holy grail" they've hit upon ~ your product literally tastes like shit and you've convinced people they want to drink it - for astronomical prices, no less!
Next they'll be selling ordinary tap-water in fancy bottles...oh, wait...they're already doing that.

In the US, we avoid making wines with Brett, though some winemakers feel they're paying tribute to European wines by having some Brett character in their wines (or perhaps they're just lazy about their sanitation). Believe it or not, both Robert Parker and the Wine Spectator routinely give wines contaminated with Brett high marks! What's up with this?

In European wines, more than 40% of wines on the market are typically at the threshold level of detection for half the population! And many are well above the threshold. It's usually harder for most people to pick it out in heavier wines, though wines infected tend to taste the same no matter their origin or varietal (from research by M.Malfeito-Ferreira, Instituto Superior de Agronomia, Lisbon, Portugal).
So when purchasing a european wine, almost half the time, I'll get a bottle that tastes like a barnyard just on chance alone. What am I putting up with this for?

Check out the following from
Tom Ostler (link to the full article) in which he has the following from a 1994 tasting:

"...[A] presentation made by Erik Olsen of Chateau Ste. Michelle Winery, Washington was accompanied by a tasting of three wines with varying levels of 4-ethyl phenol, which is a byproduct of Brettanomyces.

1989 Chateau Pichon Longueville Comtess de Lalande, Pauillac: This wine differed greatly from the Washington State wine, showing a classic round Bordeaux bouquet, where the berry character might be described as 'cassis', with just a hint of burnt wet wood offering complexity; this wine had less fruit and had distinctive barnyard aroma, though desirable -- it was quite harmonious. Tests showed this wine to have 15,800 ng/ml of 4-ethyl phenol. The Wine Spectator gave this wine a score of 92 points. "

...eeewwwwww! Yet another problem of Brett infections is that they tend to depress the overall intensity of the fruit aromas in the wine....and then this:

"1992 Cabernet Sauvignon: This was plummy, jammy and 'juice-like' -- it did not have a vinous quality about it. It was tested for Brett, but no 4-ethyl phenol was found.

1989 Cabernet Sauvignon, Chateau Ste. Michelle, Washington: This wine had a beautiful black currant nose, showing lots of fruit and very attractive varietal characteristics. Laboratory tests revealed 4-ethyl phenol to be 3 ng/ml. The Wine Spectator gave this wine a score of 88 points. "

So what's with the inflated scores for wines that have less fruit aromas and vile off odors of large farm animals?
The answer is two-fold.

First, we largely learn about wine from the culture we're in. In the US, the wine culture (viniculture) is rather "Puritanical" (read "abstinance and temperance"). People who start to taste wine, and find they enjoy it tend to embrace those cultures which include wine in their daily routine. These cultures (European mostly) also tend to have a large proportion of their wines infected with Brett, and the acceptance of Brett's effect on wine is taught as well.
(It's the this-is-the-way-wines-are-supposed-to-be syndrome...they tend not to see any problem with it at all.)

Second, people have a wide variation in their ability to detect Brett. To some it's vile at less than 50 ppt (parts-per-trillion), while others don't seem to be able to distinguish it at levels almost a thousand times higher (though they do report that some decrease in the fruit aromas takes place). It won't come as much surprise to the readers that I fall into that special - dare I say gifted? - hypersensitive group which can't stand Brett at any level above ~50 ppt.

To those of you who can't smell it, I'll clue you in that it truly is like a barnyard full of manure, or sometimes heavily medicinal just like a newly opened box of Johnson&Johnson band-aids....and I hope you don't think me rude if I snicker while you quaff.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Congratulation on your 50 ppt sensibility to 4-EP even if the pleasure you gain form it may be very limited. My own Best Estimate Threshold in red wine is about 10 ppb (=microgram/l) which is rather low to the generally as valid average considered 420 ppb. But I would like to stress the fact that I find 4-EP up to a concentration of about 95 ppb sensory positive as it enhances the fruit of the wine. This clearly changes above this value. Considering horse manure: 4-EP alone is not sufficient in my opinion to procude this kind of smell, a tad of addidional isovlaric acidity seems "necessary" to add the necessary animal note.
Kind regards

July 19, 2006 7:19 AM  

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