My Mate Brett
Posted: 1st April 2022
I was at a wine writers’ dinner not so long ago. We had volunteered to bring bottles from our collections. There was a mature Côte Rôtie from a top grower on the table. I liked it, but I was told by a neighbour it had ‘Brett’. The wine was subsequently severely ostracised. Later on when most of the other contributions had been drunk up, I returned to the pariah. It didn’t seem so bad to me: there were one or two rustic notes that were well in accord with the better Syrah wines I enjoyed in my youth, so I enjoyed another couple of glasses before I left.
‘Brett’ or ‘Brettanomyces’, to give it its full name, is a wild yeast that can give a wine a farmyard character evidently much decried these days. It seems to be particularly noticeable in cask-aged wines made from Syrah (Shiraz) and Pinot Noir. Thirty years ago not much was known about it. When I travelled to Australia in 1990 (where coincidentally every second Australian seems to be called ‘Brett’) to write a book about Syrah, I was fed horror stories about the wines of the Hunter Valley that gave off an unpleasant ‘sweaty saddle’ aroma: a leathery note that could with time become stilton rinds or horse manure. When I finally reached the Valley, some examples were presented to me. One or two of these wines were indeed quite undrinkable.
No one spoke of ‘Brett’ then which was mostly (positively) associated with beer. There were various explanations doing the rounds, the most common was a hydrogen sulphide character or ‘mercaptan’ but with time scientists nailed it down to unwelcome natural yeasts that floated round barrel cellars. Steps were then taken to make wines more hygienically. The farmyard returned to its byre.
The Rhone Valley in France had provided the Syrah grape for Australian Shiraz wines. Working on the same book I visited the cellars of some of the Valley’s top producers on a number of occasions. At Guigal or Jaboulet they showed you with pride the great candyfloss moulds on their cellar walls. They definitely attributed the character of their wines to some magic performed by this fungus. Other cellars were plain filthy, like those of Henri Bonnot or indeed Jacques Reynaud at Château Rayas in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, but together with Guigal and Jaboulet, they were both beloved of the Guru of Baltimore, Robert Parker, who awarded them fantastic scores in his Wine Advocate.
Further north on the Côte d’Or, farmyard smells were also possible; indeed, one of the luminaries of the trade, Anthony Hanson made rather a name for himself by telling the world that good red Burgundy smelled like ‘shit’ (his word). That earthy character I knew and liked in top Burgundy wines I find less and less now. I should imagine that better cellar hygiene and improved technical education has more or less eliminated those unwanted, ambient yeasts.
Wines have certainly made enormous technical progress in the past thirty years. It is now possible to produce a lot more of what I might have called β+ wines for far less money: technically proficient, mostly faultless and made in semi-industrial quantities. They are good, but they are not great. Great wines need something more. I remember a grower in Châteauneuf talking about ‘des beaux péchés’ – ‘attractive sins’ – something that you shouldn’t do but which you allow because it enhances your wine. It’s risky, but sometimes it might turn beta into alpha. It could be a teeny-weeny amount of volatile acidity; it could even be a smidgen of Brett.
One last anecdote: one time my friend Willi Balanjuk took me to see a group of top Styrian growers whose chiefly white wines were eagerly sought after in Austria, Germany and the wider world. The men were much under the spell of a local carpenter who impressed them by knowing a bit about the wines that lay outside their ken. Knowing my tastes, he fished a bottle of 1982 Chave Hermitage out his cellar. The same Parker of Baltimore had awarded it 100, if not 200 points. At lunch he opened it and the growers tasted. The carpenter slurped and pronounced: ‘fehlhaft!’ (faulty). One by one the growers put down their glasses. Once again I happily finished off the bottle.
I thought of this moment when I attended a Tasmanian tasting organised by Tyson Stelzer at Church House in Westminster this month. There were some lovely sparklers from Jansz (Late Disgorged Vintage 2012), Bellebonne (Rosé 2019), Gala (Rosé 2016) and Moorilla (Muse Extra Brut Rosé 2014); but it was the still Pinot Noir wines that intrigued me most. The 2020 Dalrymple exhibited some of those fecal notes that Hanson had extolled in great Burgundy, and it was not alone: both the 2020 and the 2019 Pooley’s Butcher’s Hill were very impressive wines (2020 better of the two), but both had unmistakable farmyard noses. The Coinda Vale from the same house had much less and the 2019 Coinda Vale might have been my favourite wine of the tasting. Moving along I found more of the same at Freycinet and Gala – the 2016 in particular. Not all the Tasmanian Pinots had this character, and I liked several that were not in the slightest bit fecal – the 2018 Tamar Ridge in particular.
By this stage I had collided with an MW friend and asked her opinion of that earthy nose. I wanted to know how, given the fact that Australians had been the first people to come down so hard on Brett, this character was clearly valued in Tasmanian single vineyard Pinot Noirs. She thought for a while and told me they would describe it as a ‘funky’ nose. So funky it is. The next time someone uses the ‘B’ Word, I shall riposte – that’s funky man.
Apart from my Tasmanian epiphany, I have also enjoyed wines at the bargain end. So, for example from Aldi, I tasted a good, new Albariño (£7.99), a Glace de Rocher Swiss Fendant (£9.99), a Kabinett from Okfener Bockstein (remarkable bargain at £6.49), 2020 Castellore Chianti (great value at £4.49) and a 2019 Dealuri Feteasca Neagra (£6.49), 2020 Australian Malbec (£5.99) and best of all: 2021 Pinot Vigilate Central Otago Pinot Noir (£10.99) – delicate, mildly aniseed-scented and not funky at all.
And from Tesco there were good things too, like the incredible value Spanish rosé from Casa Mana (£4.50) or the 2020 Roseline Prestige from Provence (£15) with its hints of tangerines; but the wine I liked the best was La Folie (£14), the sparkling wine from Mirabeau, also in Provence, with its pale salmon robe and fine bready bead and an enchanting little taste of apricots. Bring on the spring!