Brett Should Take A Tip From Brett: Retire

Off to pasture I go

Château Musar Rouge, Bekaa Valley, 1994, about $60 (Review by Broadbent):  Trademark Musar volatile acidity. Well integrated with good meaty and fruity aromas melting together.

Domaine du Pégaü Châteauneuf du Pape Cuvée Réservée, 1993, about $120 (Review by Parker Jr. who gave it 98 points): The 2003 is magical. The dense plum/purple color is joined by flamboyant aromas and flavors of roasted meats…

Bodegas Roda Roda Reserva, 2001, about $60 (Review by Wine Enthusiast Magazine who gave it 92 points):  A deep purple color veils a nose of oiled leather…

What do these reviews by some of the world’s most respected wine critics have in common?  They appear to extol as virtues what are, in a purely technical sense, flaws.

Knock the first one out of the way immediately, because it is just plain silly.  ‘Trademark Musar volatile acidity’?  Mr. Broadbent, please.  Volatile acidity, a.k.a. vinegar taint, is caused by spoilage bacteria within the wine, and it’s not supposed to be there.  If it is ‘trademark’, then something is seriously wrong at the winery—it’s like talking about Jack In The Box’s ‘trademark’ E. coli infections.  I’ve struggled through vertical flights of Musar and trust me, this can be some very odd wine.  As one of Lebanon’s more tenuously located wineries, Musar employees often work in wartime conditions, and couple of vintages were duds on account of Scuds—but Broadbent maintains that he ‘discovered’ Musar during the Bristol Wine Fair of 1967, so he tends to wax over-optimistically about it.  Okay, Mike, you like saddle sweat in your claret, you drink it.

In the above reviews, you’ll also find descriptors like ‘meaty’ and ‘oiled leather’, and if you look up these wines on line, and others from their neighborhoods, you’ll see terms like ‘smoked game’ and ‘bacon’ and ‘barnyard’ used as common characterizations.  Whether or not you crave such carnality in your cab is immaterial: Each should be a red-flag indicating the likely presence of brettanomyces.

‘Brett’ is a rogue fungus which thrives in the warm climats of Spain, Southern France, Italy and similar regions; it lives naturally on grape skins and it may show up, dormant, in old wine barrels (in Lebanon, we call these ‘sleeper cells’) and resurrect itself wherever these barrels are re-used.  Brett is said to have originated in Belgium’s Senne Valley, which makes it the third most unwelcome Flemish export after brussels sprouts and Jean-Claude Van Damme.

So common is it that all wines are said to contain some brett, but certain vineyards have nurtured it, adopting it as their ‘style’.  Among the most noteworthy is Château de Beaucastel, where the microbiology is highly controlled—and in fact, in low doses, brett does add a degree of rustic complexity to these wines.  Problem is, once it begins to spiral out of control, as it will in cellars less hygienic that Beaucastel’s, it can bring down the house.  Wine wherein the brett has usurped the crown takes on the unmistakable aroma of manure.

If you’re like me, you’ll think back on tastings where brett notes either leaped or crawled from the glass, and without a grasp on what this odd critter brings to a flavor profile, you may be a bit confused as to why such wines are often rated very highly (as seen in the above reviews).  It may be in part an Emperor’s New Clothes effect or it may be an acquired taste (the Greeks go ga-ga over retsina, a nearly undrinkable wine that has pine resin added to it, making it taste like a glass of Vick’s VapoRub diluted with turpentine), but if it isn’t a taste you care to acquire and brett flavors strike you as unpleasant (as they often do to fans of New World fruit bombs), you need to be true to your preferences and let them ring from the rafters.

Perhaps surprisingly, even the most tradition-bound moguls will ultimately listen—the USA now outstrips France in numbers of wine drinkers, and selling product is the ultimate goal.  Recent vintages of Château de Beaucastel show markedly less brett than in the past, and worldwide, the trend is toward wines considered more user-friendly.  You may mourn the passing of a signature style, but on the other hand, plenty of houses in Bordeaux, Rhône Valley, Rioja, Piedmont, et al.—while knowing better—grandly attributed their wine’s brettanomyces contamination to ‘terroir’.  This is a huge and unforgivable disservice, since brett is brett and tastes the same whether it comes from Bekaa, Barossa or Burgundy.  Thus, it is the antithesis of terroir.

Not to make too culturally-insignificant an analogy of it, over the past few years we’ve been bombarded with press coverage of another Brett who’d overstayed his welcome, and who finally had the good sense to scandalize himself into some distant pasture of (we can only hope) obscurity.

Would that the brettanomyces take note and do the same.

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