Philosophical Approach to Place – Brettanomyces

A number of tweets, Facebook posts and blog posts are sprouting up with reactions to the recent Decanter piece on scientists cracking the genetic code for Brett.  Many writers, bloggers and winemakers have commented on the story and Joe Roberts, aka 1 Wine Dude even wrote that this breakthrough is one of the most significant findings in the development of winemaking in quite some time.  Though cracking the genetic code for what many call a spoilage yeast, perhaps the philosophical consequences of this finding and its effects on terroir and winemaking process overall is where our discussion should be focused.

As we know, Brettanomyces is a strain of yeast that can be very difficult to control.  It can be found in cellar equipment, including oak barrels.  The yeast can also be transferred throughout the winery via fruit flies.  Because Brett can produce barnyard, horse saddle and even ‘poopy’ aromas, it’s fair to say that most winemakers take whatever steps they deem necessary to keep Brett at bay.  And there are some who don’t mind introducing some of these aromas and flavors into their wines, as these winemakers feel that Brett adds a bit of complexity that comingles with the other notes in their wines.  Of course, there are evangelists on both ends of the debate – some winemakers keep their wineries cleaner and tidier than a doctor’s office, while other winemakers leave Brett to do in their winery what it will.  An incredibly high-tech example of the former is Palmaz Vineyards in Napa Valley.  Though I haven’t been to their winery, I once went to a lunch featuring their wines and based on the slideshow they put together, I can’t imagine a more hygienically-correct winemaking facility on the planet.  And on the other end of the spectrum is Chateau Beaucastel, situated iconic Southern Rhone region of Chateauneuf-du-Pape.  As the Pope of All Things Rated, aka Robert Parker, wrote in his book, Wines of the Rhone Valley, “some critics of Beaucastel have argued that the wine possesses an unacceptably high level of brettanomyces… and say that in a finished wine, the wine possesses an unusual, off-putting smell of sweaty saddle leather and horse dung.”

Wines from both Palmaz and Beaucastel come with rather high price tags, but they represent the stark divide that exists among winemakers, critics, consumers and wines at all price points regarding the acceptance of Brett in wine.  So, it comes without surprise that those who believe that Brett is part of terroir (specific to winemaking) dismiss the report that there is a potential for the yeast to be completely eliminated from the winemaking process.  And almost certainly winemakers who cherish pure and pristine fruit driven flavors in their wines are lining up to consult with the geneticists who cracked Brett’s code so they can rid their wineries of what they see as spoilage yeast.  For these winemakers who wish to not have Brett in their wines, winery or vineyard, it seems as though eradicating the bacteria makes sense both economically and helps ensure that a certain style of wine is made more consistently.

One of the questions I posit for the anti-barnyard camp is – Does the absence of Brett guarantee a wine that better captures a wine’s sense of place?  And does this expression of place without Brett necessitate a winemaker to then produce a wine without cultured yeasts, too much sulfur and abandon other ‘interventionist’ winemaking techniques such as reverse osmosis, sous-vide concentration and spinning cones?

As we established above, some winemakers believe that a certain amount of Brett is necessary, either as a part of the winemaking process or as a facilitator of the expression of typicity.  And they contain the excessive spread of Brett more primitive means – cleaning the winery, barrels, etc…  And some believe that Brett should be unbridled and whatever amount finds its way into the bottle is part of a more natural winemaking ethos.

One of the questions I can’t help but ask these ‘more natural’ winemakers is, how much Brett in a wine is acceptable and does the inclusion of Brett in wines mean more than simply having ‘funky’ notes in a wine?  And to follow up, what does funk from Brett in wine really mean?  Clearly the presence of Brett indicates a more natural winemaking process at some level, but does Brett enhance a wine’s sense of place – especially if Brett smells and tastes the same no matter where it’s present.  Brett in Napa Valley will probably yield the same aromas and flavors as Brett in the Bandol, no?

I have my own opinions as to what Brett means in the wine making process*, but I objectively believe that the engineering of Brett out of wines does pose some important philosophical questions that might not necessarily yield clear and exact answers.  For instance, does eradicating Brett using genetic means open a Pandora’s Box of scientific manipulation that will lead winemakers to producing wines that carry fewer and fewer indigenous qualities? Perhaps the floodgates of manipulation are already open as Frankenwines are being produced in every corner of the wine world.  Some of the most highly sought after wines in the world have tannin powder added, acidity removed, become enriched with sugar and beefed up using wine steroids such as Mega Purple.

However, instead of analog additions and extractions, winemakers might be entering a brave new digital world of winemaking that could include more than the simple genetic modification of an unwanted yeast – they might have the ability to alter, with pinpoint precision, the qualities in wine that nature doesn’t bestow upon them in the vineyard.  And that scares the hell out of me.

Your thoughts?

* I do not think Brett is an indicator of terroir in the sense that a bottle of Bandol with brett doesn’t necessarily speak of Provence.  However, I think it does indicate that the winemaker is working towards a more natural wine making environment.  And as long as the barnyardy aromas are in balance with the other qualities of the wine, the expression of place and typicity is not adversely affected.