Revelations About Brettanomyces in Wine

Originally published in Palate Press: The online wine magazine

By W. Blake Gray

What does Syrah taste like? Are floral aromas pretty? Is a “typical Bordeaux” supposed to taste like medicine and ashes? I don’t know anymore.

I’ve been to a Brettanomyces tasting at UC Davis. I described it on Twitter as spending a day in a room full of laboratory-created stink cells. I couldn’t get the taste out of my mouth for hours.

But the psychological impact … well, I may be scarred for life. As I said at the tasting, “It’s like learning that Darth Vader is my father.”

The seminar was ground-breaking for UC Davis, which previously always called Brettanomyces in wine a “spoilage organism.” This was the first time the university acknowledged that brett is an important part of some wines’ terroir. UC Davis tested 83 strains of Brett and 17 — more than 20% — were regarded as giving more positive impact than negative.

That’s a big deal. Wineries are always looking for some way to boost the deliciousness of their wine. Here is the world’s foremost university on teaching clean winemaking, suddenly saying that Brett — previously derided as the bad yeast that makes your wine smell like rotting corpses — might actually add the scent of roses.

And that’s why I’m wondering whether roses in my wine — something I used to treasure in Gewürztraminer and Riesling, and to enjoy hints of in Pinot Noir and Nebbiolo — are actually the smell of, well, spoilage.

Sac vs Brett

Here’s a brief background on BrettSaccharomyces (let’s call it “Johnny Sac,” for you Sopranos fans) is the “good” genus of yeast that wineries want to convert sugar in their grapes into alcohol. Brettanomyces, a different genus, is a misshapen cousin. They live in similar environments, which is to say everywhere: in vineyards, barrels, wood ceilings, winery workers’ clothing, etc.

Both types of yeast produce, in addition to alcohol, a variety of chemical compounds. This is one reason wines smell and taste complex, although it must be noted that grapes themselves are loaded with naturally occurring aromatic chemical compounds to begin with …