The Noble Writ Wishes You a Merde Christmas


I track my wine inventory online with CellarTracker, which lets me update my Twitter account with what I'm drinking. Here's a recent example: "Not for the poop-averse, but sleek Cab. Franc underneath."

A good friend replied that he most certainly was poop-averse. A post on this divisive range of flavors and aromas was in order.

Unlike cork taint, which is universally regarded as a fault, these flavors and aromas -- in more polite terms, barnyard, horseblanket or the honest French merde -- provoke a wide array of reactions. In my experience, they run the gamut from slightly wild aromas of sweat, silage and animal to more gamy odors of mulch, compost, decay and, yes, poop. As with cork taint, each individual's threshold for detection and tolerance varies. Some love these rustic flavors, while for others even the tiniest doses are too much.

The primary source for these barnyard aromas is the wild yeast brettanomyces, or "brett" in wine circles. A wine afflicted with too much of its influence is referred to as bretty.

The dreaded -- or is it? -- brettanomyces - USER "MAXDESBACCHUS," WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
How does brett get into wine? It can be present on grapes when they arrive in the winery. Last week, I discussed natural wines, including the use of natural yeasts to perform the fermentation. Unfortunately, brett is one of these natural yeats. Brett can also be present in the winery building itself or in the wood that comes into contact with the wine, particularly in barrels and other fermentation vessels. Regardless of how it arrives, brett almost exclusively targets red wines.

Many of the techniques that conventional winemakers employ -- sulfites, filtering and inoculation with commercial yeasts -- are designed, in part, to minimize the impact of brett. The application of sulfites, to which brett is extremely sensitive, and the most rigorous form of filtering (sterile filtering) are the best ways to prevent brett from making its unique contribution to a wine.

However, some wineries let brett have its say: notably Chateau de Beaucastel in Chateauneuf-du-Pape and the Bordeaux properties owned by the Cordiers family, especially Chateau Talbot (though they may have since cut down on this character -- I haven't bought any spendy Bordeaux since the '96 vintage). Brett isn't a French thing, though I seem to encounter it most frequently in wines from the Rhone. I've had wines that show significant brett character -- sometimes intentionally, sometimes not -- from all around the world.

As for the bottle I Tweeted about: It was a very natural wine, with only a tiny amount of sulfites added at bottling. As such, it was poorly outfitted to survive a long stay in the sub-optimal temperatures of my cellar. These warmer temperatures let the brett do its slow and steady work. The resulting wine wasn't what the winemaker intended, so I won't out the wine, particularly since it's less than ideal storage was my fault.

Still, I enjoyed the bottle: Its quality was apparent even through the brett, and it matched nicely with some local pork chops that I treated to the faux wild boar marinade from Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

Dave Nelson is the author of the blog Beer, Wine and Whisky. He writes about wine every Tuesday.