Faulty or Unique?

<Faulty or Unique?>

By Lim Hwee Peng, CSW, FWS

3rd Feb 2012

I recalled an intensely-scheduled visit, years ago, to a classic wine region for a wine festival.

Together with another wine journalist, we spent a week exploring different sub-appellations of the region, as well as visiting several wineries to catch up with wines from their latest vintages.

Through those visits, we tasted a multitude and wide range of wines (from bottle as well as barrel samples; old to young vintages included). It was a fruitful outing, as I was able to acquire a deeper understanding of the regional wine styles. Unfortunately, I have also chanced upon several ‘faulty’ wines, mostly ‘brett’, or wines ‘infected’ with brettanomyces.

Among the wine professionals, some arguments were made for ‘brett’, that it adds character and uniqueness to a bottle of wine (some positioned their claim that brett also represent a sense of place). While others, equally strong in their views, shared that ‘brett’ is simply an unattractive wine fault.

Firstly, what is brettanomyces? It is a yeast-induced wine fault (different yeast types from those that initiate fermentation); a fungus genus rather than bacteria. It can be found on grape skins, most likely in barrels, and unhygienic cellar environment.

‘Brett’ is also infectious, as it can contaminate the contents in a cellar if left unchecked or arrested.

How do we recognize a ‘brett’ infected wine? General descriptors of a brett-infused wine ranges from funky, barnyard, horsey (animal-like?) and sweaty. I was also informed that when ‘brett’ is in higher concentrations, it smells like band-aid.

However, most of those descriptors meant nothing to many consumers in this region; in fact, they do not communicate anything remotely familiar to the locals. I tend to think ‘rubber band’ or ‘plastic’ described ‘brett’ aptly; while the NSF/ NS encounter at the Lim Chu Kang duck farm would be ‘brett’ in high concentration.

Though many wine industry watchers will share that certain wine regions or wine styles are more susceptible to ‘brett’ than others, I personally find that it can appear in any wine producing regions, i.e. both European and non-European wines. It is the setting that determines the proliferation of brett, not location-specific.

So why is there tolerance for such faulty wines?

According to those who are lenient to ‘brett’, in right dosage (although I must admit I am unable to offer a unit of measurement as the ‘right dosage’), it can add complexity and interest in an otherwise one-dimensional wine. Some ‘brett’ lovers will even include ‘soul-stirring’ to the good effect of brettanomyces in a glass of vino.

However, when it turns bad (think of Lim Chu Kang ‘duck farm’), it completely overwhelms the delicate and attractive flavours of wine!

Also, unaware to many, ‘brett’ multiplies as it resides in a bottle. A light touch of ‘brett’ in the initial years of a young wine may presumably contribute uniqueness to a bottle; but as it ages, ‘brett’ will colonize the wine, leading to a wine that unashamedly offers pronounced and full-blown plastic/rubber/duck-farm nuances!

Fortunately, through years of trial and error, sharing and research on the topic, vintners and winemakers are aware of the sources/ origin of ‘brett’ (almost everywhere, from vineyard to grape, native yeast, bottling line, new or old oak barrel), the environment that encourages it (ultra-ripe, high alcohol, high pH red wines), and ways to manage it (Sulfur dioxide and filtration are important tools).

(NOTE: generally, brett is not a problem in white wines, because of their lower pH, although some strains of brett are also known to reside in white wines)

Where does one draw the line when they chanced upon a brett-filled wine? Should we regard such character in a bottle as unique and to be well regarded, or should it be simply labeled as faulty and be treated as such?

It is still a controversial issue that is plaguing the wine world, and it is a matter that continues to be divisive among the professionals.

In communicating the relevance of such issue to consumers, perhaps using an analogy to illustrate such controversy would probably be more meaningful.

‘Brett’ is much similar to a less than desirable behaviour of an individual; good-natured people may accept a childish or intimidating (spoiled-brat) character of a person as part of his/ her natural being, but it does not mean that such unwelcome social expression should be tolerated…or should they?

Wine Faults in Social Setting: Socially, I have realized that recognizing and getting acquainted with ‘brett’, as well as other traits of a faulty wine, sometimes work against me.

When a fault was spotted in a glass, others would have either tolerated or embraced it (acceptance or ignorant reasons); yet for me, such awareness works like a ‘curse’.

When my nose was alerted to a fault wine, almost instantly, it triggered an unpleasant reaction in my consciousness. Such realization alienates me from enjoying wines socially.

During such hapless moments, I wonder should one be attuned to wine faults when most wine consumers are less sensitive to such issue; or should it be an awareness that remain exclusive to the wine world and its ‘inhabitants’.


Clos du Mont Olivet Chateauneuf-du-Pape 2007

Wines from certain European origin tend to get the heat when ‘brett’ is being mentioned. One such unfortunate place is Rhone Valley. One glance at the environment that encourages brettanomyces (warm temperature, high alcohol, ultra ripe and high PH red wines), we can understand the logic for this less-than-glamorous accusation of Rhone wines.

Nevertheless, wines from this region have managed ‘brett’ much better than many have thought.

Clos du Mont Olivet in Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Southern Rhone Valley is one such winery that is well-attended to.

Thierry Sabon is the current winemaker and has produced a bevy of exciting wines in his family winery. I met Sabon at the Michelangelo International Wine Awards 2009 in South Africa, when we were part of the international panel of judges.

With semblance of a younger Lee Majors (who acted in The Six Million Dollar Man TV series in early to late-1970s), this Hollywood celebrity lookalike did not succeed his family business through good looks alone. Coming from a technical background, this soft-spoken and amiable Rhone winemaker believes firmly in producing a traditional wine with modern nuances, as well as managing some of the inherited burdens, such as ‘brett’.

I have tried Sabon wines (from Le Petit Mon to La Cuvee du Papet) with fellow wine judges at one of the post-judging dinner, and was pleasantly impressed by its purity and traditional expression.

When I was unable to lay my hands on one of his wines locally, I went to Hong Kong, after Sabon informed me of the nearest Asia cities that list his wines, to purchase them.

Thankfully, Clos du Mont Olivet’s wines are now available in Singapore through local wine merchant – J&D Burleigh.

Vintage 2007 for Chateauneuf-du-Pape (CDP) seems like an easy sell, to the extent, some of the wineries thought the brisk sales were bad for business, as it impacts negatively on previous years’ stocks (e.g. those sampled 2007 CDP would be reluctant to buy 2006). 2007 impresses with sweetness, purity and freshness, which are what Clos du Mont Olivet CDP offers, especially in the mid palate. This medium to full-bodied red wine, blended from Grenache (80%), Syrah and Mourvedre with other Southern Rhone blended varietals such as Cinsault and Counoise, also impresses with its silky texture, dense and well-balanced flavours that are firmly supported by fine tannins.

Although this CDP contains a whopping 15.4% in alcohol, thankfully, on the palate hardly any impression of burning sensation or alcohol warmth were registered. The refined structure, pleasing fruit sweetness and a balanced expression may have mitigated the higher than usual alcohol content, but such proportionate outcome in a bottle is also evidence of the maker’s deft skill. More importantly, this stylish and fine CDP exhibited no haunting ‘duck farm’ or ‘rubber band’ bouquet.

This wine is suitable for:

Fine French cuisine

Fine Chinese cuisine

Fine American cuisine

Business socializing occasions (dinner)

Price per bottle: SGD$53.50

Available at: J&D Burleigh Pte Ltd

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