17 Mar 2011

The Author

Adam Eisenberg is a wine writer who lives in Brooklyn, New York. When he's not scribbling notes in front of a glass, or hunched over his laptop, you can find him on his bicycle, which he rides...lots.

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Funky Wines?
Funky Wines

Funky wines?

Let’s find out what type of wine drinker you are: Before you are six glasses; three to your right and three to your left. On your right the glasses are labeled: Blackberry, strawberry, and grapefruit. To your left they are labeled Band Aids, cat pee, and gasoline. Which side do you choose? The fruity or the funky?

Think the choice is obvious? For most it is. But there is another group of wine drinkers out there, the so called “wine-geeks” or “terroirists”, and they want something else entirely out of their wine than just fruit.

Admittedly, I am one of them. I wasn’t always like this, but like many hobbies, the deeper you go the more your passion makes sense to you and confounds everyone else. What started out as fruity became funky, and there’s no going back…well sort of.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s back up a bit for everyone out there who never considered that wine could express such funky notes, to say nothing of desiring them.

Let’s start with the aromas. Like the countless varietals out there, there are thousands of scents a wine can produce, although most wine writers limit themselves to fruits and flowers. Funky wines inspire a similar laziness and the most common descriptors used—besides funky—are: Barnyard-y, earthy, and leathery. When you see these terms, beware, you are entering Funky Town—step inside the gates and you might not want to return.

So let’s not be lazy and expand our funky vocabulary a bit. Other words used to describe the glory of the funky are: Manure, horsy, cheesy, sweaty, smoky, forest floor, soy sauce, cured meats, wet dog, wet wool, bacon fat, and the afore-mentioned trio of cat pee, Band Aids, and gasoline—the last being reserved for Mosel Riesling or Mosel Riesling-esque wines.

And while the words for funky wines can exhaust your moldy, musty middle school thesaurus, there is one word that can sum up the cause for the majority of these aromas: Brettanomyces, or brett for short.

Brett is a yeast, or more to the point, bretty wine is wine that has been affected by yeast. Now for anyone who knows a thing or two about winemaking, you might be asking yourself, ‘isn’t all wine made with yeast?’ Yes, yes it is. But like our two drinkers from the first paragraph—fruity and funky—there are two types of winemakers in this world: those who control the yeasts (often by using yeasts made in a lab and by adding lots of sulfites) and those who, well to stick with the funky metaphor, like to let their hair hang out—they’re not afraid of the naturally occurring yeasts that live in the vineyards, in the cellars, and in the wine…at least up to a certain point.

Brett causes a lot of debate among tasters, with many arguing that it is a flaw. It is, after all, a fungal infection and can, through modern equipment and chemicals, be controlled. Most winemakers use some precautions against brett and even those so called natural winemakers, who use indigenous yeasts and spontaneous fermentation, are very careful about cleaning their equipment to prevent infection. For while Brett can, at least in my opinion, create pleasant, albeit unusual, aromas—dirty wine is dirty wine and too much brett is certainly a bad thing. A bottle of Olivier Cousin’s “le Breton” with a little French country farm scent mixed with fresh berries is one thing, whereas a bowl of milk left out in the sun is another.

The level of brett, or what cause it, requires a chemistry textbook heavier than a case of Beaucastel, the world’s most famous “bretty” wine, to understand. So, instead of making our heads hurt with AP chem, let’s look at the famous Beaucastel, which is also one of the Rhone Valley’s most respected, and expensive wines.  For the record, fans of Beaucastel have often lauded its barnyard and Band Aid aromas as complex notes, indicative of its unique terroir, rather than spoilage. But it turns out that Beaucastel is indeed quite bretty (possessing high levels of 4-ethylphenol and 4-ethylguiacol—the fancy words for brett) as shown by laboratory analysis.

So why the heck would anyone like this? Well as someone who does, I can give you three reasons: The first is flavor. Flavors come in all shapes and sizes, and just as I enjoy the earthy, some say funky, scent of black truffles, or the bite of anchovies, I like my wine to do more than smell, or taste like, grapes. I love Piedmont Nebbiolo for its bitter orange, Loire Valley Cabernet Franc for its pencil lead, and yes, Beaucastel for its Band Aids. I also love typicity, and while some have argued that brett proves that terroir (the notion that soil is responsible for flavor) doesn’t exist, I say it proves that it does. Terroir is not just dirt, but a sense of place, and the natural yeasts that live in a vineyard are certainly part of that. And last, wine is a living, breathing organism. It’s constantly evolving from the moment the sun smacks the vines to moment the cork is pulled. To sanitize wine is to kill it, and that’s not something I want.

Of course to label Brett as the engine behind “interesting” flavors, is simplistic. There’s too much going on in the bottle to lump wines into brett versus non-brett. The petrol in Riesling, for one, has nothing to do with 4-ethylphenol, and the graphite in Bourgueil and Chinon comes from the grapes not microbes. And, of course, wine is made of fruit, so to not have any is just as offensive as having too much.

So back to those six glasses. Perhaps the side you choose says less about the wines and more about our perceptions of them. One taster’s funk is another’s elixir. And if there is one thing I’ve learned by tasting thousands of wines, it’s that tastes change. Whether they get better, or simply more bizarre, is not a question science can answer yet. In the meantime pour me another glass of bacon fat and burnt oranges, but perhaps leave out the wet dog, at least for now.

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