Two weekends ago I had the good fortune to be part of an epic blind tasting of around 50 bottles of all kinds of great wines from around the world. The occasion? My friend Morgan over at Bedrock Wine Co. was doing some last minute cramming before the practical portion of his Masters of Wine exam. Many thanks again to both he and his pop Joel for their unmatched hospitality and generosity!
Among the sundry wines we tasted was a flight of Chards, three of which were White Burgundy. By far the most memorable was the 2004 Michel Niellon Chassagne-Montrachet “Les Champgains” 1er Cru. And by memorable, I mean palate scarring.
To me this wine was downright soiled. I’m talking Jenna Jamison, rolled in fetid cabbage, lying naked in horse stall filthy. On a scale of one to Brett, I rated it a Brett.
Interestingly most folks don’t think of Brett when they think of white wine. Brett is much more common in reds because they are generally higher in pH (less acidic) and have more phenols, which makes the wine much more hospitable to the little beasties.
When people taste white Burgundys especially, most of the time off-odors are explained as elements of terroir. The Niellon itself was described as “hammy” or having a pork character by a couple tasters. In fact those of us tasting couldn’t agree on whether the Niellon had Brett or not, so I went and had it tested at ETS Labs in Napa.
The chemicals responsible for the barnyard and leather aromas found in Brett infected wines are 4-EP and 4-EG. Based on some research done at ETS, the ratio of 4EP to 4EG is important in the character and sensory qualities of the infected wine. Usually the ratio of 4EP to 4EG is around 8:1. According to the ETS FAQ on ethylphenols,
Three hundred red wines recently analyzed at ETS had 4-EP: 4-EG ratios between 3:1 to 22:1…
4-EG is present in much lower quantities in red wine than 4-EP, typically about 8 times less. However, it is a more volatile compound with a sensory threshold much lower than 4-EP. In a wine with Brettanomyces, both compounds may be well above sensory thresholds.
Perceived Brett character in red wine is influenced by the concentration of both compounds. Variation in the concentration of 4-EG helps to explain why the flavor and intensity of perceived Brett character can be very different with wines having similar 4-EP concentrations.
So what were the results for the Niellon? Well, it had Brett all right. (Click here to download the ETS lab report.) In fact, it has a 4-EP:4-EG ratio of 2:1 with a total concentration of almost 1000 ng/ml. Sensory threshold for 4-EG is around 50 ng/ml, depending on the person.
2:1! Talk about an outlier. Filthy, just filthy.
So, moral of the story: the next time you think you might be smelling Brett in a white wine, especially one from Burgundy, trust your palate. You may very well be right. And if you like how it tastes and smells, trust your palate on that as well. “It smells like what it is.”
One final note. I had two other reds tested. One was an ’04 Ch. Rayas and the other was an ’05 Beaucastel.
Both are very well regarded producers from ChÃ¢teauneuf du Pape, and ’04 and ’05 are considered excellent vintages for the region. Beaucastel has earned a reputation for loads of Brett character in its wines, but it came out clean in a Scorpion assay which detects the presence of Brett at very low levels. It seems they’ve done an incredible job cleaning things up.
Not so with ’04 Rayas. It was infected.
Again though, trust your palate. Both reds, infected or not, were delicious.