“Sod the wine, I want to suck on the writing. This man White is an instinctive writer, bloody rare to find one who actually pulls it off, as in still gets a meaning across with concision. Sharp arbitrage of speed and risk, closest thing I can think of to Cicero’s ‘motus continuum animi.’

Probably takes a drink or two to connect like that: he literally paints his senses on the page.”

DBC Pierre (Vernon God Little, Ludmila’s Broken English, Lights Out In Wonderland ... Winner: Booker prize; Whitbread prize; Bollinger Wodehouse Everyman prize; James Joyce Award from the Literary & Historical Society of University College Dublin)





25 October 2011



The Valerian Twine Of The Brett
Unravelling Some Voodoo Knits
Most Will Not Smell It The Same


Science is a furtive bastard. It lurks back there somewhere, silent and smug, conducting its perfectly precise white coat exercises in secret sanitary places, doing stuff you never run into on buses or in bars.

Until you make a really bad mistake, when suddenly it sends out an officer to sting you.

Scientists don’t seem to consider that what happens in my brain is your actual thinking. Being a free-associative synaesthete type, I tend to quote shards of science with a dangerous abandon, similar to the sort that thespians use when they pull out strands of Shakespeare.

To keep the knitting of our presentation of ideas in one silky, alluring scarf, creative types use bits we don’t necessarily understand. And then, sometimes it’s not a scarf, but more your tatty sweater with the elbows out and the cuffs unravelling. My point being that unlike scientists, intellectual vagabonds like me can elude the clinical precision of science and change approach, topic, hue and volume at whim. We can unravel as much as we knit and spin; even embroider miserable rags of thought with glittering brocade.


If I’m lucky, this happens whenever I talk about pheromones, the mysterious chemicals that we cannot necessarily smell, but which have a very precise influence on our behaviour, whether we’re aware of it or not. They’re like hormones which drift on the air. In this instance, my sloppy, imprecise manner is largely triggered by the vast vacuum of knowledge of pheromones which science has yet to fill with bar graphs and pie charts. I wish they’d get on with it.

Which leads this particular piece of unravelling straight to the exquisite Fino restaurant, in Willunga, McLaren Vale. I was invited to a special dinner there last week, to honor and entertain Lisa Perotti-Brown, the ambassador to Australia from the court of Robert Parker Jr., allegedly, and contentiously, the most influential critic on Earth. He’s a wine writer in Maryland USA, and the charming Lisa now does his Australian work for him. She keeps a respectful distance from both of us, and lives sensibly in Singapore.


The dinner was about Grenache. Respected McLaren Vale makers of this misunderstood grape, Corrina Wright (Oliver’s Taranga), Peter Fraser (Yangarra Estate), and Justin McNamee (Samuel’s George) mounted a dinner-time comparative tasting, pouring their own Grenache wines alongside some famous and expensive French ones. To do some very risky unravelling, I generally thought that the Australian ones seemed brazenly juicy-fruity, while the French models were thin and mean. Had I drunk either lot without the other, I would have enjoyed them much more: it was the challenge of the comparison that exaggerated their polarities, making them seem more extreme.

Apart from the higher natural acid and lower alcohol of the French wines, the biggest reason for their tight, slender nature was their level of difficult yeasts of the genus Brettanomyces and Dekkera. Most people in the Australian wine business loosely call these Brett, and regard them as a pestilence.

With their usual lack of precision, winemakers regard Brett as something that smells of a range of things that stretch from barnyard, horse sweat, mouse piss, wet animal, rancid cheese and wet leather through Band-aid and burnt plastic to medicinal and metallic.

Frequently, I believe, they confuse Brett with the perfectly-named trichloranisole, the aroma of the worst cork taint.

Generally they – we, in this case – agree that Brett can cause a dramatic loss of the primary juicy fruits and the jello and jam which Australian wines tend to exude since Adelaide University decided that’s what Australian wines must be like, whether anybody wants to drink them or not.

Outstanding examples of wines completely gutted by Brett were the Hill of Grace vintages from the later ’nineties and a few vintages of Cape Mentelle reds from about the same time. Some had no fruit, and they’d have much less now - they were skeletons then, and they’re be drier ones now. The cellars must have been riddled with it. D’Arenberg (which maintains a Brett tank) sometimes shows quite a lot of it; many really lovely wines show a little.

But contrary to the assertion that the hole left in place of this fruit is filled by plastic odours, like Band-aid, Elastoplast or Tupperware - which are all softened by oestrogen, by the way - I think along the earthy lines, and find Bretty wines to smell more like coal dust: the acrid, slightly woody smell of railway stations in the days of steam, combined if you’re lucky with the hearty barnyard homeliness of the harnessed hay-burning meat horses that delivered one there to catch the snorting iron model.

Where most judges write “Brett” in their tasting notes, I prefer “BSA”, an acronym for boiler-stoker’s apron. You get my drift: the acrid reek of coal and red hot iron, along with the stoker’s stale cooked sweat and the oil and grease that kept those mighty engines alive, all festering and oozing in an ancient patch of roasted animal hide preserved by tannin.

Brett occurs harmlessly in many fermented foods which don’t smell like railway stations. It is a much adored component of sourdough yeast, for example, which is one of the instances where I agree it can smell like oestrogen-softened plastic. And it’s a vital part of the Lambic beers of Belgium, many of which are also flavoured by fresh fruits: the brewers gradually infuse whole berries in the beer in big old oak barrels. In many cases, the fruitiness which these cherries, strawberries and raspberries impart counteract the acrid dryness of the yeast, bringing an entertaining see-saw of flavours to the mouth.

Over the centuries the Belge adapted their brewing and communal palate to accommodate the aromas and flavours of Brett, even developing accompaniment cheeses to help allay its acrid edge. But lacking the time and patience to evolve similarly, South Australia’s original country breweries were killed by the same yeast.

While it’s not its preferred habitat, Brett lives well in oak. It likes the sugars of wood, and so can strike new barrels as hungrily as dirty old ones, and it will live happily in old rafters and the ceilings and walls of cellars. It prefers porous woods, as they contain more oxygen.

In those days ales were fermented and delivered to pubs in oak barrels, which spread the yeast from cellar to cellar: the pubs became the blending bowls, and while they knew they had an infection in their business – they called it The Fox - they neither understand it nor had the nous to control it. By 1938 most of the little Mount Lofty Ranges breweries were Bretted clean out of business.

Pity they didn’t hire Penfold’s wine scientist, the great Ray Beckwith (above), who's about to hit his tonne, but was at that time secretly unlocking the wine side of all these puzzles in his lab at Nuriootpa. If Beckwith, who still lives in Nuri, worked in the brewing business, South Australia’s beers would be very different drinks now.

Brett, and its common destructive bedpartner, acetic acid bacteria, are among the rare critters that can survive the alcoholic rough-and-tumble of wine fermentation. They are tough critters, but winemakers can keep them under control by using sulphur dioxide and minimizing oxidation.

Acetic acid bacteria produce the acid of vinegar, which we call a volatile acid, as it will boil off, as opposed to the natural malic and tartaric acids of wine, which will not, and are thus highly useful in cooking. Apart from this volatile acetic acid, scientists generally regard the volatile phenolic compounds, 4-ethyl phenol and 4-ethyl guaicol, both “spoiler” products of Brett, as being responsible for those other “off” odours.


But perhaps the most critical aromatic ingredient in this mysterious foment is the fascinating iso-valeric acid (IVA). This natural fatty acid is found in many plants - but most famously the medicianal herb, Valerian - and is a vital blending tool for parfumiers, who love to play with its alluring fruity, floral esters: Methyl valerate is flowery; Ethyl valerate, pear and loquat-like; Ethyl isovalerate is apple-ish and Amyl valerate’s more like pineapple and jackfruit, even durian.

A powerful and vital pheromone for many species, IVA exists on nipples and in armpits and between toes. In mild doses, it is the attractor that will draw a suckling babe to nuzzle one’s pap through clothing - even the barren male breast. It is the pheromone that will make grown men quiet and protective when they enter the home of a breast-feeding mother: it appears to lower their testosterone. But in powerful concentration, it does the opposite.

In intermediate concentrations, IVA is the cheesy aroma of toejam and stale sweat, and the earthily human-and-horse component of my railway station with its harnessed Clydesdales and sweaty boiler stokers. But in extremes, it is the smell of the footy changing-room or the battlefield, where it is believed to actually make men more uncontrollably violent and women mesmerized, then quite sensibly terrified.


IVA is the anticonvulsant, mood-stabilising agent in the herb, valerian, which big pharma has only recently managed to mimic with the dodgy benzodiazepine drugs. An efficacious sedative, valerian root eases insomnia, nervous tension, hysteria, excitability, stress, intestinal colic, irritable bowel, and cramps.

However, in some humans, similar to benzodiazepine, the same plant does the opposite, agitating them, triggering twitchiness, asthma, hives and giddiness.

Valerian hypnotises cats, much like catnip, and can be used as rat bait. It will draw a rutting male moth in a straight line for kilometres, and, especially if dissolved in milk, will make a male rabbit pup nuts with hunger and lust. Slime moulds, which thrive in cellar timber and dark, damp stone walls, love it.

Like a music-mixing deck, IVA manages the way different human noses “hear” the other less alluring aromatics that Brett produces in wine. The depth of one’s reception varies dramatically, depending on the genes.

To mex the mitaphor, consider another sense, sight, and colour blindness, which varies widely in form. Some folks have a specific anosmia, which means they don’t detect some odours as well as other people do. More extreme is specific hyposmia, which means their sensories simply can’t detect some smells at all. While some pheromones have no odour, our scientist friends have done their most intensive research on the sexiest ones which do: musk; androstenone (the wild boar pheromone), and IVA.

So, subconscious reception aside, we now know that some humans can smell IVA at one ten thousandth the minimum concentration required by others, and we know these variances are genetic.

Which begins to explain why some effete winos can’t handle the faintest whiff of Brett, and others, like the Mediterranean Spanish and French, and their buyers for centuries, the English, seem to love a squirt of it. Given the pheromone’s sweaty roots, I suspect a reliable index of this lies in each community’s attitude to showering – it seems a mark of triumph amongst south-of-France humans to determinedly return to their official partner unwashed after their regular afternoon shag with the mistress or mate. What’s a bit of Brett against that background mentality?

I quite like my dash of Brett, in there with my Methyl valerate, Ethyl valerate, Ethyl isovalerate, Amyl valerate, my oak, and my fruity Grenache, which I regard as a sort of rustic precursor to Pinot noir, which can be the most sensual grape of all.

In fact, I regard Pinot as a cross of Grenache and Riesling, which is another piece of knitting altogether.

So, you whitecoats, some questions: as valerian prefers hard stony ground, how does the incidence of IVA vary with vineyard ground, and how does this influence the way different humans detect Brett in wine?

How much IVA can be found in the stalks of grape bunches? Is this a reflection of the vineyard’s geology?

How much influence does IVA have in my decision that certain wines have an alluring or detestable balance of fruit and Brett? How many others feel like me?

How many kays must I fly? Where should I suckle? In this ocean of bacteria, will it help me extract a strand of Shakespeare?

(with thanks to Heiner Mueller)


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Chad said...

It's about time you built in a 'Share' function on your stories, Mr White, so I can alert my friends to your entertaining writings!

During 3 years of sensory studies at a local zombie winemaker production facility, even during bracket after bracket of French wines, all present were trained to acknowledge the presence of brett as a terrible fault. "It's Faulty!" They'd exclaim' "Terrible! Errgghh it taskes like dirty dishwater." These comments were encouraged by staff and international students alike, so at leat this isn't an Aussie problem. One lecturer even called it "The Beast". Wines suffering from "The Beast" were shunted aside, marked down and ridiculed for their poor hygiene practices and (usually) high prices.

Maybe 3 or 4 students from that class of 60 would see that the brett character was adding something, another layer to look and and unravel, decipher. To quote someone else, you do get a sense of place with those slightly dirty Frenchies and Italians (and sometimes that place is just up Osborn Road if you're drinking a Derelict Vineyard...) and it adds something. Occasionally you'd get a short debate on the added complexity the subtle amount of brett character added, but due to the sheer weight of numbers, it was always a short debate.

You can deliciously lightly oak a white wine, but totally murder it with too long in the same timber. Why is the same not proclaimed with brett? When these new earthy and 'barnyardy' varieties are being welcomes with open arms, we still want to put anything with the slightest hint of brett in the same reject box.

Often our wines are too clean and clinical. Hell, we even see recipes on back labels! Ferment - 10 days, Oak, 9 months, 80% new oak, 73% shiraz 27% grenache... The Europeans have it right, you often have no idea of what variety you're even drinking, leaving you with an exciting journey through the bottle.

Maybe that spammer above can bottle some brett on his website and ship me some.

Philip White said...

If you click on the headline above any entry, Chad, you'll be flicked to that story, unique. At the top of the new page you'll find a share feature. Easy.

As for brett, I wonder where the malt whisky business would be without it. Most folks think it's peat.

I like your analogy with oak characters!

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