The Importance of the Sommelier’s Apron
Having read Stuart Pigott’s 3 part critique of sommelier culture in New York I found myself both agreeing and strongly disagreeing with some of what he wrote. His piece was purposely provocative – I get that – but there were certain things that I would take issue with.
The first is that Stuart lumped Biodynamics (“black magic wine” in his words) in with natural wine as a part of an authenticity test without explaining the very clear differences between the two. In brief, ‘Natural’ has no legal definition in the world of commerce whether it appears on a bottle of shampoo or a bottle of Chardonnay. The gasoline we put in our cars is natural. It’s just decomposed long since dead trees. But natural is a nice, familiar word we can all easily relate to.
In contrast, Biodynamics was the first organised form of “non-chemical” farming (dating from 1924), use of the term Biodynamic is independently regulated (you have to be government-certified organic before you can be officially Biodynamic), and the Biodynamic idea of making each farm (vineyard) a self-sustaining living organism (my italics) gave rise to the term “organic” or “organics” which first appear from around 1945.
The second is that the whole three part series was short on the good side of natural. Any type of low input winemaking has to be a good thing with our planet in such poor shape. Much of what was written was quite valid – especially the picture painted of fundamentalist wine advocates who preach without having a proper understanding of their sermons. Stuart’s articles and books have had such a positive influence on our collective appreciation of the great but misunderstood Riesling grape in particular and German wine in general, and I was expecting he’d bring some of that same positivity to ‘natural’ too.
Anyway, here are my thoughts on how I think the whole natural scene as relating to somms could be improved. And please excuse me if I get into the weeds – some of these concepts are complicated – there are no easy ways around it.
The Somm as a Beast of Burden
The 2012 observational documentary called ‘Somms’ focused on four guys attempting to become Master Sommeliers, an exam said to have one of the lowest pass rates in the world (Master of Wine exam excepted).
Candidates complete a blind tasting exam, are tested on global wine regions, grape varieties and wine styles, and must be able to serve wine just like in a restaurant (a much tougher job to get right than you might think). Successful candidates are given a special pin and can work in restaurants suggesting the best wine match for one’s lunch or dinner, and a yet more suitable one if one feels like adding extra zeros to the overall spend.
My problem with the system as it stands is it potentially risks over-emphasing the theoretical-academic side of wine, not the what-happens-on-the-winemaking-ground reality, and risks creating a cheerleader mentality of winemaking in which the sky is permanently blue and every grape is perfect.
If you think I am being negative already that’s fine. But I was not too unhappy when my fellow wine writer Andrew Jefford called me “a sceptic by nature who knows at first-hand, as few other journalists do, the kind of compromises and ruses which go on [in wineries when the door is locked from the inside].”
If more sommeliers could perhaps learn the reality of how wine is made by actually having to spend time in noisy and often stressy harvest-time wineries – just as chefs learn to store, prepare and make food in noisy stressy kitchens – rather than just smelling, tasting and pouring it, they would I believe gain both some useful practical skills and a deeper understanding of wine as food, rather than as just a beverage which goes well with food. Some of the best food writers out there used to be (or still are) chefs. They spent years sweating in the operating theatre and know where the bodies are buried.
Cellar masters learn useful things, like how to bottle wine without any cloudiness caused by sediment rising from the bottom of the barrel – most likely during periods of high atmospheric pressure or warm weather. That’s a skill I would like to have if I was a somm, and an elderly customer chose an unfiltered natural white wine but wanted it served slightly warm because wines served too cold make his teeth ache.
A working cart horse at the biodynamic Seresin winery in NZ.
Cellar masters also learn how important it is to keep barrels fully topped up and racking valves, hoses, pipes and pumps clean and thus clear of those microbes which quickly and irreversibly affect both wine’s taste and business profitability. Perhaps the head somm over-ordered wine with a doubtful shelf-life. So go open some random bottles of it and deliberately leave them exposed to air at various fill heights then taste and note over a few days to see how quick they start going vinegary. You can then decide if and when you need to put them on a by-the-glass special to clear the stock.
It is worth remembering that originally the sommelier was a ‘beast of burden’ or ‘bête de somme.' This is the medieval French term from which sommelier derives.
Being a beast of burden meant looking after not only the French king’s wine but his silver and food too.
By the early 1900s the French sommelier’s lot had evolved. France was no longer a monarchy but a progressive secular republic still linked by cobbled roads but also by high speed railway lines upon which wine could be transported quickly and safely in barrel. Parisien sommeliers began wearing aprons to prevent their clothes from being stained whilst hand bottling wines which had been sent up by train from Bordeaux in barrel. The barrels contained any wine the owners of the top châteaux had rejected as not good enough for their main bottling (‘grand vin’).
But over time more sophisticated bottling machinery allied to strong demand meant top Bordeaux chateaux could themselves bottle and sell their second wines – seconds vins or deuxièmes vins.
Eventually sommeliers had to look after bottled wine only, not loose wine sloshing around in barrels and occasionally onto their aprons.
The consequence was the sommelier lost the absolutely vital skillset of being a fully fledged winery manager, doing exactly the same job as a cellar master in a Bordeaux (or any other) château which basically means looking after a living product subject to spoil due to the action of various micro-organisms.
Natural Wine and Finite Lifespans
Wine has a finite lifespan. Wine is the gloriously precarious mid-point between fresh grape juice and vinegar. Human intervention allows the ageing process by which wine turns to vinegar to be slowed down (it can never be stopped). Those turn-of-the-century Parisien somms knew this implicitly through their intimate physical daily contact with unbottled wine - and via the recent work of French scientist Louis Pasteur (Pasteur as in pasteurizing liquids like milk and wine so they keep longer).
But while modern somms have kept the cellar master’s protective apron - to differentiate themselves from mere wine waiters - they don’t have to learn how to do the cellar master’s dirty work - unless twisting off a screwcap or pulling a cork from a bottle of Cristal is considered dirty work these days.
Somms got divorced from the living processes which transform grapes into wine (like fermentation); yet despite this divorce they became (perhaps in some cases unwillingly) arbiters in the craze for “natural wine," a style which has unequivocally positioned itself as being primarily about anti-winemaking.
Now perhaps I am starting to get just why they ditched their winemaker aprons…
Naturalistas saw the rules for organic and even Biodynamic winemaking as allowing too many additives like acids, sulfur dioxide preservatives and even animal-derived products like gelatin to help wines taste smoother or make them look brighter in the glass.
I agree with them on this.
But that doesn’t quite make me a fully paid up naturalista because most organic and biodynamic winemakers support the bulk of the naturalistas’ non-interventionist winemaking ethos anyway.
They know that what does or does not happen in the winery is the easy bit to control. Because in the winery you don’t have to deal with unforseen weather, for starters (unless the winery purposefully has no roof, like Stellar’s in South Africa (a source of extremely good unsulfited natural wine by the way).
The foundation stone of quality wine is the vineyard - as we will soon see with the Seresin winery - meaning the farming, the grape-growing, just as ultimately what defines the quality of the restaurant’s sirloin is the pasture the beast grazed on, not whether it is served rare or medium.
Natural or Aryan Wine?
However, the natural wine movement is a perfectly understandable reaction to the recent era of blockbuster wines created with heavy-handed, interventionist winemaking designed to garner 100-points scores (Somms also played a cheerleading role with this albeit mainly journalist-led trend too).
This type of wine followed three guiding principles:
– selection of “perfect” - in the sense of Stepford Wife perfect - bunches only
– extraction, meaning really juicy fruity wines laden with colour and muscular but smooth Terminator-style tannins
– and concentration, meaning heroic levels of alcohol and toasty vanilla flavours from ageing in new oak barrels to give the wine that friendly comes-with-a-smile McDonalds milkshake feel
The result was an Aryan-style fantasy of the perfect 100-point wine. The fantasy was only spoiled when some of these world-beating wines were accused of being drug cheats - remember Brunellopoli? - which was like the steroid era baseball homerun derby with easy-drinking Merlot becoming the defacto steroid of the wine world.
The reaction to this culture of excess saw the growing interest in the minimal interventionist world of natural wine, in which imperfection is not only accepted but celebrated.
But having been asked in several (in fact in most of the conventional and the single ‘natural’) wineries I have worked in to break the law to turn weakling wines in to vinous Aryans I can understand why a natural winemaker would shrug and say “look, this is my wine, it’s the best I can do. I know it is not perfect, and I know it is a bit rustic-tasting and even a bit dirty-tasting, but I also know it is perfectly healthy to drink because I have added nothing to it. It’s just grape juice turned into wine by wild yeast. OK, I forgot to top my barrels at the right time so the wine got infected with a wild yeast called Brett making the wine taste somewhat rasping with a bitter taste of horse sweat [of which more below]. But we drink it at home and it hasn’t killed us yet…..”
I find this defeatism charming but unconvincing, given wine is a commodity destined for the food and beverage sector. Technical excellence does not automatically equate to soullessness in any field be it sport, music, painting, ballet, food, or wine. Equally, a too-rigid focus on a minimalist ideology is resulting in wines that fail to live up to their quality potential - or hype.
Practical Experience Over Theory – or Both?
As I mentioned above, my view of natural wine is informed mainly by having worked in conventional, certified organic, ‘natural’ and certified Biodynamic vineyards and wineries in both hemispheres.
Getting practical experience convinced me minimalist grape-growing and winemaking is both as possible and desirable for wine as it is for food farming and food processing too. And that it works best when based on rigour and expertise.
The feet on the ground rather than the head in the clouds approach.
In 2014 I produced [and filmed] a small-volume pétillant naturel (‘Monty’s Pet Nat’) sparkling wine from (Demeter-certified) Biodynamic Chardonnay grapes grown by Nick Wenman at his Albury Vineyard near London, England. As far as I know, this risky style of semi-sparkling wine – risky because it must be bottled whilst still fermenting – had not been attempted before in England, let alone from certified Biodynamic grapes.
The trailer for Monty's Pet Nat. Here is the out-take roll.
To make it we began by picking several buckets of grapes a few days before harvest. We crushed them by foot to release some juice and provoke a fermentation via the action of the wild vineyard yeast on the grapes. The French call this a pied de cuve (‘starter yeast culture’). We then sent a sample to the laboratory to make sure the wild yeast strains from the vineyard were healthy enough to make a drinkable, clean-tasting wine (having the wrong strain of wild yeasts would have produced a horrid-tasting wine we’d have lost money on). The lab said Albury’s wild vineyard yeasts were perfect so we used them to make the wine.
We launched the finished (lightly sparkling) wine at one of the now many natural wine fairs. The organisers asked if we had used yeast sold in packets to make it. We obviously said ‘no’ and explained how we had worked with Albury’s wild vineyard yeasts. So we were stunned when they told us what we had done was considered somewhat unnatural but yes we could show the wine (code perhaps for please remember to pay your entry fee as an exhibitor…?).
What drives me nuts at natural wine fairs is winemakers telling me “we are natural so we don’t do this, we don’t do that.”
My answer to them is “don’t tell me what you don’t do, but do tell me what you do do. And why.”
Wine is not made by theory alone.
Wine on Steroids
The biggest issue is not the impossibility of any wine to be truly natural, but the frequent inability of the movement’s proselytizers - which include the organic and Biodynamic movements’ fundamentalist voices too - to accept that natural wine can be every bit as standardised and lacking in individuality, personality, and uniqueness as super-premium trophy wines at one end and Two Buck Chucks at the other.
Whereas wines on steroids can be considered egregious failures of excess - grapes resembling bodybuilders whose juice needed force feeding with vitamins and hours spent exercising on wine’s treadmills – ‘spinning cone columns’ to lower alcohol levels or dialysis by ‘reverse osmosis’ to raise them – natural wines can sometimes provide the antithesis, risking failure via either outright neglect or flawed minimalism.
The Pee Test – and the Difference Between Organic, Biodynamic – and Spraying Loads of Chemicals
I use this illustration when asked to talk about the differences between organic, Biodynamic, natural, and conventional wine and which goes something like this:
Working in a vineyard often means spending all day there. At some stage you will have to pee. In the first vineyard I worked in which was conventional I would pee whenever and wherever I felt like it. Unthinkingly. In the organic and natural vineyards I would pee against a vine, reasoning that at least this way the ‘lucky’ vine might get a bit of extra liquid fertilizer.
In the Biodynamic vineyard I asked myself several questions before even unzipping my fly. Surely by peeing on one vine and not the others would create an imbalance? Maybe I should pee on the edge of the vineyard instead? What did I eat and drink which has made me pee? Was it healthy or is my pee going to contain something the vineyard either potentially needs or will potentially revile and how might this change according to the weather, celestial cycles and so on? Like I said, working on your own for hours and hours in a vineyard gives you plenty of opportunities to pee. And even more opportunities to think.
Seresin Estate is a Biodynamic vineyard in Marlborough, at the top of New Zealand’s south island. I consider it one of the wine world’s most interventionist (in the sense of premium quality-oriented) vineyards but there are dozens of organic and Biodynamic vineyards who are just as interventionist, for example Vanya Cullen in Australia, Château Pontet-Canet in Pauillac, Frey and Bonterra in Mendocino, Bernard Bellahsen’s 100% horse-powered Domaine de Fontedicto in the Hérault, Peter Veyder-Malberg in Austria’s Wachau, Tom Lubbe at Matassa in Roussillon, Paul Boutinot’s Waterkloof winery in South Africa, James Millton on New Zealand’s north island to give just a tiny number of examples. If you think naturalist minimalism and interventionism should be mutually exclusive you might need to think again.
Biodynamics at Seresin winery in NZ.
As for Seresin, this has around 150 hectares (370 acres) of vines – quite large in other words, especially for Biodynamics (examples of other big Biodynamic vineyards include Bonterra in Mendocino County, Emiliana in Chile, Paxton in McLaren Vale). The Seresin vines are certified Biodynamic. It took 15 years for owner Michael Seresin to move everything from conventional wine-growing (which is how he started) to Biodynamics.
Seresin creates all its own fertility on the ‘farm’ (vineyard) by composting absolutely everything. This includes prunings from the vines, olives and fruit trees, manure from the estate’s cows, pigs, sheep, chickens and the horses which work in the vines, green waste from the staff vegetable garden and grape leftovers from winemaking. The compost goes back on the land, either by being worked into the soil or diluted in water and sprayed on the vines as a ‘compost tea.' This natural compost tea is full of good microbes that prevent bad microbes from spoiling the grapes and so giving winemaker the chance to make unique and truly delicious wines. All of Seresin’s annual output of 1 million bottles is fermented with native (wild) yeast - one of the Holy Grails for natural wine enthusiasts. Few (if any) wineries manage wild ferments on this kind of scale and premium quality level. Healthy wild ferments only happen in grape juice containing enough food and vitamins for the yeast to do their job - otherwise you’ll have to sprinkle the juice with processed food as if you were feeding pet fish in an aquarium.
In a nutshell, healthy wild ferments need super-healthy grapes picked clean and at perfect ripeness. That’s a big ask on a small micro-vineyard. But if behemoths like Seresin can do it…
Expertise Versus Well-meaning Amateurism
This is an era in during which wine growers pretty much all over the world are jumping on the ‘green’ bandwagon. The notable exception is Champagne, statistically the least organic major wine region on the planet and not uncoincidentally among the most expensive to buy a vineyard in (if you can find one for sale). They say the definition of a poor grower in Champagne is one who has to wash his/her own BMW. Bandwagons of any sort are not required here, thank you.
Anyway, any new converts to organics who expect their vines to produce grapes which are balanced enough to produce great wine right off the bat are in for a shock. It’s like expecting a couch-potato stoner living off fast food and daytime TV to quit the sofa and start winning triathlons or suddenly becoming a Navy Seal.
Like the human body vines are not machines but complex living organisms. The best Biodynamic wine-growers say it takes around seven years for a conventionally farmed vineyard to show the full Biodynamic effect, meaning a vineyard capable of delivering naturally balanced grapes and consistently too.
There has been an explosion of natural wine festivals, each featuring growing numbers of previously unheard of wineries working with nature (organic, Biodynamic, natural). Wine has never been potentially such fun, so exciting, so interesting. Stands are often staffed by enthusiastic people who gave up a former career (law, business, sport, IT, accountancy, pizza-making, music, aeronautics, pumping gas, playwriting) to work with previously abandoned old vine vineyards which they had been able to buy or rent relatively cheaply (sometimes from family members who inherited uneconomically small and disparate plots of vines).
But if you dig a little you find these vines’ biographies often (not always) involve a history of one or more of the following:
– excess use of fertilizers/weedkillers applied by the old-timers who favoured really high yields because they sold their grapes to (now bankrupted) co-ops and were paid by weight. The vines will be so shallow-rooted (due to soil erosion/compaction) as to stress easily (especially since even more rampantly aggressive weeds appear as soon as the weedkillers stop being applied) and produce juice lacking balance because the soil has not had enough time to rediscover its balance
- poor pruning/shoot positioning meaning vines produce some grapes which lack leaf shade, and so suffer sunburn, whilst other grapes have too much leaf shade and so are more prone to unripeness and disease. The wines fall into what I call the ‘sweet’n sour’ taste category: over-ripe + under-ripe juice = wine with acids/tannins (not to mention flavours and aromas) lacking balance. It is like the wine is having an internal civil war
- fungal or virus diseases which debilitate vines and thus grapes. These diseases are manifestation of a loss of biodiversity in the soil, on (or in) the vines, and in the wider vineyard environment
One final problem is no matter how rich you are it is hard to find winery and vineyard staff who understand how to farm “naturally.” This is because universities which teach grape-growing and winemaking worldwide teach “chemical” rather than “natural” or “organic/Biodynamic” wine-growing. So there is the likelihood both staff and owners will share the same leap into the dark during those early years.
Sorry if that doesn’t sound too romantic but it is worth bearing in mind when you are next accosted by a hipster somm telling you about this “incredible natural wine from an incredible old vineyard bought last year by an incredible guy/gal from the Bay Area/Zurich/Milan/Home Counties/Sydney/JoBurg etc and here is a glass of their incredible debut vintage….”.
Remember the first Apple Mac? It was made of wood.
Good Wines are not Made by Accident – and why Chemical Fertilizers Don’t Help in the Quest for Delicious
When I went to one of the first organised organic wine fairs – Millésime Bio at the end of the 1990s – there were about 50 winemakers. Now Millésime Bio has 800+ winery exhibitors and a long waiting list. Every week someone, somewhere on Planet Wine will be hosting an organic/Biodynamic/natural wine tasting, trade fair or open-to-the-public event. And the number of organic/Biodynamic/natural wine producers continues to grow on every corner of Planet Wine (even in Champagne where 50 of the region’s 19,000 growers are now organic/biodynamic!).
But good wines are not made by accident. What makes me unenthusiastic when I land on Planet Natural is being told “our philosophy” counts more than results. If that were true then Marxist-Leninism would work.
I suggest visiting a place where both Biodynamic and conventional vines grow side by side on similar terroir (= a level playing field), such as Alsace.
Alsace is statistically the greenest major wine region on the planet. At least 15% of its vines are certified organic or Biodynamic. (Austria is the most organic country with 12% of its vineyard organic/Biodynamic. 90% of the world’s organic/Biodynamic vines grow in France, Spain and Italy).
In Alsace (and in other parts of Europe) family vineyards get divided by Napoléon’s inheritance laws, for example when the family vineyard gets divided between two siblings. One of them might continue to farm as his parents had done, with herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers and so on, and other sibling may go organic, Biodynamic, or natural.
The differences between the two vineyards - both of which are farmed in a very interventionist manner, one working with natural forces and the other working against them - should be quite easy to see.
The soil in the organic, Biodynamic and natural vineyard will have the more pronounced earthy smell and should be covered by beneficial weeds or cover crops as opposed to being bare. The Bio vineyard will be noisier because more insects will be hovering and buzzing around. There’ll be more birds - and their nests in the vine canopies - too because it’s so easy to find food with all those insects and their larvae flying or crawling around.
New Zealand winemaker Michael Seresin with Monty Waldin
The Bio vines have the darkest green leaves. The leaves will be rougher-looking and less smooth to the touch than in the conventional vineyard. The vine branches will be noticeably more erect, visibly reaching for the sky. The shoot tips exhibit a real sense of purpose, holding themselves in the breeze rather than drooping. The grapes are less squashed together on the bunches. The balance between the number of grape bunches and the number of vine leaves means the grapes get their preferred dappled rather than full sunlight. “The grapes should see the sun, but the sun should not see the grapes.” (Wine-growers’ lore). This is good for aromas, for acidity, for ageability, and for flavour; and it makes winemaking less about winemaking and more about guiding the wine into bottle.
The bunches will all look to have about the same level of ripeness too, rather than some being a bit under-ripe, and others so over-ripe they are starting to raisin. You get the sense that the vines are in tune with natural cycles and are just doing what vines do. This is not to make wine but to produce brightly coloured sweet-tasting grapes attractive to birds. The birds eat the grapes and then pass the pips or seeds out of their bodies onto the soil for new vines to grow.
If you wanted to make a delicious wine, which vineyard would you choose?
"Terroir-driven" Term Needs Re-write, say French Microscope Couple
After 50 years of conventional (chemically-aided) wine-growing more and more wine-growers believe this type of farming isn’t working anymore.
But natural wine-growing and more specifically natural winemaking also has some work to do. Biodynamic wine-growers (with the help of France’s Claude Bourguignon and his wife Lydie, scientists both) have been at the forefront of demonstrating how Biodynamic practices allow vines to express themselves as plants to the full. This is partly thanks to Biodynamics seeing a vineyard not just as part of Planet Earth, but also seeing Planet Earth as being part of a wider system of living interactions (our Solar System) which directly shapes how grapes grow and how their wines tastes.
This is a bit esoteric.
But what the Bourguignons’ microscopes have consistently shown over the last 30 years is that key Biodynamic practices – specially prepared teas, sprays and composts based on cow manure, wild medicinal herbs like stinging nettle, chamomile and oak bark, plus quartz (the world’s most abundant mineral, also called silica) – help vines to become naturally stronger and more disease-resistant. Mr. and Mrs. Bourguignon’s lengthy comparative tests (e.g. at Domaine Leflaive in Burgundy) showed how Biodynamic vines have thicker, deeper roots than organic ones and get to eat a more balanced and varied diet of minerals. This produces grapes which can ferment into wine with little need of any additives (like we saw at Seresin). This is the kind of thing anyone in the natural wine movement should surely welcome, a way of wine (almost) making itself with minimal manipulation.
Helpfully, Claude Bourguignon used to work for France’s Ministry of Agriculture, so he was respected enough to become a key voice in explaining to wine-growers how it is the microbes in the soil – not just the soil on its own – which play a key role in how each wine tastes. And the most delicious wines come from vineyards teeming with the right types of fungi, yeast, bacteria and worms. Mr. and Mrs. Bourguignon say they can see Biodynamics works, but they are unable to measure exactly how the really esoteric aspects of Biodynamics really do improve wine quality. This does not seem to matter because the numbers of Biodynamic wine-growers has risen consistently for the last 20-25 years.
The Brett Police – and why Natural Wines Made Without the Proper Skills can Suck
Claude and Lydie Bourguignon’s research into how important microbes in vineyard soils are for quality is the missing piece in the wine jigsaw. We already knew, from the work of Louis Pasteur (who was mentioned above) in the 1850s, that microbes in the winery could make or break a wine.
– Some bacteria can lead to wines tasting flat, fruitless, like vinegar. The word vinegar derives from ‘vin aigre,' French for ‘bitter wine.' However another good type of (lactic acid) bacteria naturally helps prevent virtually all red wines from tasting too sharp, and give some white wines (like cool climates Chardonnays) a lovely creamy mouthfeel.
– Some fungal/yeast organisms can turn wooden barrels and the wines they contain moldy. Others give wines a “horse-piss” character caused by Brettanomyces or “Brett." This one is particularly an issue with skin-fermented ‘orange’ wines, many of which invariably look like the contents of a colostomy bag and often taste like them too. These wines often have fascinating back stories.
– e.g. those from the Georgian Republic (‘The Cradle of Wine’) – but at each of the last tastings of natural wine I have been to I struggled to find one without unpleasant identikit medicinal aromas and raspingly dry (dried out) fruit flavour profiles typical of Brett.
People like me who do not like “Bretty” wines are derided as “The Brett Police Force” by angry naturalistas. I call myself sensible. I look both ways before I cross the road.
If Chicken McNuggets and free-range grass-fed ‘Poulet de Bresse’ both taste of horse piss why would I pay extra for the poulet?
Brett has become the touchstone issue that most separates the natural wine crowd (who profess to love Brett) and most of the rest of us (who don’t).
Restaurant chefs risk jail if they allow potentially lethal microbes (e.g. E coli) to thrive in their kitchen.
Somms do not face this risk if they stock Bretty wines because Bretty wines are safe to drink – unless you are allergic to the smell of horse piss. Somms who like natural wine but who do not like Brett are probably aware that:
1) Brett is less likely to form in wines with balanced ‘acid strength’ or pH and moderate alcohol levels and these come from sensible vineyard management allied to good terroir.
2) Brett is less likely to appear if basic cellar hygiene, cleanliness (pumps, valves, walls, floors etc) is maintained.
3) Brett is more likely to form in wines which did not fully ferment to dryness (which can happen with mismanaged ‘wild’ ferments).
4) Brett is less likely to appear if barrel cellars are kept nice and cool (meaning an underground cellar is ideal because no air-con is required. At the next natural wine fair you go to I recommend asking all producers: “Do you have an underground ageing/barrel cellar?”
5) Brett is less likely to form if wine barrels/tanks are kept fully topped up (Brett prefers new oak to old oak but will thrive in both).
6) If Brett-free barrels are topped up with wine from Brett-affected barrels the result is Brett (otherwise known as “the law of turn-of-the-century Parisien sommelier”).
7) Maintaining even just a fairly low level of free sulfur dioxide (a permitted additive) in the wine prevents the formation of Brett.
8) Hard-core naturalistas who consider sulfur dioxide to be the Great Satan run a greater risk of Brett.
There is nothing difficult about controlling Brett. All you need is diligence and common sense. You can make a fantastically delicious Brett-free NAS (‘no added sulfites’) or a VLAS (very low added sulfites) wine simply by super-exra diligent.
As someone who has been paid to top thousands of barrels (not paid thousands to top barrels sadly….) I’d say it can be a bit of a boring job but it does require skill (no spills), concentration (it hurts if you fall off a stack of barrels), organisation (dealing with a range of liquids) and an understanding of microbiology. You get fired if you accidently top up the Chardonnay barrels which are NOT supposed to go through malolactic (MLF) with wine from barrels that ARE supposed to go through MLF.
Delicious Wine Doesn't Make Itself
So hipster somms should actively seek to create opportunities to fully relive their former selves as cellarmasters in fin de siècle Parisian restaurants by learning more about how wine can be made by working in wineries, and how easy it is to f*ck it up unnecessarily and then decide it was all part of a natural wine master plan.
They would develop the skills to become more informed, more interesting and more balanced cheerleaders for diversity and quality, pointing out the contradictions of natural/organic/Biodynamic wine as theoretical ideals but how close many winemakers now come to reaching those ideals whilst making truly delicious wines.
Getting customers to trade up is easier if your sales pitch is explaining how making wine without chemicals requires extra skills and costs whilst accepting that not every single new “natural” winemaker has either the skills or properly maintained vines to be able to make delicious wine. It takes time.
They would shield themselves from accusations of becoming passive participants in phase two of the homogenisation of wine, replacing big bellicose hard to drink blockbusters with more delicate and understated natural wines which despite being neither too oaky or alcholic can also be both quite samey and quite hard to drink.
If delicious wine made itself, perhaps everyone would be doing it.
Monty Waldin was the first wine writer to specialize in green issues. He is the author of multiple books, including The Organic Wine Guide (Thorsons, 1999); Biodynamic Wines (Mitchell Beazley, 2004); Wines of South America (Mitchell Beazley, 2003), winner of America’s prestigious James Beard Book Award; Discovering Wine Country: Bordeaux (2005) and Discovering Wine Country: Tuscany (2006), both Mitchell Beazley; and Château Monty (Portico, 2008).