We’ve all been there….an inordinate amount of time perusing the wine list and finally finding the perfect bottle. The first course is on its way…the sommelier uncorks the wine and presents a small amount for tasting. But, there’s a problem with the wine---you gotta be kidding! Today I’m ranting about two things that can ruin a wine: cork taint and Brettanomyces (aka “brett”). Both of these can wreak havoc on wines, irrespective of the wine’s price or quality.
A “corked” wine has an undesirable smell that is caused by a chemical compound called 2,4,6-trichloroanisol, or TCA. The compound can develop in corks themselves which is the reason for the name (but it can also come from cardboard cases or wooden pallets; in fact, entire wineries can be contaminated with TCA.) A corked wine smells musty or moldy and reminds many oenophiles of old musty books, wet cardboard, or a damp cellar. Interestingly, it is estimated that as high as 8% of wines are corked.
Brettanomyces, or "brett," is an unfriendly yeast….a close relative of the most common winemaking yeast. Brett, like TCA, can ruin a wine. At low levels, some feel this yeast can add complexity to the wines; in young reds, for example, it can give bacon-clove-leather notes reminiscent of older reds. At higher levels, however, it contributes obnoxiously strong barnyard notes, or the smell of dirty socks.
Brett is a winemaker’s worse nightmare. It multiples quickly and is often difficult to recognize before it’s too late. Once it sets up housekeeping in a winery it can be super tricky and very costly to eradicate. Brett can permeate walls, floors and ceilings…it essentially has no barriers. In some cases the only answer has been to build a new winery. The best way to prevent this yeast is immaculate sanitation practices throughout the winery.
The threshold of perception (and tolerance) for both TCA and brett vary from person to person. There are some people who don’t notice these flaws, some who notice but don’t find them offensive, and others who might mistake one for the other. Regardless, it’s up to the individual to decide if the wine is drinkable or should be sent back.