Friday, 4 September 2015

A bit on Brett

"Brett" (or Brettanomyces) is a term banded around often in wine circles. I attended a judging a few months back, a lot of the wines were dismissed for their "faulty" brett-like character, with one fellow judge eventually admitting he had a soft spot for the little blighter.

I had a friend bring home some local, artisan, red from a recent trip to France. He said the wine had a certain note to it which he couldn't put his finger on, but knew that he liked. Brett.

So, Brett. What is it? 

Brett is a yeast, more commonly noted down as a fault in wine. A spoilage yeast. A wine displaying a Brett character will smell like various things, depending on the consumer. The more common aroma profile is one of a sweaty band-aid, this is bought on by the release of 4-EP (4 ethyl phenol) by the yeast. Some people have a low tolerance to this compound and will easily pick up the smallest traces of Brett, others will happily drink a glass which is full of the little buggers without the slightest pick up of it.

 Brettanomyces are found firstly in the vineyards, on the skins on the fruit selected for harvest. It is thought that they are carried into the winery during berry processing. Brett is not the yeast used for alcoholic fermentation. This yeast is Saccharomyces Cerevisiae. A plethora of yeast are present during the early stages of fermentation (kloekora, brett, sacch), but sacch are the most tolerant of the harsh conditions left at the end of alcoholic fermentation (high ethanol, low pH), and are highly likely to be the only survivor at this stage, a bit like Hulk Hogan at a Royal Rumble (although to my knowledge, Saccharomyces are not racist bigoted old men). 

Still using the Wrestling analogy... Brett (the hitman-Hart, obviously) tumbles into the ring at the end of the Rumble after slowly psyching himself up backstage during the tough main event, he gets slapped about a bit by the harsh wine conditions and released his smelly aroma from his band-aids.

Let's leave WWF behind for a bit now.

How can I control Brett? It's a tough one, there have been some advances in using chitosan lately, as well as filtration. Filtration arguably removes some of the complexity bought into a wine, and can alter its charm that the winemaker has so painstakingly worked towards, but this seems to be a simple option to carry out. Proper winery cleanliness, use of SO2, and good QA practise are certainly the best remedies for Brett. A proactive approach as opposed to reactive is generally the mantra for all winemaking activity. This is no different when considering yeast "spoilage".

Friday, 7 August 2015

And Now For Something Completely Different...

So that's all folks... The end of my Mickey Mouse Degree.

Last week marked the graduation ceremony for Plumpton College (via the University of Brighton), and the award for my long awaited BSc. I managed to nail down a 2:1, something I'm quite proud of!

Three years of blagging lifts with friends, or commuting over 5 miles of boggy fields have ended. Countless lab reports and cold winter evenings baby-sitting gallons of juvenile wine are to be no more. It's au revoir to staring blankly at Tony Milanowski's equations, pretending like I understand them. Good-bye to Matthew Hudson's infectious enthusiasm and whit that made learning the intricacies of the global wine trade a complete joy. Ciao to Andrew Atkinson's chatty tutorials and his unrivaled 'walk-you-through-it' style of lecturing even the most challenging of stats and microbiology work. And hasta luego to quaking in my boots knowing that I'm next name on the register during the Chris Foss question hour.

I started Plumpton in September of 2012. Having worked in wine investments for a short period, and having all but aced my intermediate WSET exam I walked in like Billy Big-Balls, thinking the course to be nothing more than an extended WSET course. How wrong I was. The level of science and maths necessary was a true blow to the brain. Everybody felt the same. Quantum chemistry followed by applied algebra was not expected during my first term. This, however, was made somewhat more palatable knowing that tomorrows class would be tractor driving around a muddy obstacle course. 

After some time we all found our feet and began reaping the benefit of the massive workload placed upon us. We all morphed from shy and trembling powerpoint presenters, to confident and comedic owners of the stage. Each of us can now adopt an unbiased view on the world of statistics and scientific reviewing, allowing us to find our own views on a range of subject matters. We can all work confidently and efficiently in laboratories without the aid of prior instruction, sourcing our own methodology by sifting through the latest literature. We can all determine whether a wine has a taint, microbial or chemical spoilage simply by using our highly tuned organoleptic skills. We can all debate organics vs inorganic viticulture. We can all manage a vineyard, or run a winery. We can all describe the metabolic pathway when considering L-malic to L-lactic acid conversion, and a host of other pathways to boot. We can can all determine the range of microbial life in a given sample simply by adopting a range of lab techniques. We can all write a dissertation.

We can all DO wine.

This is entirely down to the fantastic work of Chris Foss and his wine team at Plumpton, a true hub of wine for the UK. Somewhere certain to gain further ground with the recent opening of the Research Centre on site. Plumpton College oozes with an enthusiasm for wine, from the students up to the leaders of courses. If you're thinking of studying wine (production or business), you must seriously consider this place as your number one option.

And here is to the fantastic friendships made along the way... you all know who you are!

To the next chapter...  

Wednesday, 13 May 2015

Having a Bubble

English Wine is on course for its 3rd decent vintage in a row, this is something of a rarity! A good amount of grapes is likely to be seen, but what happens to them once they're in the winery? The vast majority of grapes grown here are put into sparkling wines. We adopt the same method that Champagne does, this way, the wines have a certain charm and character that seems to promote class and elegance. Other countries adopt differing methods, both to reduce cost and to gear their product towards a certain style, for a certain market. Having recently won a case of the delightful Chapel Down sparkling, and having sat an exam on the topic, I've decided to jot down the different methods for all you lovers of fizz out there!

Traditional/Champagne method

This method is famously applied in Champagne, but it also used throughout the globe (Cava, English Wine etc etc). The main thing that this style promotes is the yeasty taste. The character from the fruit (in Champagne and England only Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay are permitted) takes a back seat, and the term 'autolysis' comes into play.

In Traditional/Champagne method wines, a normal wine is produced firstly, with focus on high acidity and low sugar and phenolics (skin character). The wine is then bottled, with a mixture of sugar and yeast in a process called 'tirage'. The yeast chew up all of the sugar and turn it into alcohol and CO2. The CO2 gives the bubbles that we see in the final product. After quite some time, the yeast die, and fall to the bottle of the bottle. A process called 'riddling' is used which slowly and gradually tilts the bottle, until the dead yeast form a plug in the neck of the bottle. The plug of dead yeast is then removed (disgorged), and the bottle is re-sealed along with a touch more sugar and preservatives should the winemaker deem necessary, in a process called 'dosage', think of that like seasoning a meal before plating. Autolysis is the term given for the character that the dead yeast leave behind. A few months after tirage, the yeast perish (due to no nutrients and probably ethanol toxicity) and are slowly riddled out of the bottle, during this time the yeast cells will rot and deteriorate and release their guts into the wine. This is what we taste, and gives the famous bready, nutty, yeasty taste to Champagne, sorry veggies!

A traditional riddling approach. Nowadays more likely to be mechanized.

Tank/Charmat method

Another method employed throughout the globe. Most famously in Prosecco production. This method does NOT give any autolysis flavour. A normal wine (base wine) is made again, but this time the wine is left in its big storage tank, with the yeast and sugar being added to the tank itself (rather than the bottle. Again the yeast eat this sugar and produce alcohol and bubbles (CO2), but very little of the wine is in contact with the yeasty sediment left at the end. The result is a more fruit driven style. A Prosecco will show much more apple and pear flavours and no yeast flavour, compared with a Champagne. This method is cheaper, and quicker, and can be made to order, very handy! I like this method the best, 

I have to say, I like its "take it or leave it" style... "Here's the fruit, here's some bubbles, that'll be a fiver please". Rather than a £40 bottle of yeasty pretentious Champagne. Although, if I'm honest, the best Traditional method I've tried is by far better than the best Tank method I've tried.

Asti method

This method makes Asti-Spumante...funnily enough. The big thing with Asti-Spumante in high sugar, and low alcohol. The base wine is made as per normal, then placed into a tank. No sugar is added for this one, the Moscato grapes are naturally sweet enough. The reason that the wines keep their sweetness and show low alcohol, is because the temperature of the tank is reduced to stop the yeast performing their fermentation role, meaning they don't consume all of the sugar, and only produce small amounts of alcohol (around 5-6% abv). The nice thing about cooling the wine to stop the fermentation in this way, is that you can store it for X amount of time, then start the second ferment (to make the bubbles) and bottle it as and when the demand calls for it, The resulting wine is high in fruity flavour, low in alcohol, and no autolysis notes (as the 2nd ferment happens in tanks - not bottles)

Transfer method

This method is fairly similar to the Champagne method. The base wine is made, then bottled, along with the tirage (sugar and yeast mixture), the bubbles are made, and the autolysis character develops as the second ferment occurs in the bottle (all the same as Champagne so far...). The difference is the lack of riddling and disgorgement, instead of painstakingly turning the bottles for months on end until the dead yeast are plugged in the neck of the bottle, the bottles are simply opened, and bunged into a tank (under pressure - to keep the bubbles), and the dead yeast are filtered out. The bottles are cleaned, then filled with the fizzy wines. The resulting wine is similar to the Champagne method, autolytic character is seen over fruitiness, and is cheaper/quicker than the Champagne method.

Other methods

A bunch of other styles are used. Those crazy Russians use a string of massive fermenters with heaps of sawdust in them. Some Australian, NZ and South African folk sometimes use a SodaStream style method.

Which ever the method applied, the goal is the same. Make a normal wine and create bubbles. Either through a second fermentation (yeast addition), or carbonating via a SodaStream style approach. The choice for the winemaker will either be to retain the fruity character, or demote the fruit and promote the flavour from yeast autolysis.

So next time you open a bottle of fizz, you'll know how it's made!


Monday, 27 April 2015


Last week I joined the chaps at the IWC for a day of judging wines, my first time for the company. The best way to describe them, is as the company that award the little medals you may have seen on bottles of wines, with tens of thousands of applicants vying for the top spots, from all corners of the world. I needed to step away from laboratory work and dissertations, and put my tasting hat on.

I'd like to think that my senses are reasonably sophisticated, I once told somebody that their car smelt like fish sauce, only to later find a bottle in the car... That's right. Move over Derren Brown.

This was something else though, the room was filled with hugely influential wine-types, from all walks of life. The first two people I spoke to had flown from South Africa and Tokyo just to do some judging for the day, a huge commitment, and a testament to the global outreach the IWC boasts. The rest of the day proved to be more of the same, the handful of other judges that I managed to rub shoulders with had been buyers and winemakers for companies with global reputations for decades. This was something I was excited by, but at the same time, slightly concerned of.

The first flight of wines to score were 2014 Trentino Alto-Adige Chardonnay. "Okay", I thought, before rummaging through my Mind-Palace and recalling what I expected the profile of the wines to be like. Bracing acidity, no oak, dry, citrus. GO! Five minutes later we gave the scores and reasons behind them. I suggested one of the wines should be struck from the competition as it had a bitter note to it, something I noted as a fault. The other judges, all at least 20 years senior to me, at this point put down their glasses, placed a look of concern on their collective faces and declared in unison that a "2014 Trentino- Alto Adige Chardonnay" is expected to have a certain bitter quality, and it should be lauded for it.

A great start. The level of knowledge I needed for the rest of the 100 wines for the day, was to have the ability to recall the characters of specific grapes from specific years, from towns within regions within countries for the entire globe. A thought that should have perhaps crossed my mind before signing up.

The rest of the day was a great success, I found my stride after not too long, and my scores matched (to within reason) that of the most senior judges on my table. Something the selection of judges on my panel appreciated, especially when realizing that I was younger than some of their children. This "you weren't alive when this song was made" theme ran for a while, and even if slightly patronizing, the overall view from my peers was that the achievement of being a judge for a global wine event, at the age of 29, is something that shows great promise.

Hopefully I'll get invited back, I made some excellent contacts, something I'd like to abuse in the coming years


Friday, 10 April 2015

Crunch time!

As the southern hemisphere harvests their crop, I sit in the library, vacantly staring at my PC, trying to usher a further 2000 words out of my skull. For this month is April. The month of my final project hand in.

After months of lab work, I recently realized that my project wasn't working. My aim was to see how fatty acids impact MLF (converting harsh acid to soft acid). I started to grow some bugs to help with the acid conversion, and killed them all.

Good one.

I'm now in the excellent situation where I have to start and complete a dissertation in a ludicrously short period of time, but then, it just would be the same without panic alarms going off would it?! The crescendo of the last 3 years of study, moving away from friends and family, is this... a last minute project! But this is where I am at my best, full throttle, action stations, code red. I envy those who meticulously plan their workload, professionally and educationally. I just cant do it. My brain is one that stumbles and stalls through the first 90% of a journey like a rusty Vauxhall Nova with 15 non-careful owners, before reaching the final furlong and morphing into Red Rum on a cocktail of caffeine and determination.

But this one, is a biggie.

I have a bottle of Gruner Veltliner in the fridge, ear-marked for an evening with friends tomorrow, I'll be very surprised if it makes it to the party.

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Bubblegum and Banana

We're picking our Syrah tomorrow morn at Gentilini in Kefalonia, and I have a cunning plan...
I've always been interested in carbonic maceration (cabmac), and I've pitched an idea to the powers that be, which allows me to run a bit of an experiment using the technique on our Syrah.
Cabmac is used widely in Beaujolais, its a technique that preserves and enhances the fruity flavours in red berries, whilst slightly altering the pH and lowering malic acids. Its achieved by not crushing your grapes and inoculating the juice with yeast as is the normal way of producing alcohol (yeast convert sugar into alcohol), but instead leaving the grapes on their stems, in whole bunches, and dumping them in a tank absolutely rammed full of CO2, then sealing the tank and leaving it for around a week. The grapes are starved of oxygen and enzymes inside of the unbroken grapes start to convert the sugars into alcohol as well as esters (fruity flavours). They'll only achieve around 2% abv during this process, but its all about that subtle fruity edge. The grapes will eventually disintegrate and will be crushed and inoculated with yeast in the normal way, but it should have a subtle hint of raspberry and cherry, and even banana and bubblegum in some cases!
The whole process should be finished by the time I'm done in Greece, and I'll ask the guys here (nicely) to cold and heat stabilise the wine for me, then ping me over a few bottles to glorious Blighty at around Christmas time!
Presents sorted. No refunds. 

Feeling hot, hot, hot!

Hi from Kefalonia!
I've been here for 3 weeks now, and have only just gotten used to the heat! Bloody hell its hot in the Med in August.
My first day here involved me landing, then meeting the guys at a nice restaurant on the bay, then unloading 7 tonnes of Sauvignon Blanc, in the midday sun. I've had to do similar unloads on a regular basis since and have never experienced effort like it!
Aside of the heat, a few other things that need getting used to are the early mornings (heat stops us from picking past 11am, so 4 or 5am starts aren't uncommon), wasps/hornets/devils-with-wings etc, and the language barrier. Luckily I don't have to pick too often, I'm more involved with the winemaking process, and the winemaker here is English, softening the language barrier as well.
The wines we're making are all white at the moment, made from Robola - a local gem, and also a bit of Muscato and Sauvignon Blanc. I've been putting my lecture slides to good use most days and have learned a lot about the potential pitfalls and logistics behind actual winemaking. Reds are arriving tomorrow, and should involve some barrels and some Syrah, my fave!!
I've got a couple more weeks left, so not too long until I saw goodbye to sodden feet, cut hands, great beaches and great food.