Research supported by Auction of Washington Wines helps avoid wine spoilage.
Sweaty gym socks, rancid cheese, horse stables, barnyards or Band-Aid smells. Not enticing aromas for a bottle of wine you just uncorked. Years ago, wine spoilage was sometimes an issue for Washington’s young wine industry. It’s rarely a problem anymore, due in part to the longstanding support of research by the Auction of Washington Wines.
Dr. Charles Edwards, food scientist and wine microbiologist for Washington State University, teaches wine classes as part of WSU’s Viticulture and Enology program. In addition, for more than two decades, he has focused research on alcoholic fermentations and spoilage microorganisms of concern to winemakers, including Brettanomyces, a wild yeast that poses major threat to red wine quality. Commonly called Brett, the yeast can produce sensory compounds that alter the palate and bouquet of wine. If you’ve ever heard a wine called “Barnyard Bordeaux,” it wasn’t given as a compliment.
Yeasts are needed in winemaking to convert the grape sugars into alcohol—they’re the reason the end product is wine and not grape juice. Many types of yeast live on the skins of fruit, including Brett. In small doses, native yeasts can be beneficial. Some winemakers purposely encourage the growth of wild yeasts as a way to improve mouth feel and provide unique and desirable sensory qualities. But there’s a risk to wine quality if undesirable yeasts, like Brett, take over and dominate fermentations. Brett is most associated with barrel aged red wines.
By better understanding how Brett grows in wine, Edwards was able to develop recommendations to help wineries limit spoilage situations. He currently has a barrel trial underway in which he’s taking Brett-contaminated barrels apart to learn the depth of wood penetration by the microorganism and determine the most effective method of barrel sterilization.
The research program of Edwards has helped Washington winemakers improve wine quality and spare countless wines from becoming Barnyard Bordeaux.
Research Program Manager