A friend of Detroir asked me what we here thought of “funky” as a description applied to wine. In some groups of appreciation, funk seems like a decisive element. In Detroit, funky wines are typically acceptable, even appreciated, but less often is the description parsed, or explained, or theorized beyond its most binary expression – These are funky. These are not.
What would Bootsy Collins drink?
It’s a dumb question on one level. Funky is a flaw to those who like clean wine, and it is a feature for the rest of us. Is Bootsy funkier than James Brown? Is it possible to have too much funk? Mr. Collins says no.
Aesthetic theory seems to allow for, if not insist on, flaws in symmetry, blemishes on surfaces, and generally disruption of order. This is all in order for meaningful beauty to exist. The question is: where do you find it? (Sorry. I have my head full of the apparently rushed paintings of Thomas Cole and the muscular contrasts of Georgia O’Keefe on my brain. And I’m not proof-reading this.)
Here is a breakdown of the top few chemical and biochemical underliers of wine funk.
Brettanomyces is a non spore-forming yeast that lives in fruit skins, wooden barrels and certain alcoholic solutions. It was once predominantly associated with old-fashioned wines from the Rhone valley in France. Now it is a brand of beer. Surprisingly, beer culture has helped elevate this controversial funk from the status of debatable flaw to positive feature. The important thing to remember is that it can be manipulated – suppressed with hygienic interventions, promoted with inoculations – and its aesthetic value is undetermined, because it has no aesthetic value. “Brett” is only pretty in relationship to simple produce pleasures – fruit, spice, flowers, vanilla, salt, acidity. How to recognize its presence? I taste for the sense of wet basement concrete. It’s an alkaline sensation, rather than acidic. Sometimes this merges with sour notes, but that’s because it often occurs in the presence of …
Acetobacter. Another microbe! This one is responsible for the once-fashionable rejectionist tasting term “volatile acidity” – VA is the jargon. This is what makes wine into vinegar, and when it runs rampant your wine is turning into vinegar. And this is considered bad, justifiably. But sometimes the wine in question is so complex and dense with polysaccharides that the presence of acetobacter seems to root the wine in benign natural processes. In great wines with volatile acidity it’s part of the ecological whole. The infection is slow, checked by competing forces, like lack of oxygen. Because, lack of oxygen, comes with excess of …
Sulfur. Not a microbe this time, sulfur is a chemical element. This actually makes its influence more ambiguous to our palates, because it occurs in many various chemical bonds, each with its own recognizable character. I won’t taxonomize them here, but think about examples of taste that depend on sulfur. Cabbage and cauliflower. Burnt matches. Sweatsocks. Grapefruit mercaptans. Sulfur occurs naturally in wine, but its maximum expression is sometimes associated with quality depredations, such as certain under-ripe/over-cropped grape varieties (Sauvignon, Scheurebe, etc.) and – disturbingly – more and more rosé wines from the Mediterranean. (The market at work!) In the natural pull and tug of wine chemistry sulfur reactions can occur in competition with oxygen reactions. One is typically considered a flaw only when it dominates the other.
Oxidation is easy to recognize. Oxygen is another element, but it’s effect relies on a substrate that is all around us and affects us on an intuitive level. The air. Oxidation is the essential difference between the taste of a grape and a raisin, or between the taste of steak tartare and beef jerky. Wine is not finished until it achieves some sort of equilibrium with oxidative forces, and this requires a certain amount of oxidation. Oak barrels were once the primary way to offer moderate oxidation to wine – the air passes judiciously through the pores of the wood. There are lots of cheaper mechanical and chemical shortcuts now, which is great, except …
The decisive thing about funk is that its beauty is in its unpredictability and lack of control. Once the matrix learns to control funk, it ceases to be funky.
Blame your own brain.