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Five-Minute Classroom – Curious Tasting Notes: Brioche

Ever heard someone say that a wine tastes or smells like brioche, pastry or bread? These tasting notes are common to certain types of white wine and champagne, and while they might sound obscure or unlikely, there’s a simple reason you can taste these flavours, and it’s called autolysis…

Let’s break it down…

Winemakers add yeast to grape juice in order to start alcoholic fermentation. These yeast cells eat up all the sugars in this juice, and the winemaker is left with a dry wine and dead yeast cells. Over time, these yeast cells settle at the bottom of the fermentation vessel and become what’s known as lees. If stirred up during maturation, a complex chemical reaction between the wine and the lees, called autolysis, adds those intriguing notes of pastry and bread to white wines. The important thing to note is that it is entirely up to the winemaker to decide whether or not to allow the autolytic characteristics to develop.

It’s all white

Autolysis is only really suitable for certain types of versatile white grapes, such as chardonnay, as they are able to retain their base aromas and flavours through the process. A winemaker making an aromatic wine will normally choose not to disturb the lees to preserve their delicate flavours, while a winemaker who makes chardonnay has a choice; filter out the lees or stir them up to add body and flavour.

For white wines with these flavour profiles, try Cloudy Bay Te Koko 2015. Unusually for a sauvignon blanc, this wine has had some contact with the lees, and as a result is exceptionally complex. And for those classic brioche notes and an appealing creamy texture, Terrazas de los Andes Chardonnay 2015 is a great choice.

But also champagne…

Flavours of brioche, bread and pastry are most commonly found in champagne and sparkling wines made using the méthode traditionnelle. That is, they are aged in-bottle during the second stage of fermentation. During this second stage, the bottles are regularly rotated, meaning the wine is constantly in contact with the lees, and so these autolytic characteristics become more pronounced.

Moët & Chandon Impérial Brut has simple aromas of brioche, while Dom Ruinart 2004 has spent between eight and 10 years in the Ruinart cellars, and as a result gives off pronounced aromas of toasted coconut and bread. Krug Vintage 2000, one of Krug’s most intensely flavoured champagnes, has the unmistakable aroma of yeast and freshly baked pastry.

How can I use this knowledge?

If you can smell or taste pastry, brioche, yeast or bread in a wine, why not impress your friends by describing how these flavours developed and remember that, with champagnes that have been purposely aged for longer on the lees, such as Dom Pérignon Vintage 2002 Plénitude P2, the more intense those autolytic characteristics are likely to become.