Illustration by Alyssa Nassner
The word “funky” can mean many things. Whether an odor, musical genre or just something odd, it often conveys a sense of the unconventional. With such a variety of meanings, it’s no wonder the term can cause confusion when used as a wine descriptor.
First and foremost, is funky a positive or negative description in wine? The answer is: It depends.
“In my opinion, funky indicates an aromatic, unfamiliar and wild smell that can be enjoyable or not depending on the drinker’s palate,” says Rania Zayyat, an Austin-based wine director, sommelier and founder of the Lift Collective. “Funkiness is often in opposition to fruity smells and may remind someone of rustic, barnyard aromas.”
For many, the funk factor is associated with brettanomyces, or “brett,” a type of yeast found on everything from grapes to winery equipment, barrels, and even inside sealed bottles.
“For me personally, I use it when I’m describing a wine with a bit of brett,” says Christy Frank, owner of Copake Wine Works in the New York’s Hudson Valley.
When brettanomyces rears its head, it can make a wine smell like the inside of a gym bag, a barnful of unwashed livestock, or a Band-Aid. Brett can easily spoil a wine, muffling its primary fruit flavors and rendering it undrinkable.
However, in small amounts, brett can also add character. In red wines from certain regions of France and Italy, as well as in some natural wines, low levels of brett can contribute notes of smokey bacon, game, leather and freshly tilled soil. The wine can gain more personality and complexity as a result.