Funk is big in wines right now. The range of descriptions for it may be exponential. In Viet Thanh Nguyen’s recent novel The Sympathizer, he describes the differences between fish sauce and stinky cheese, and how there was a sort of culinary demilitarized zone between these two forms of funk, historically. The French and the Vietnamese have their different notions of the thing — traditionally, anyway — as many cultures do, although Angelenos seem to embrace both now.
If you ask your neighborhood winemonger about funky wines, he is maybe going to talk about natural wines. This wasn’t always so. Back in the day, funk was a thing you might find in the traditional, classical canon of great wines. In juice from the Rhône — Chateau Beaucastel for instance — and maybe in Barolo; definitely in the great reds from Musar of Lebanon. Scientists discovered that when funk was in evidence, the main suspect was a yeast called Brettanomyces, or Brett. It was dismissed as a spoilage yeast and was assumed to be responsible for wines that had “a barnyard funk that suggested a lack of hygiene in the cellar,” to quote Jay McInerney.
When you talk about funk with old-school wine geeks, they are more likely to refer to mushrooms, vintage leather gear and dirty things. In the meantime, Brett has been determined to be the likely catalyst for the prettier aromas of roses, cardamom or five-spice powder that can be found in some wines, as well as others such as Band-Aids, sweaty socks and even analogs of the worst of the foul aromas most people might care to imagine. Beer brewers have been purposely adding it to their ferments lately, but the nature of Brett remains a bit more sinister in wine. Brett is one of the elements of fermentation considered by many to be a bit wild, as in untamed. Naturally, it survives, and maybe even thrives, in conditions that would starve many of the other fermentation-related microbes.
Brett is probably, at the moment, the most infamous microorgamism involved with fermentation, but there are many others. Natural winemaking reduces the controls, such as the use of sulfur and yeast innoculation, that may put a damper on the proliferation of various processes related to alcoholic fermentation. It seems many of the attributes associated with funk are a byproduct of the diverse sorts of microbial activity that take place in such an environment. When you bring more life to the party, it can get more interesting — but there is also a greater chance of the unexpected. Such a variable process conflicts with the stability of a brand. Yet much of the mystique with wine is connected to its mutability.
While it’s not totally clear if style is intrinsically compelled by substance in wine, natural wines tend not to be outsized or high-octane. There is a tendency toward zesty tartness, and persistent savory qualities, that make natural wines complementary to a wide range of food. They can have a tart red berry quality that resembles jamaica, or a sunny citrusy-ness that brings to mind an orange-cranberry mix. Way more kombucha than soda pop.
Perhaps the word "funk" is too open-ended. Practically speaking, funk conveys a sense of transformation as it often refers to pickled, dried or cured elements, but the term is fairly ambiguous. Dylan Bean from Domaine L.A. on Melrose says, “I use it to describe a wine that hints at decay.” Many of the best natural wines hint at a bit of improbable decomposition, something like salty dried flowers or dried peach dust. Is it a magical mystery of fermentation or simply the scourge of spoilage? Your tastebuds will decide.
Funky wines to try:
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2016 Olivier Lemasson R16: A blend of the Loire grapes Gamay, Grolleau, Cot, pinot noir and Pineau d'Aunis that is maybe the perfect entry-level natural wine, made by a former French sommelier turned winemaker. Herbaceous and forest-y with tart, dry wild berry fruit.
2016 Cornelissen Susucaru: Wines from Etna in Italy tend to have a distinct, dusty-gravelly volcanic thing. This nerello mascalese has all of that, plus a really interesting zesty-orange-juice tang as well as super savory red berry flavors. Apparently a rosé, but looks and drinks like a red.
2015 Sebastien David "Hurluberlu" St Nicolas de Bourgueil: Great natural cabernet franc from the Loire. Vibrantly beet-colored, carbonic maceration (like in Beaujolais) gives freshness to the tart red berry flavors and herbality.
2015 Clot de l’Origine Le P'tit Barriot: Natural syrah from Marc Barriot, who plows his vineyards way down south in the French Roussillon by horse. Super dense blue and red fruit with aromas of desert scrub, all dusty, savory and dry.