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.
“A ‘little funky’ to me means a pleasant amount of brett balanced by fruit, and I consider that a good thing,” says Frank. “‘A lot ‘funky’ means the wine tastes like a stable full of not so fresh horses, which isn’t exactly to my taste. However, when I hear a customer use the term, I always like to get a little information to figure out what the person is looking for or trying to avoid. Could be brett, a bit of kombucha-ness, a cider-y kick or even mousiness. Or maybe they’re just looking for something that’s not super fruity.
“I’ll throw around some non-technical descriptions to try to get them what they’re looking for,” adds Frank.
While not exclusive to the category, funky has also become a common descriptor for natural wines. But while such a broad term may be useful, some feel its welcome is wearing thin.
“I actually try to refrain from using the word funky in wine,” says Zayyat, “Especially because I work with and sell low-intervention wines and I think the term is overused as a general descriptor for natural wine in comparison to conventional wine.”
Those who prefer pristine, fruit-forward wines should probably avoid choosing a wine that’s described as funky. But if you dig the dirt and are drawn to wine’s non-fruit flavors, go ahead and give some funk a try.