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A Brett of fresh air

Published:  18 January, 2007

I blame the Beaucastel.
Or it could have been the Bordeaux. These were the wines I cut my vinous teeth on: I loved - still love - a good bottle of claret and the wines of the Rhne, north and south.
Now I'm told that many of the wines I was blithely enjoying were - and in some cases, still are - riddled' with Brett. This is why, I think, I appear to have a bit of a blind spot where Brettanomyces is concerned: those smells and tastes that set off the Brett alarm bells in other tasters are smells and tastes that I associate with wines I actually quite like.

Brettanomyces is the bogeyman du jour in Australia. Winemakers, show judges, researchers and some of the country's highest-profile wine critics seem to find the spoilage yeast in every other bottle of red wine. It's become the taster's default setting for any hard-to-pin-down irregularity: what's wrong with this wine? I don't know; it must be Brett!

I'm not denying that Brett is a problem in the Australian wine industry. I can see the researchers' and technocrats' concern about the rising incidence of Brett coinciding with a widespread move towards low-sulphur, non-interventionist, natural' winemaking. I can even see how a wine can be ruined by

a particularly high infection of Brett; how it can make the nose reek of Band-Aids and make the palate taste like sucking on a rusty iron bar.

But I also wonder whether the Brett Nazis aren't being just a tad zealous (dare I say intolerant) in their paranoid mission to eradicate Brett - and, by extension, other funkiness' - altogether.

Take the recent case of the 2002 Mount Langi Ghiran Shiraz. As you may be aware, Langi is one of Australia's top Shiraz vineyards; it is arguably the best source in the country for the cool-climate, pepper-and-spice Shiraz style. And the 2002 was, by all reports, a top vintage. Indeed, quite a few pre-release samples of the '02 Langi were tasted and reviewed glowingly in 2004 and early in 2005 by some of Australia's leading wine scribes. Everything was set for a highly anticipated and hopefully commercially successful launch a couple of months ago.

But then, suddenly, the launch was cancelled. The winery publicly blamed a technical fault that has developed since bottling (and only become apparent very recently). The recent change in this wine has forced our decision. We are not prepared to compromise the quality standards we apply to this highly respected label.'

A little probing has confirmed that the technical fault' in question was indeed the dreaded Brett. The wine was tested for Brett before bottling in March 2004 and given the all-clear. But Brett can grow in bottle, and some of the rogue yeast cells must have made their way into this wine because, by the middle of 2005, the Langi winemakers noticed it was tasting Bretty'. They had it tested again and found the levels were unacceptably high.

While they won't be letting the general public anywhere near the wine, to their credit Langi sent me a bottle to taste, just out of curiosity. And this is where my Cornas and Crozes upbringing clicked in, because, to be honest, I found the wine to be not only typical but also perfectly enjoyable. A little on the funky side, yes, but with the lively peppercorn spiciness I'd expect to see in a Langi Shiraz. For me, this is a borderline wine - a classic example of one taster's riddled with Brett' being another taster's intriguing complexity'. (Accordingly, I have offered to take a few cases off Langi's hands - for a healthy discount, obviously.)

I respect Langi's decision not to put the wine on the market if they're not happy with it.

A cynic might even see it as rather canny marketing along the lines of Rick Kinzbrunner's decision not to release the 2003 vintage of Giaconda, Australia's most sought-after Chardonnay. Either way, it makes sense not to risk tarnishing one's reputation.

But I can't help feeling that five or 10 years ago, before

the industry became so (over)sensitive to Brett, the 2002 Langi Shiraz would have been released and enjoyed without a second thought. And I can't help seeing this episode as an example of an industry that, on the one hand, is calling for more variety, more individuality and more diversity - and yet, on the other hand, is becoming less tolerant of faults' and more homogenous in its view of what's acceptable'.