“Sod the wine, I want to suck on the writing. This man White is an instinctive writer, bloody rare to find one who actually pulls it off, as in still gets a meaning across with concision. Sharp arbitrage of speed and risk, closest thing I can think of to Cicero’s ‘motus continuum animi.’

Probably takes a drink or two to connect like that: he literally paints his senses on the page.”

DBC Pierre (Vernon God Little, Ludmila’s Broken English, Lights Out In Wonderland)

Winner: Booker prize; Whitbread prize; Bollinger Wodehouse Everyman prize; James Joyce Award from the Literary & Historical Society of University College Dublin




13 September 2014


The annual Vale Cru tasting at The Victory on Sellicks Hill sells out in about six minutes, so you'd better be quick if you want them tix ... here's the link ... and here are some snaps of past gurglings:


12 September 2014


Joe McKenzie was an elder of the Adyamathanha people of the north Flinders Ranges. He was a wise protector of his country's very special aspects, and a dear sweet mentor, beloved by his many people. In my strange lexicon of the great 'human'  humans I have known, Joey's up there with Don Dunstan, Patricia Wynn, Mark Oliphant and Nora Young. 

This week Joe flew away into his country. 

His totem was Wildu, the wedge-tailed eagle. 

This poem happened during a drive through Adyamathanha country with Suzie Parkinson. We came across some typical outback road carnage. 

In those days, Joey and I both believed we'd be alive forever. 

My bushman brother Andrew had died years earlier, wearing an Akubra hat I'd worn for ten years then given him after his hat had blown off his neck somewhere during a 1000 kilometre motorcycle ride. The seat of his Yammie TT500 single had fallen to dust in the desert sun, so he folded up a fake fur toilet seat cover, tied it on the frame with occy straps and rode from Commonwealth Hill Station to my joint in the city, losing his hat somewhere along that long bumpy track. 

My hat came back properly bush-bashed after Andrew's death a year later, with a band filled with wedgie feathers, which Joey liked. I'll never know which secret protocols I'd broken wearing those feathers. He quietly replaced my distant, then gone bush brother as a confident, and we shared many crackly telephone calls from all over the north. We also passed the guitar back and forth in the bottom of the empty swimming pool at the Blinman pub. It was cooler there, the echo was perfect, and we could fall no further. 

Now I know more about all this. 

Joe will be buried in the next few days beside his kinsman, Buck.

This sad news is published with approval from Joe's gathering mob. It'll be a big reflective week in the north Flinders Ranges.

George tells me people are quietly emerging from all over the bush.


Hahndorf Hill Winery Adelaide Hills GRU Gruner Veltliner 2014
$28; 12.09% alcohol; screw cap; 94 points 

There are few wineries that have earned such a regular date in my  tasting calendar as the annual HHW GRU und Blau release: this unlikely couple have carved out their annual notch. It's become something I look forward to every spring. They're always at the James Halliday end of my points scale. Out of many dozens of wannabees and if onlys. 

Given the nomenclature, it's completely fitting that these two remarkable wines come from Hahndorf. 

This is perhaps the most outrageously aromatic GRU yet from this pioneering outfit. As my ancient Shetlander granny would say, "Och, it's gruesome. And now look it's grew some more." But there's nothing gruesome about this heavenly tincture: it simply grows, spilling its aromas across the table with such authority: musk and the very first flowers of jasmine; pear and lime; ginger root; nectarine ... like a great vintage of Brian Barry Riesling on speed ... like Jaco Pastorius leaping across his feedbacking bass in that single strobe flash in the Adelaide Festival Theatre. Boom. Its palate is mild of texture, almost ethereal in the way it seems to waft off, leaving that gentlest sensation of bosc pear sitting on the tongue. Its firm natural acidity seems lost in its gentle flesh; its general fleeting atmosphere gives it an illusion of something much less forceful and directed. But there's nothing accidental about it. This wine is designed to make you hungry. Salt'n'pepper eggplant at Wah Hing. Or just about anything else that enters your pretty head. Stunning. 

Hahndorf Hill Winery Adelaide Hills Blaufrankisch 2012 
$40; 14% alcohol; screw cap; 94++ points

Wow. It's two years older than the GRU, and its aromas have a very different colour: like BLUE, but this wine has more than a fleeting kinship with the Gruner Veltliner. Its aroma has that same quiet authority: it sweeps across the table as you fill the glasses. Baby beetroot, borscht with yoghurt, blueberries, fresh marshmallow, black peppercorns: many unlikely components sit together in blissful harmony. 

Like the fragrance of its pretty sister, the pure cuteness of this aroma hides the determined nature of the wine beneath: This is a dainty but driven thing. It seems to dance across the stage of the sensories without once touching the floor. Lightning strikes the Pinot, leaving this delightful spark of concentrate. It makes me yearn for cold-smoked pork belly or tea-smoked duck. Gotta take a bottle round to visit Cheong. And that very elegance and fleeting delight will have us raving straight through an entire blissful dish. If Cheong's in China or somewhere that appreciates him more than this petty burg does, a kassler from Max Noske's splendid Hahndorf butchery, spread thin with Paech's chilli mustard will do perfectly, thankyou. In the car, right out the front of Max's, with a slice of crunchy bread. On the other hand, the Menakao organic Madagascar chocolates the HHW lads sent to my death bed would work just as well. Holy shit.     

I can't easily recall any Australian winery which has researched, trialled, planted and made such radically new varieties into wine of such finesse and beauty with such deliberation and clarity. Larry and Marc, you rock. Thankyou.  

09 September 2014


Pommie brings Italy to Adelaide
All-Italian winelist anathema 
to invader's local buying ethic 

A blizzard of orange and brown wine ordnance smattered in this general direction the last time one of our blokes stuck his head over the parapet and dared to mention the new fashion for extremely long wine lists. These often include little or no traditional Australian wine but devote many pages to the confusing European preferences of hipster somms out in the Wild East.

This uprising started there and is quickly sweeping west and north. It respects no borders. The mapping room sans frontiers hadn't even begun to get its head round the rapidity of this spread when next thing we know we got Jamie Oliver opening his Italian joint in Adelaide with an all-Italian list. Adelaide had one of its cute little frissons of aghastness.

I know; I know: it's just a short-term hiccup in a long spaghetti western. It's not a long list. They just hadn't got the Australian bit working yet. Jamie promised to do something about it the minute Tom Koutsantonis MP, Treasurer, Minister for Finance, Minister for State Development, Minister for Mineral Resources and Energy and Minister for Small Business re-aimed a well-triggered comment Jamie's way on Twitter the night we were discussing my boss's review of the new joint on In Daily. 

Wouldna been too hard to get a follow-up note from Leon Bignell MP, Minister for Agriculture, Food and Fisheries, Minister for Forests, Minister for Racing, Minister for Recreation and Sport, and Minister for Tourism, but that can wait.

Jamie would have done it nevertheless. Put up an Italian wine list, I mean. A bit like Clive Palmer, Jamie can do whatever he can afford to do.

He squeezed a couple of Langhorne Creek wines on since then, and some Victorians. 

Jamie's Insanityburger is not abvailable in his new Italian restaurant in Adelaide 

It's not as if mere anarchy is loosed upon the world. It's just that this Pommy bloke thinks Italian food's the best sort he knows so he's likely I reckon to like the wine that evolved with it. Over the millennia, like. I mean just imagine what a dream Italy must have looked like to a little kid in the backblocks of Essex in the 'nineties.When I was a little kid we'd just beaten the Italians in the War, so I presume Italy must have looked different from here at that point. We'd also beaten the Japs, who sent submarines into Sydney and Darwin Harbours during their attempted invasion of Australia. So in one week we have a former ally installing an Italian wine list into a joint that's halfway between the Adelaide Club and the Parliament House on North Terrace and a bloke who was born an ally before he moved to Aussie becoming our Prime Minister and giving the local submarine factory to the Japs.  All in one week.

Frisson, see.

Jamie's famous lobster Mac: not available in his new Adelaide Italian 

Not to mention the polite rage that simmered through our long list of great Italian family restaurants. Like, people from Italy.

Since I don't have television I missed all the miracles you saw Jamie do there over the years but I remember him being all over Sainsbury's UK chain years back, just as he's everywhere now in Woolworths Australia.

And as Jamie's Italian Adelaide opens, he obviously sees some value in his image also being all over Woolies. Like many of our winemakers, Adelaide's most touted new arrival is happy in both roles.

While I doubt very much that Jamie is your actual Italian, like he says he wishes he was, Jamie really is something of a thing right now. So what's the big deal about him opening an outpost of his chain of Italian restaurants at 2 King William Street, City?

Jamie's celebrated peanut butter and jam thing: not available in his new Adelaide Italian 

As I see it, it's a clever Pommie pub lad comes south. He invades through the television sets and the biggest half of the supermarket duopoly that specialises in the sorts of TV food and drink that I presume Jamie wouldn't have in his shop. And he opens an Italian joint in the front bar of the old art deco building where David Wynn used to bank his Coonawarra money. David was born in Florentino's. I know David was Jewish, as was his Polish Jewish Dad Sam who started the joint, but Florentino's Italian, isn't it?

Oh sorry. It's in Melbourne. So it wouldn't be as Italian as the joint Jamie's opened in David's old bank in Adelaide. And Jamie's got just as much right to do that, like open a joint, as Macca's or Colonel Sadness, or Maggie or Saskia Beer, for that matter. The English have been taking colonial cash home from North Terrace since they invented this colony. And we should be grateful this one's chosen to copy Italy, rather than Essex.

Because it looks so much like a leg Italy's probably easier to remember than all those Australian bush ambiguities masquerading as overlapping places, regions, provinces, districts and areas -- places Prime Minister Howard always referred to as the "regional areas," the "provincial regions," or "regional districts."

Even without a famous Englishman coming to Adelaide to teach us about Italy, Australia's got some baffling stuff to sort about regional labeling, and it's not all wine.

Take the Beers. When you have such an operation which starts off as regional with a few pheasants in a shed and that doesn't quite work out and you end up with a successful paté made from chook livers and you co-operate with the ever-helpful duopoly it can seem harder and harder to keep track of just how regional some of these things are actually expected to be.

Tom Koutsantonis isn't Italian, either, but there he was on Twitter kindly offering Jamie free consulting about the difference between Italy and South Australia. Who knows? To Tom, Jamie might seem Scottish.

Which brings me round to what appears to be called regionality, which is a sort of movement against movement in the sense that one could feel morally superior, even sanctimonious, if one ate only food grown and made within say six hours' walk of one's home.

Before his Italian restaurant invasion thing I seem to recall Jamie occasionally being a bit warm to this local food notion. Obviously the Kangarilla adherent might find herself a bit short on salt and pepper (no local saltmine) just for starters, but strict regionality can get much more austere when you stretch it past beer and wine to include music.

To stretch my boundaries, in my last trip to Woolies, I deliberately abandoned the regionality pretence and bought Italian: some Always Fresh Italian Rustic Crackers. From the Artisan Collection, these were of the Garlic & Sea Salt variety. They came from a spot where I seem to recall a cut-out idol of Jamie hovering, but like other customers, in retrospect I can't be sure whether or not these are Jamie's personal selection of Italian Rustic Crackers.
Given his new role as sort of Italian envoy since the retirement of the mighty Amanda Vanstone, and the handsome packaging of these Italian dry biscuits, customers should be forgiven for thinking there was some sort of a Jamie/Woolies/Italy synergy happening.

In Woolies, Jamie speaks ex cathedra.

The crackers were packaged of course in black, which is the new colour for premium biscuits. Biscuits have waited until every other packaging industry had a decade or two in the black before they patiently took their turn to pass it on.

The fine print says these crackers were "carefully crafted in the Abruzzo region of Italy ... using traditional artisan methods," like cooking, I presume, but it also says "Made in Italy from local and imported ingredients," which turn out to be "wheat flour, potato, vegetable oil, extra virgin olive oil, sea salt, yeast, garlic, parsley, malt and flavours."

And what do they taste like? I reckon they taste like some of those brown bits that you hope go a bit hard around the rim of a shepherd's pie made with instant mashed potato, whatever that is.

Which sorta indicates to me the crackers could have been made without all those other exotic ingredients in one of the Pheasant Farm factories in Australia and still come out just as Italiany as these ones from bloody Abruzzo. Santa friggin Maria! I mean there's no pheasant in the chook liver paté, and that sells okay.

I reckon that if you give Jamie the sort of regard his presence in Woolworths shares with the Always Fresh Artisan Collection and de Beers, you have no right to complain about him having only Italian wines on his restaurant list. He can even call it an Italian restaurant if he wants. Maybe he's an expert at making things seem Italian to a certain group of people.

Maybe it's Woolies' determination to get everything tasting all regionally that gets them attracting famous experts like Maggie and Saskia and Jamie. Everyone's in this together.

I'd be very surprised if Woolworths isn't already making 'Italian' wines at its big Dorrien Barossa refinery.  Who knows whose nose will get the credit for them? I'll bet it won't be Woolworths, which knows how much Jamie's image in its shop improves the public perception of its droll potato biscuits from Abruzzo. Or somewhere.

It's name rich, down there in Woolies Gulch. Just a matter of keeping the product up.

04 September 2014


Gaston Hochar Château Musar Bekaa Valley Lebanon 2005
$60-$70; 14% alcohol; cork(!); 94++ points

Serge Hochar, his brother Ronald, and sons Gaston Jr, Ralph and Marc run this Lebanon winery, which was founded by Gaston Snr in 1930. The cellars are in the ancient Mzar castle between Beirut and Byblos; the vineyards are across the Bekaa Valley, south of the incredible Roman temples to Jupiter, Venus and Bacchus at  Baalbeck. For balance, Qana, the site of the water-into-wine wedding, is a little further to the south. The Hochars have lived in this hood since a French ancestor came in the Crusades, loved it, and stayed.

Bedouin gardeners run the vineyards and manage the harvest, sometimes under gunfire. Like machine guns, aircraft strafing and tank cannons. The vines - average age: 40 years - are certified organic, and grow in alluvial gravels over limestone at about 1000 metres altitude. Only wild yeasts are involved, and the wines are unfined and unfiltered. This, the Chateau's premium red, is a blend of Cabernet sauvignon, Cinsault and Carignan. The percentages are never given. Smaller amounts of Grenache and Mourvèdre are often in the blend; I suspect they're both in here. This is the current release. The wine is always seven years in the making: fermented in concrete; stored in French barrels for a year before blending; kept to settle in seasoned wood for a time - usually another year - then bottled and stored for three or four years before release.

In style, the wine is very much in the Max Schubert fashion, like a classic Penfolds blend from the mid-seventies. It needs standing up for a night, then decanting. Age has given this one the illusion of wine from a warmer place than Bekaa, which has very cold nights. It's immediately soft and warm and inviting, and what Max called 'soulful'.  Its fruits all have a toasty nature that the Hochars call 'baked', but the wines are neither jammy nor overtly alcoholic. I love the counterpoint of nutloaf/panforte and fine white pepper that usually dignifies these wines. After that prickly but soothing bouquet, the flavours are nutty and sublimely elegant, with long velvet tannins and totally harmonious natural acids. They're a little leathery sometimes, but there's none of the hydrogen sulphide that often accompanies that aroma. Near the end there's a wee dollop  of comforting chocolate custard, bringing a further illusion of sweetness. There's a little husky mace, too; maybe nutmeg. I don't know any modern Australian wine like it: it really is more like something from forty years ago, before the refineries and the petrochem mobs took over.

It'll stay pretty much like this for at least twenty years, cork willing. I've troubled it over five days, and all that's happened is it's grown more mellow and alluring.

In other words, it's a trip to 1980, and you're drinking something that could have come from Max's hand from 1975 or 76. I don't know any other way you can do that. It brings a bright tear to my eye.

Must all lovely things come from adversity? 

Chateau Musar Jeune Cinsault Syrah Cabernet Sauvignon Bekaa Valley Lebanon 2011 
 $18-$25; 14% alcohol; cork(!); 87+ points 

Made for earlier drinking, but after the same gentle, reassuring style, this one's a bit more bright and cheeky, with that same prickly pepper and mace, but it still does best with a decanting. Take the cork out, and the bottle will remain alluring for at least three days, peaking on the second. I suspect it takes that long for the cork dust to submerge in the fruit. The fragrance reminds me also of the Curry Tree, Murraya koenigii.  The palate is slender and spicy, and seems to have evolved to accompany Lebanese-style lamb. It, too, has that little spoonful of comforting chocolate near the end, and a tiny dribble of Leatherwood honey, but it's not sugar sweetness. It's comfort. A fine, elegant, easy wine to drink over two days before you tackle the 2005 premium.

You'll have to ring Negociants Australia to squeeze these wines out of them, or to discover where you can buy them. They're the agents. 

By Jingo Nero Rosso McLaren Vale/Adelaide Hills Montepulciano Mourvèdre Grenache Shiraz Zinfandel 2011
 $30-35: 14.2% alcohol; screw cap; 93++ points 

Putting aside the modernistic inclusion of the Italian varieties much beloved by Johnny 'Jingo' Gilbert, who through working there has a deep gut understanding of ancient bits of Italy, we have another wine here that feels like it comes from an earlier age. It has plenty of summer dust and white pepper to prickle the nose, but below that there's a racy lash of brambly hedgerow berries and leaves, from hawthorn to juniper. The fruits rush past in a linear mess of beetroot through quince and redcurrant to prune. I say mess, but I probably should say blur, because they go past so fast I feel like the old strip camera at the photo finish at Flemington, trying to pin a name on the varieties when they're all so stretched out and everything. I am the winner. I'm drinking it.

Because it has a screwcap, these aromas are tight, vibrant and fresh, and, as I say, modernistic. But it's still retro. It seems that there's a teaspoon of balsamic somewhere in the bottle. In the drinking division, it's really racy and intense, with a touch of lightning on its blackberry bushes and maybe a wipe of gun blue to scare the foxes out and the ravens away.

As time goes by, we get a pretty wisp of musk sticks.

The flavours are a tad thicker than the bouquet indicates: they're whippy and athletic but a touch more fluffy and fatty than you'd expect, without being gloopy. Just perfect, really, if you're a modernist who's dangerously retro bent.

And then, after a decanting and some bedazzled confusion, I get that little teaspoon of chocolate crême caramel rising near the long tapering finish. That seems retro, too.

I know I gonged the 2010 a little higher than this at 94+, but I remind you that my average points over a week of tasting is around 70, and I suspect this one will look more troublesome and disarmingly irresistable by the big Exmess. Six-pack under the bed. Go, turkey!

02 September 2014


We already fought this war!
Hey, hey TCA: how many
wines did you spoil today?

There's a lot of excited popping around the cork business lately. The bark merchants can smell money.

Because China still thinks wine is a quaint and old fashioned luxury, its merchants and sommeliers insist on wine being corked. Many Australian winemakers who have been entirely happy with screwcaps but are keen to sell wine in China are suddenly having to remember how to phone the blokes who sell the old Portuguese bark plugs.

Small premium producers who don't have the volumes to justify bottling under both closures, to offer customers a choice, are finding themselves hoping that Australian wine lovers who have become accustomed to the convenience and reliability of screwcap will suddenly overlook their return to cork. The new Chinese agent wants cork; everybody's gotta have cork.

This is on the nose.

In China, it don't matter a fig that the screwcap keeps wine fresher longer. Being heavily influenced by the French, who don't mind a bit of tish, the poor buggers are impressed by that smelly, suss little scrap of old-fashioned western ritual.

I hate corks. Sure, I've loved and recommended many wines that came plugged with them, but it's no secret that I've encouraged the march to better, more scientifically proven closures for thirty-five years. I thought this battle had been won.

I suspect the quality of cork shipped to Australia may have improved slightly in recent years. But I can't forget the days when a case of wine would typically contain three good bottles, three that tasted vaguely disappointing, three that were simply flat and not good, and three that were rotten with the perfectly named contaminant, 2,4,6-trichloroanisole. Winemakers have conveniently abbreviated this to the prettier-sounding TCA. As if we needed another TLA*.

This delight is matched only by the aptly-named butylated hydroxyanisole, which is that rancid stink of the fat that launched a thousand chips.

The health police eventually imposed rigid limits on the permitted amounts of butylated hydroxyanisole in fish'n'chip shop fat, but winemakers flatly denied their 2,4,6-trichloroanisole rip-off rate, and expected nobody to notice. And they were ripping us off. It was a rip-off. They are capable of ripping their customers off. They were dragged kicking and screaming into the world of screw don't pull. Now they're sending corked wine to China.

My readers deserve better: in my day-to-day tasting, anything with a cork and its associated suss goes straight to the end of the line. When I announced my new tasting protocol in The Advertiser in 1990, reading winemakers began to realise the game may have been up. 

I couldn't be confident that the corked wine I recommended was much like the bottle my reader bought.

To recap: for decades Australia has made wine so clean and sanitary and stable, using shiny stainless steel, that it is always put in brand new bottles. Rather than wash them for refilling, we use vast amounts of energy to melt the bottles down and blow new ones in order to store the wine in the scientific food-grade sanctity it deserves.

Then we get a piece of bark from a tree in Portugal and bash it down the throat of the perfectly clean brand new bottle full of perfectly clean brand new wine.

The spongiform nature of natural corks makes each one a five-star high-rise for microbes, germs and minibugs of all sorts. Think of your cork oak there in Portugal: squirrel piss; birdshit; bulls scratching their quaking arses before the bullfight. Peel the bark off, bleach it to make it look better, bash it in your bottle and you get the reaction that produces that carrion anisole twang.

Back to natural cork makes about as much sense as returning to the natural wine skin. Now that's a lovely heritagey idea: a new market for all our feral pigs and goats!

Our blokes are obviously not explaining these issues to the good clean people of China. I mean they'll come home sniggering about how the poor Asians are still putting Coke in their red, but they'll have no qualms about flogging them container after container of plonk with bark plugs. I'd probably have Coke in my red too if I was on the receiving end of that.

Coke, just by the way, used to have a little cork wafer under its cap. For all the right reasons, like those listed above, they rejected cork in the 'sixties. The product suddenly improved. Imagine Coke "going back to natural cork"?

I heard a cork flogger preaching his gospel at a tasting last week: like dozens of cork floggers before him have preached for decades, he promised that any day soon the problems of cork would be over. Just like that. It's coming. Somebody's always inventing some new plastic coating or prophylactic sandwich or something, giving these proselytisers fresh chapters to preach. But anybody not selling them knows that a cork is still a frigging cork.

Everything about cork is corky. You can't put a natural cork in a bottle without the cork influencing the flavour and aroma of the wine. The damned things may have worked to a more tolerable extent when you had a jeeves or a Denholm Elliot or somebody subservient in the next room getting his toolbox out to remove the bark plug, test the wine, discretely tip it out if it was too corky, or decant it and present it to your table if it seemed vaguely okay.

Corks might even be slightly more acceptable when your wine waiter does all that for you in the restaurant you like to attend because you can't afford servants at home but here you can pretend for a while that suddenly you can. Now we have wine bar staff who refuse to use corkscrews: they've never needed them because they love the immediacy and reliable safety of the screwie, Bacchus bless 'em.

Even the Portuguese sardine fishermen realised decades ago that if you want your customers to eat all these fish you catch, you can't expect them to carry round a special spanner to get the fish out of the tin. So first they gave us the key, now they give us the flip-top tin. The idea of having to carry a corkscrew round in your handbag in case you get thirsty is just plain old codswallop. 

And the idea of wrapping a cork in a plastic franger to make it more sanitary, then selling it as natural, also beggars belief.

“The quality issues with natural cork in the early 2000s meant Australian winemakers had no choice but to seek alternatives to cork for their wines,” a press release from a cork mob advised me today.

“SmartCork, with its low failure rate and its ability to consistently deliver fresh, intense and fruity wines, now gives them the opportunity to return to natural cork with confidence.

“In time we hope to see membrane-coated corks accepted as the closure of choice in Australia.” 

Closure of choice? You know where you can put that.
 *TLA: three-letter acronym