“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




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. 

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

31 August 2014


Hossein Valamanesh yesterday opened Syria Lost, an exhibition of huge black and white photographs by Bryan Dawe, Sandra Elms and Tony Kearney. They're hanging at the Rosemount Cellars on Chaffey's Road, McLaren Vale. The big square works are haunting images made during the trio's tour of Syria immediately before the current revolutionary war tore the place to shreds. The photographs will hang until Saturday October 4. They're on the best paper with vast blank margins and are a snap at $450 unframed. 

If you're curious to taste the small batch wines the canny Rosemount mob makes to win all the trophies at the annual McLaren Vale Wine Show, they're all available here at what was Ben Chaffey's old Seaview Winery. This was long ago absorbed into the Treasury arsenal, and rebadged as Rosemount. The lovely old joint could do with a bit of TLC as far as restorative budgets go ... considering Treasury's dependance on McLaren Vale for vast volumes of premium red, you'd think the powers that be could give a little practical support to the stalwart enthusiasts there running Cellar Door ... That's our gang at the end of a memorable after-show repast at Salopian Inn, below: left to right: Annabelle Collett, Tony Kearney, Christa, Sandra Elms and Bryan Dawe ... photos Philip White

For more lovely stuff by Murray Estuary resident and artist Annabelle Collett check here and here

27 August 2014


O'Leary Walker Watervale Riesling 2014 
$20 , 12% alcohol; screw cap; 94++ points 

Consistently at the forefront of the fine, forceful Rieslings of Watervale, the annual offering from O'Leary Walker is also steadfastly in the front as far as sheer value goes. I don't know any other producer who annually entraps the wonder of the Watervale slope with more honesty and precision. There is no sophistry in this bottle.

Which can't be said of this back label, which mentions limestone. While the winemakers of Clare would love to have Coonawarra-style limestone beneath their terra rossa, fact is they don't. The chalky-looking stuff at Watervale is in fact calcrete, not limestone. Limestone is old seabed, full of calcium, usually from the skeletal remains of marine micro-organisms. Fossils.

In arid lands, calcium dissolved in the groundwater in some soils forms a calcrete crust at the surface when rainwater packed with carbon dioxide acts as an acid and pulls the calcium out of solution, forming a crust that chemically is very similar to limestone, and indeed looks a bit like it to the naïve eye, but otherwise is a very different gadget altogether.

Typical of the best Watervales, this wine smells like wet chalk. Like the White Cliffs of Dover after a squall, or the eternally-damp Kimmeridgian chalks below Champagne. Being ancient seabeds, these are not calcrete, but they're full of calcium, like calcrete. Thus this lovely smell. It makes me feel like I'm outside in one of those exotic places - Dover, Champagne, Watervale - in blustery weather; a really good feeling.

That smell goes swimmingly with the citrus-like aromas of some fine Riesling. The leaf, blossom and juice of lemons and limes. That's all in here, too.

The wine has tight viscosity: it is not oily. It's lean and lithe, with that rapier or whiprod of steely natural acid straight through its austere, athletic heart. As it finishes, it layers the mouth with a savoury dry phenolic also reminiscent of chalk. In this its stoic, ungiving youth, it has not yet developed the warmer, very slightly honeyed soul such wines grow with the years.

So tease yourself with it now, or stack it away for a decade for romance. 

In spite of it growing in calcrete, not old seabed, it goes best with fresh seafood: flambé prawns or cockles with lemon and chilli, or oysters so fresh they wince when you hit 'em with the lemon.

O'Leary Walker Polish Hill River Riesling 2014 
$22; 12% alcohol; screw cap; 95+ points 

While it's only a ten minute drive distant, the geology in the Polish Valley is roughly 500 million years older than the Watervale calcrete. On top of the difference in aspect and micro-climate, this aspect of the Polish Valley terroir always produces Rieslings of a very different style.

Compared to Watervale, Polish Hill River Riesling is less austere and bracing. Typically, this one is perfumed and fruity. Sure, it has a nose-itching powdering of summer dust, but beneath that I smell the clean soft flesh of ly-chee and rambutan, cucumber and star fruit. While Watervale's macho, blustery and seasidey, like a fisherman, this is a long-legged lass in a polished straw hat and linen suit, soused in Issey Miyake. Freckles.

At first, the palate shares the Watervale's staunch acid and austere lack of pudge, but give it a chance and you'll see some of the creamier aspects of those tropicals beginning to flesh up the bones and sinews. This effect will be very satisfactory in a decade. Brrrr.

This morning, it makes me dream of soft white bread cucumber sandwiches with the crusts cut off. As the Casa Blanco bench won't do that today, I'm having it with an extravagant slice of Tasmania winter truffle. Boo hoo.

Many say that Riesling is far too adult and unflinching for the average Ocker palate. In form, these wines are certainly the opposite of the new wash of burnished, oily, Mediterranean varieties, or, indeed Chardonnay.

Everything has its purpose. Young pristine Riesling is not meant to be cuddly. Right now, these two superlative wines seem to exist only to provoke bright questioning thought and a superior feeling, making me very very happy.

And then there's them itty-bitty prices. Pretty hard to complain about any of that. 

O'Leary Walker Adelaide Hills Sauvignon Blanc 2013 
$18; 11% alcohol; screw cap; 92 points 

Since the Droggies redirected the history of Mount Lofty Ranges white wines with the release of their first stunning Paracombe Savvy-Bs decades back, this is the first version of that variety to seriously change the gears.

Like Marlborough, New Zealand, the South Mount Lofty Ranges and the Adelaide Hills (wherever they are) produce far too much forgettable Sauvignon blanc. Cat piss and battery acid on the lawn clippings sort of thing.

This wine is complex. It's musky, and vibrantly fruity in a tropical market sort of way. It has some of those complex vanillinoids you'll see in fresh jackfruit. It even smells comfortingly of Lucas' Paw Paw ointment. And there's just that little hint of burlap, as if a tuk tuk's just dropped in a fresh damp sack of star fruit, straight outa the jungle.

Methinks the wine's had a barrel of oak included in its big tank, and maybe a tiny bit of it's had the wild yeast, lees-stirring business. The dudes have got it right.

The palate's still skinny and a tad crunchy, which is what the salt'n'pepper squid cadre seem to expect of their Savvy-B. But's it's not short. It sits there in the palate, daring you to throw more squid batter at it.

I'd prefer some grilled seafood which provides its own comforting fat, like scallops and prawns. Bean sprouts, cucumber. Green chicken curry. Steamed rice.

Once again, a stunning price.

Bring on the spring!

21 August 2014




"We're 50 tons in already," reports winemaker Maynard James Keenan. "Did about 100 last year but that was all the way into October. No late Spring frost combined with a warm late winter moved vintage up a bit. Combine that with my recent acquisition and extensive restructuring of the Buhl Memorial Vineyard I retained in my Arizona Stronghold divorce, you have some solid early fruit. Example: Grenache, Merlot, Tempranillo, and Syrah all arriving in phenolic harmony at roughly 24.5 Brix, 3.45 pH, 0.70 TA. Gorgeous fruit. It's gonna be a fantastic vintage." 

DRINKSTER wishes the three Keenans (including a very fresh but modestly shy Lei Li Agostina Maria) the best vintage and a grand, happy, healthy life together! ... photos Maynard James Keenan


Yelland & Papps Devote Barossa Valley Roussanne 2013
 $35; 13% alcohol; screw cap; 90 points 

Among the many fascinating white varieties of Mediterranean France, Australia has for years pursued a fickle flirtation with only three of them: Viognier, Marsanne and Roussanne. We have made few notable Viogniers, which is a tricky, mostly misunderstood quirk of a grape, and even  fewer good Marsannes, which as a variety seems notable only for its forgettable nature. Roussanne, however, is coming off a little better, in spite of it enjoying about the same general level of winemaker's understanding as Viognier. For its lowish alcohol, this is a biggish style of wine: quite viscous, almost oily, like the syrup from a jar of preserved quinces, with maybe a clove in there somewhere. Grown by the Materne family in the rolling country north-east of Greenock, the wine has been basket-pressed, barrel-fermented (mainly old oak) left on lees in barrel and stirred twelve times over six months. Apart from that mish-mash of fruit syrups in its bouquet and flavour the wine has an alluring tweak of gingerbread in its aroma, and a long taper of lemony acid in its tail. That texture seems custom-cut for ginger chicken or a casserole of chicken with pickled lemon. Don't overchill it. 

Yelland & Papps Devote Barossa Valley Shiraz Roussanne 2012 
 $35; 13.5% alcohol; screw cap; 80 points

Putting aside the question of why you'd put Roussanne in Barossa Shiraz, let's see what the wine's like. That mish-mash of fruit syrups is even louder: it's like a big macerating compote of kirsch with all manner of red, blue and black berries, from maraschino cherries to bitter juniper. It's very slick and silky, and, like the Roussanne, sports a heavy viscosity you'd expect in wine of much greater alcohol. Like the nether regions above sixteen. I agree completely with the winemakers' suggestion that it's like rum'n'raisin chocolate, which reinforces my theory about expecting a higher alcohol. Kirsch and rum are highly aromatic flavours I don't expect in Shiraz or Roussanne, especially at a modest 13.5% alcohol. Dark chocolate often has a naturally bitter tinge; that's here too, in the long, lingering finish. Also from the Materne vineyard near Greenock, the wine is truly quirky, built for Old Jamaica chocolate addicts, or those who love the nature of big alcohol jammy Barossa reds, but would prefer lower alcohol. So what would I eat with it? Old Jamaica Rum'n'raisin chocolate would do just trimmingly if you're near a bed; if you want meats, go Park Lok or T-Chow twin pepper pork hotpot.