“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)


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29 August 2015

SPRING! LOOKIN OUT MY BACK DOOR

High noon today at Casa Blanca in the sweet sweet McLaren Vale ... ewes with fat lambs cleaning up the vineyard before budburst, when they'll be moved away ... sure beats Roundup! Check the young dudes' lifestyle (in a baby bushvine vineyard):

... and the front yard: that's the Yangarra Ironheart Vineyard ... photos Philip White

 

26 August 2015

BLENDING WINE DEMYSTIFIES IT

top and bottom photos by Philip White: tasting individual components at Yalumba
 
Mixology, parfumerie, mud pies:
you'll find beauty and truth on the blending bench: give it a go!
by PHILIP WHITE

Bacchus knows it's too long since this bibulous hack rested his bows against the rubbing strakes of the original Harry's New York Bar at Sank Rue da Noe in the 2nd arrondissement, but it's still a smart place to start a yarn about blending.

Last time I caressed the battered piano on which Gershwin spent a winter writing American in Paris they had about half a dozen brilliant champagnes on the rack, but anybody who asked for a glass of it got a scornful snort from the lab-coated barman. The fizz was there for the composition of cocktails only.

The number of classical cocktails  - Bloody Mary; White Lady; Sidecar - invented in the joint's century of imbibition is anybody's business and always the trigger of terrible arguments about the provenance of the claim, but unless you're drinking beer or malt whisky it's made very clear that in the spirit of the prohibition that drove the publican with no first name, Sloane, to pack up his New York bar and ship it for reassemblage in Paris, the cocktail is de rigeur.

The presumption being the mixmasters of Harry's are there to improve on whatever very famous ingredients stand on the shelf. Harry MacElhone was Sloane's first mixologist: he finally bought the joint and set it a-sail.

Your correspondent may lack the Gallic confidence of the Harry's crew, but he's an inveterate experimenter on the mixing deck.

Once you've spent a day or a vintage watching great blenders play their music, listening to them, your attitude to even your favourite bottle of wine can change forever.

The author with Wolf Blass and John 'The Ferret' Glaetzer, who was always in the background, but whose remarkable nose was a match for Wolfie's ... they worked brilliantly together on the blending bench, building a great wine empire through their organoleptic skill and the unique  harmony of their flavour brains ... photo by Johnny 'Guitar' Preece
 
John Glaetzer and Wolf Blass, Henri and Remi Krug, Max Schubert ... these are some of the great flavour musicians I've watched compose symphonies from components simple or mighty and all points in between.

After Max's retirement, when Penfolds afforded him a tiny office in the brandy still house, he was in charge of stocking the Governor's cellar, which had been let run down to a terrible degree. Like who'd expect the butler of her majesty's Adelaide rep to pour visiting dignitaries a twenty year old Tollana rosé?

Whoever'd been in charge of it before Max, that's who.  That's the sort of stuff that was down there rotting in the gubernatorial stash.

Max Schubert, the blender at work ... photo Milton Wordley
 
In order to get their wines on the big list, hopeful wineries all over Australia sent Max wine to appraise. Of course he made a very good job of it. But this constant supply of ingredients gave him the opportunity to play as he did when he ran the Grange winery. From very ordinary commercial wines, it was astonishing what he could produce in his blending beaker. A little of this, a schloosh of that, a dash of something precious: bingo! A drink that was always superior to the sum of its parts. Upon making a new discovery, he'd call me excitedly to get my junior arse up to Magill and learn. Shit we had fun!

It's a telling reflection of the folks who run the thousands of wine bars in Australia: how many of their operatives have ever considered making a mixture of the famous or common wines they stock?

Have they ever had a bit of a play? Is it verboten?

One of my favourite games is to use the act of blending to better study aspects of the components that go into a successful assemblage.

Many regard the very notion as a sacriligious travesty.

But you know what? I love it when a winemaker sends a full suite of their products for review. Once I've made my notes of the individual tinctures, I take an equal measure of each, and simply tip them into a jug together. Give it a swirl, let it sit for an hour, and imbibe. This is a foolproof way of learning the style of the house: you get to begin to understand where the winery's going, whether it knows or not.

Mixing red and white is best kept until you as conductor of the orchestra gets some confidence happening, but what the hell? Give it a try. With whatever's on your table.

Annabelle and Michael Waugh in their cellars on Roennfeldt Road ... photo Leo Davis
 
Funny thing. Michael and Annabelle Waugh send me their full suite of Greenock Creek reds every year so I can make some notes. Since 1984, they've gradually built a suite of little vineyards around the Greenock Creek/Marananga/Seppeltsfield/Roennfeldt's Road precinct on the Barossa's western slopes. These each have their own unique geology and aspect. They now release two Cabernets, one Grenache and five Shiraz wines. Few producers so small can lay claim to such disparate progeny: regardless of the vintage no two wines are alike. They have built a reputation on diversity and rustic honesty, straight after the method of very much more famous and expensive houses like Domaine de la Romanée Conti in Burgundy.

It's a wicked pleasure to blend all these in equal proportion. Three vintages, three varieties, six sites.

Guess what happens in most years? The blend, which depends utterly on the disparate nature of those components, looks like an extremely expensive smoothie from the likes of Blass or maybe even Penfolds.

In some ways, the result is an average of the ingredients: a mindless composition with all its characterful edges knocked off. This however, is to abuse the meaning of average. The average of things is rarely their central point. To understand average, sit for a while until you realise what I mean by suggesting, truthfully, that most people have more than the average number of legs.

Usually that one remaining intact leg has more value than it had before the other one went west.

In the mindless blending recipe I've suggested, one or two of those unique ingredients often outweigh the input of the rest. This can be so confounding as to drive the junior experimeter off , but it's better to use it as a lesson in the nature and importance of those component wines. Take one out; see what happens to the rest of the blend.

Point a diligent winemaker at a cellar full of barrels which have been made to build a deliberate proprietorial blend and the first thing they'll do is bung everything in together in measures proportionate to their contributing vineyard, oak and style. I call this the Accountant's Blend: the ideal; no waste.

But if you then consult your notes of all the individual ingredients, and compare them to your appraisal of the blend, you can remove the components that detract from its quality, one by one.

Don't like that raw tomato leaf in your Cabernet assemblage? Find the ingredients that smell like that and make another blend without them. Work your way through the whole business, backwards like this, and you'll end up with something that suggests perfection but is never likely to make the accountant happy. Too small a result; too many rejected barrels or tanks.

In the end, most blends are a compromise: in the accountant's eyes, close to middle. In the organoleptic senses of the gastronmically intelligent, however, the best blend will often be closer to that one significant leg.

Cabernet king Dr Max Lake, founder of Lake's Folly, knew as much about pheromones and parfumerie as he did about wine. Which was a lot!
 
The winemaker can fine-tune and polish. Genius noses like those of the Krugs, Max Lake  and Max Schubert do this in the manner of great parfumiers, making their wine to a design. Most of the commercial stuff Australia drinks, however, is unfortunately a lot closer to that bloody average accountant's blend.

Don't be scared. Get some mates to bring a couple of bottles each. Make mud pies. You can't help learning more than the powers that be really want you to know.


24 August 2015

LEONIE HENDERSON HITS SIXTY

A very happy Leonie Henderson (above) stacked on a blaster party at Clayton, in the Murray Estuary on Lake Alexandrina at the weekend ... Leonie's been a mate since the pre-Cambrian epoch of that famous thirst emporium, The Exeter, 246 Rundle Street ...

Leonie's son, Adam Brandon, drove the sonics and lights, with some able assistance from a few budding laser mavens ... that's his VB, by the way, not hers ...

... the groove grew more abandoned as the outer darkness intensified ... 
 

... Clayton residents Diane Lewis, a nurse who has worked in some terrible trouble spots around the Earth, whose Dad was a great mate of Max Schubert, and local artist and curator, Annabelle Collett of YaYa studio ... her Dad was a Max buddy too in his day ...


... and here's the author sucking fresh intelligence from the brain of the delightful Lily Bilson while Adam's not looking ... he's her partner and the Dad of their stunning daughter, Audrey ... this photo by Samuel Mulcahy; all others by Philip White

21 August 2015

GRENACHE MOVES CLOSER TO PINOT


Longhop Old Vine Mount Lofty Ranges Grenache 2013 
$18; 14.5% alcohol; screw cap; 92+ point 

Still dribbling about that price, my response to this wine turned into a total gusher once I got some in my glass and loosed my hooter on it. It's another of the exciting new-wave, more elegant Grenache models, which is not to say it shows the slightest hint of anorexia. It smells a bit like smoked cherries. Which is one thing I've never smoked. And then it's chubby and ruddy-cheeked and maybe a little sullen in one way - give it time - but on the other hand it's flush with life and a kind of self-satisfaction, as if it knows you'll be pleased. 

It also smells slightly like dark chocolate, as if a great chef like Cheong had reinvented the Cherry Ripe, using proper maraschino cherries and Valrhôna cooking chocolate, which is the best I've eaten. In fact I've eaten it with Grenache near that remarkable Tain-l'Hermitage chocolatier with my dear Rhône mentor, the late Gerard Jaboulet. With a Gauloise or six, of course, joking about how much Rhône Hermitage and Grenache historically found its way north into Burgundy, where it's not permitted, but was used to beef up the Pinot. Of course they wouldn't do that now, would they.

It's the same yarn in the drinking bit: it has just the right drip of syrup to balance its bright, provocative acidity. It's long and tantalising: with all that sass, more provocative than satisfying.

It's wines like this that have me lately firming my theory that properly made, with the right levels of natural acidity, Grenache can be South Australia's alternative to Pinot noir, as very few parts of our sunbaked state are cool enough to make really good Pinot. Ashton Hills is the noted exception.

I also suspect that the South Australian consumer's cellar palate is prejudiced by the big ripe jammy Shiraz things we've become accustomed to, and often doesn't take readily to the slender austerity and often pale nature of good Pinot.

I can see my fingers through this wine, which is encouraging. Compared to the Grenache of fifteen years back, it could come from a different variety, especially if taken from fifty-year-old vines like this was. It's not Pinot, of course, but in the sensory sector, and the spaceframe, it could share some genes with that  felicitous Burgundian delight. If only there were Burgundies at $18 ...

Tea-smoked duck, please. 

Provenance Regional Selection Geelong Pinot Noir 2013 
$47; 13% alcohol; screw cap; 93+++ points 

Maybe it's a little unfair stepping into this more spendy bottle after the Longhop bargain, but it was there on the bench and triggered this train of blasphemy, so why the hell not?

I was introduced to Geelong Pinot at the two hectare Prince Albert vineyard by Stephen Hickinbotham in 1982. He was then making radical wines on the Anakie volcano a stubby's drive distant, Bacchus rest his young soul. 

Stephen Hickinbotham at Anakie ... detail from a photograph by Paul Lloyd
  
François Albert Tétaz writes charmingly of planting the first Prince Albert vines in his letters of 1863 - you can read them in John Tétaz's lovely book, From Boudry to the Barrabool Hills - the Swiss Vignerons of Geelong, which Peter Downie of Barwon Booksellers kindly found for me.

Scott Ireland and Sam Vogel made this wine from selected parcels of Geelong fruit.

It's not as plush and fleshy as the Longhop, but it has the cherries - without smoke this time - and the faintest hint of dark chocolate, and maybe some redcurrants. And it has that faint billy tea tin aroma, which usually leads me to expect black tea tannins. It is wholly the most provocative and solicitous fragrance. It's very obviously Pinot noir.

The weight of the wine is also akin to that Longhop; acidity too. But it's a finer, more taut, almost brittle thing in this its infancy. It has the grilling cashew flavour common to many Burgundies, and like other Geelong Pinots, reminds me of the late 'seventies vintages of Domaine Dujac's Morey-Saint-Denis, before that other Geelong vigneron, Gary Farr went there to work, taking his Australian oak philosophy - more wood - with him.

This would do the tea-smoked duck proudly, but I'd prefer to go for something a little lighter, like marron baked in fresh herbs and butter.


Its tannins, by the way, are nowhere near as clunky as billy tea. They're much finer, more discrete, and totally entwined with that crunchy natural acid. And the oak here is hardly here at all: it's just right.

So whatter we got? We have an austere, bright Pinot for those who understand Burgundy but can't possibly squeeze the extra one or two hundred bucks that'll cost. And we have a slightly plump ripe year Burgundy which is made from old South Australian Grenache in the Barossa Tops.

Tops in both cases. Take a bottle of each to Chinatown and boogie. If you see smoke on the horizon, it's not the duck oven. It'll be me taking heavy flak from the Burgundy fetishits.

18 August 2015

MAYNARD'S VINTAGE REPORT: ARIZONA

Bubbles over Judith: Maynard James Keenan's photo of his Nagual del Judith block at Jerome Arizona yesterday. 

"Judith's Nebbiolo, Aglianico and  Tempranillo," he writes, "with Nebbiolo in the photo. It'll be her first vintage of Neb & Agli. 

"Harvest is well under way. Finding that by setting less fruit (as long as it's in balance with the canopy) we're seeing our numbers aligning near perfectly while still achieving phenolic ripeness. By not being greedy with fruit set, we're harvesting earlier AND avoiding the monsoons we usually end up getting hammered with by leaving fruit hanging longer.

"Great acid levels, lower pH, brown seeds at lower sugar levels. Balance. Or so it seems. Time will tell. 

"We're announcing Puscifer tour dates and album cover today. Hoping it leads to a trip down under."

Me too, dear Brother. Bacchus and Pan blessings for the rest of the vintage business. Bon temps roulez.

Healing, healing ... different place, different colour, different smell: Penfolds Magill winemaker Jason Barrett with Maynard and Ray Beckwith's pH meter, receiving the vibratin voodoo vintage blessin from Rasputin in the administrations chamber in the hillside deep behind The Grange ... photo Milton Wordley, who escaped without singe marks

13 August 2015

LOOK WHAT I FOUND

In one of the deepest dungeons at Penfolds Magill: sleeping babies ... photo Philip White

And look what Sandie Coff, daughter of Max and Thellie Schubert, has found in the old family home at Magill:

Since the recent death of her Mum, Sandie's been sorting through a trove of photographs in the humble family cottage a short walk from the Penfolds Magill winery at The Grange.

I can't recall where we were, or why we were there, but I reckon this would be in the early to mid-eighties. Left to right: yours truly, Andrew 'Ox' Hardy, then winemaking at Petaluma, Robert 'Mouse' Hesketh, chairman of the Australian Wine and Brandy Corporation, Geoff Merrill, and Thelma 'Thellie' Schubert with her beloved Max ... photographer unknown ... If anyone can help me with details of this occasion please let me know. Was it the party celebrating Petaluma's purchase of the derelict Bridgewater Mill? Similarly, I'd love to know the identity of the photographer.

FIRST TASTE OF PENFOLDS NEW BEAUTIES


Penfolds Bin 51 Eden Valley Riesling 2015
$30; 11.5% alcohol; screw cap; 93+++ points 

You know those big plush petals of the magnolia flower? That's the first thing this lovely drink brought to mind. Texturally confident, but creamy. There's lime blossom and lime pith too, of course, as you'd expect of Eden Riesling.  But this is not as austere, stony and steely as many of those high country austerities. This is almost fragile. It's a total delusion, but the wine has so much of that naive and simple cleavage flesh that you forget to look at the amazing business going on in the engine room.

Which you encounter in the mouth division. Clunk. You hit the real old rocks here. The wine seems a bit short at first. Abrupt. But you give it six or seven hours and the damn thing starts to begin to think about showing its cards. It literally crawls out from beneath its rock, like something serpentine or lizardish after hibernation: real slow and drowsy but very very delibarate and hungry. Blue tongue flicking.

I've been taking flak lately for recommending so many wines that I suggest need some cellaring. I dunno how to deal with this: my stance must seem effete, unreasonable and unattainable. But c'mon cobber, that's the heart of this business. Would you prefer to drink the 1971 Grange or the 2011?

This wine will kick total arse like unforgettable in what? Another generation? A decade? A forgetfulness? 

Penfolds Bin 128 Coonawarra Shiraz 2013 
$40; 14.5% alcohol; screw cap; 93+ points 

I don't reckon I've ever mentioned the word sexy in a Penfolds review, so get that straight out of your mind. When this first came forth, it seemed another of those Penfolds Coonawarras that are nothing like much else out of that big red cigar apart from maybe Zema. Which made me think it was a matter of venerable vine age, but it's not that simple. 

 I'm trying to be, how you say, transparent.

The Weather Undergound vigilants of deep Penfolds get stuff out of Coonawarra which is somehow pure Penfolds. Not Wynns, not Blass, not anything alse. Not every year or anything like that, but regularly. With the vagaries of the vintages, this stuff comes and goes and goes up and down like the tides. But here you have a classic Penfolds Coonawarra Shiraz.

Ridgey-didge.

It's in the great framework of traditional Australian claret, smooth and dignified and elegant with just the right see-saw of yin-yang baby fruit and future.

Halley-friggin-loo-ya!

I need urgently to sit with Peter Gago, David Wynn and Max Schubert to drink this and watch 'em  skite. A spoon of ripe Stilton would be the go. You got a special corner somewhere in there Pete? 

Penfolds The Max Schubert Barossa Coonawarra Cabernet Shiraz 2012 
$450; 14% alcohol; screw cap; 95+++ points 

I can imagine a health farm somewhere in the mango/paw-paw tropics where you wash this on your face every morning and go and stand naked in the rain.

This wine somehow rises above drink. I reckon you can inhale something this silky, luxurious and smooth through your pores.

It'd go straight into your genes.

More along the Bin 60A lines than Grange, it's a perfume. Barossa provides the well-dressed saddle, plush and soft; Coonawarra perfume rides the horse. Confectioner's sugar; musk; jellied mint; crystallised violets. Persian pashmak: the original floss candy.

Faeries.

All this insinuates itself onto your tongue where it does a totally disarming Medlar Gel sort of a seduction and you end up sitting there like a dumbstruck zombie, wondering what could possibly happen next.

I don't mean to sound ambiguous.

What happens next is the damn thing does its long dryout tease with those perfect tannins and still leaves a marshmallow waft of blackcurrant/blueberry/red currant/aniseed ring magic sitting in the middle of your head.

Not to mention the perfumed fields of Provence. Bliss out, baby.

Watch everybody come over all quiet.

It will become a very famous and much more expensive wine than this.

Trust Unca Phil.

The remainder of the 2015 premium release will be launched internationally on October 15.

Watch DRINKSTER for previews in late September.