“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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23 October 2014

THE BIRTHDAY OF ANNIKA BERLINGIERI

Today I lunched with two very important people: the tomato fetishist and Snotra of the wood oven Annika Berlingieri (left) and recyclatron artist Annabelle Collett, who made the trippy woven plastic artwork with the spoons and stuff. We went to our favourite restaurant, the astonishing Fino. Please go there and be healed ... photos Philip White

20 October 2014

SCOTCH TOO SWEET? ADD VODKA

As the current whisky sales boom continues, and in value (not volume) the USA sales of all whiskies appear to have surpassed vodka, there's one thing you can be assured of: To feed the growth, the enormous barrel stacks of ageing scotch in Scotland are being pillaged, so quality gradually drops as more compromises are made and we see many new brands suddenly appearing, sometimes at obscene prices. To cover the lower than ideal quality of many of these blends, it seems to me that the factories are adding caramel like never before. Caramel is permitted as a colourant. Handy, eh? - it makes a sweeter product for the bogan and costs a lot less than good oak. I've been adding a little neutral grain vodka, like Absolut, to the disappointing ones, in the hope it breaks that sweet additive down. It usually does, but if you try it, I reckon you'll find that sometimes the vodka makes the caramel seem even more obvious. Most scotch whisky, malted or not, and Irish whiskey is, after all, not much more than barrel-aged vodka. Have a play. On the other hand, within the UK, whisky sales are falling as vodka increases, perhaps influenced by this increase in simple caramel sweetness in blended whiskies, be they malted or not. Don't panic on behalf of the UK, however: The Guardian reports that scotch whisky exports are currently bringing the British economy £135 a second.

WE SMELL THROUGH ALL OUR ORGANS

Treeferns at the falls in Possum Hollow in the Mount Worth State Park, Strzelecki Ranges, South Gippsland, Victoria ... photo James Mead

 The falls of Possum Hollow: 
it's a feeling more than a smell
and it goes in through our skin
by PHILIP WHITE 

An apocryphal yarn has the linguistically fastidious, but physically filthy 18th century English writer Dr Sam Johnson entering a carriage to sit beside a noblewoman. 

"Dr. Johnson, you smell," she politely complained. 

"No, Madam," he said. "You smell. I stink." 

Bold new science is revealing that the human body is riddled with the sorts of olfactory receptors which we always thought were limited to our nasal cavities. Now we know these stink detectors are all over us and all through us, as common as the Doctor's offending sweat glands. These clever little aroma laboratories constantly monitor our condition and our safety: it appears that as they smell and sniff, they play a major part in monitoring and controlling all our major organs.

Victoria's South Gippsland was a highly aromatic place to spend one's first decade. Given the acrid heat of this dusty old continent, those wet Gippsland hills were almost un-Australian.

Our farm, on the edge of the Mount Worth State Park in the Strzelecki Ranges, was an organoleptic orgy. Decorative, and vegetable gardens after the British style, cattle, orchard, swamp, bracken, horses, dogs and florid Blackwood coppices offered a sensual rainbow of fragrance. Annual rainfall was between 1200 and 1500mm; summers rarely dry enough to see pasture brown off. It was moist, comforting, and heady - often too damp for cut pasture to become baling hay. We'd make silage instead, fermenting the grass to make a moist stockfeed.

One enemy of silage is oxygen, which causes buttery butyric acid to form. I find this acid alluring in tiny volumes in, say Hunter Semillon, but horrid when it overwhelms a poorly-made red. 

And there I was, detecting it as a toddler in cow tucker.

When we'd climb into the old Cyclops Rover and head over the range into the incredible Mountain Ash forest in Possum Hollow, with its floral canopy a hundred metres above, and its lyrebirds, treeferns and mighty waterfalls below, the smell knob wound right round to eleven. 

But even as an infant on my grandfather's mighty shoulders, I seemed to realise that the sensation offered by such a lush environment was more than aromatic. It was a rich, overwhelmingly natural feeling that came in through every pore. Its hypnotic seduction was more than enough to explain why little boys tended to wander off through the dense understorey in search of that secure, mystical nirvana called Lost. 

Few such intoxicated, curious pioneers came back.

Fifty years later, the opposite feeling, the one that makes me cranky and wish like shit that dear old Pop would appear and carry me out, is the wine show hall. As my organoleptic receptors reach the peak of their analytical proficiency, that heady cacophany of fruit, wood, ethanol, industrial chemical additions, cardboard, tea towels, detergents and whatnot is an assault I'll do anything to avoid, even without the sophisticated stink of other people. It is not natural, and has nothing to do with gastronomy. And it is not just a smell that goes into the nose. It is indeed a feeling. It is all over me.

Take Canberra. Man, that joint might mount an impressive annual Floriade, but if you climb from the flying cigar tube through the airport lounge into a taxi and thence to any government building, like say, the Federal Parliament or the National Gallery, you'll smell a wall of chemical stink so toxic it'll make a man's balls shrivel.

No wonder our National Capital is swarming with madmen.

Following organoleptic science for 35 years has been frustrating: there's a dearth of good research. Fine art, architecture, urban planning and such have devoured a good slice of financial attention to please our eyes; the symphony and the incredible complexity of digital recording and playback is only the start of what we do for our ears; the textile industry, plastics, carpentry and so on are perfect indicators of how we reward our sense of touch ... and yet we know little of the two organs which just happen to be smack in the middle of the front of our heads: the mouth and nose.

Perversely, we now spend more time photographing our food than we allocate to the science of how we grow, make, absorb and enjoy it. Rather than properly learn about the building blocks that give us flavour and sustenance, we convert food to a digital currency that pleases and teases only the eyes. This is delusional, and the trigger for my 1980s invention of the terms 'magazine food' and 'gastroporn.' Perving on food photos does no more to help us understand flavour, smell and sustenance than a sesh of sadoporn assists inadequate males to understand women.

There could be a touch more honest punksterfication in modern gastroporn: the author savouring the coq au vin he made from a troublesome local rooster ... photo Satanika

But things are coming on in aroma science. In a discovery that gives me a rush of excitement nearly as good as the falls of Possum Hollow, Dr Hanns Hatt and his Ruhr University Buchum team in Germany have discovered olfactory receptors all over the human body. Those body management switches we normally imagine to be somewhere up our noses are actually in our hearts, lungs, livers and brains - all our major organs. Which includes the biggest organ of them all: our skin.

There was a frisson of juvenile excitement when Hatt's team discovered olfactory receptors in human testes and sperm. Once confirmed, I reported this here a year back, missing the simultæneous news of the USA National Academy of Science publication of a paper that showed that taste receptors in the testes of mice were so sensitive to destructive chemicals in the environment that they directly affected fertility by slowing sperm production.

Dr Hanns Hatt: smelling with his nose for a change

So Big Pharma and Big Agrochem can directly limit population. Combine all this with the lastest from Dr Hatt, and we're getting closer to understanding why Possum Hollow was a turn-on for little Whitey, and why the Royal Agricultural and Horticultural Society of South Australia's wine show hall feels like such a threat to the bigger one. 

As Alex Stone reported last week in the Science section of the New York Times, Jennifer Pluznick, an assistant professor of physiology at Johns Hopkins University discovered in 2008 the vital role played by olfactory receptors in the kidneys of mice: they manage blood pressure and blood filtration rates in reaction to the smell of the blood.

There's more to smell than meets the nose ... illustration by George Grainger Aldridge from Wines of Great Depth (Evidence of Vineyards on Mars, Aldridge and White, 2013)

Amongst these and many other wonders, Stone reports that in June 2009, the USA National Library of Medicine/National Institutes of Health Journal of Biological Chemistry published a paper that showed that when exposed to the odorant beta-ionone, olfactory receptors in human testes reduced cancer cell proliferation. Beta-ionone is a primary factor in the bouquets of roses and violets, aromas which I just happen to find in some of the most beautiful wines.

Emory University's Grace Pavlath has shown that Lyral, a perfume made to smell like Lily of the Valley, influences olfactory receptors in human muscle to the extent that it causes stem cells there to convert to muscle cells and build new tissue. And now Dr Hatt reports that Sandalore, a synthetic perfume that mimics sandalwood, hits one olfactory receptor in human skin with such a blast that it hastens the repair of broken tissues.

All of which bolsters my suspicion that aromas go into us everywhere, and are much more important to our survival than the stuff that gets in through our ears and eyes. It begins to explain asthma, and how a few drops of lavendar oil on the temples and forehead can soothe headache and induce slumber. It will unlock the secrets of aroma therapy massage, and confirm the direct threat that ancient herbal and aromatic medicines present to Big Pharma.

Brilliant scientists like Hatt will explain why we pay such high prices to enjoy the thrill of certain wines and foods. [A $1-per-snap tax on food photographs would pay for their research.] They'll explain why the best way to enjoy great wines is at a picnic in their healthy, petrochem-free vineyards, where the whole body feels and inhales the entire locality's ambient aromatics, and combines those with what's in the glass, and what's in our bellies, infesting the bouquet of our blood, and surging it around the whole big stack of bones, meat and aromatic receptors which is what we call us.

Prepare for the post-nasal trip.
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12 October 2014

BREAKFAST AT CARAVAGGIO'S

Baco (1596); Óleo sobre lienzo; 95 x 85 cm; Galería de los Uffizi, Florencia; 
Michelangelo Merisi Caravaggio

10 October 2014

CORIOLE CHANGES GEARS

Mark Lloyd, proprietor (left) and Alex Shirrah  (right), winemaker, today gave me the best look around the Coriole vineyards and the bright new wines they're making. Mark's vines are in the older geologies of McLaren Vale, in the Kurrajong Formation along the Willunga Fault to the east, and the old siltstones and sandstones on the opposite western side of the Vale. He's growing everything from Picpoul through Sangiovese to good old fashioned Shiraz; Montepulciano, Fiano, Nero d'Avola, Sagrantino and Barbera, amongst other things. Coriole is rockin'. Today we kicked and licked rocks and had a gradual grazing on chef Tom Reid's delish offerings under a tree at the cellars. Check these local stones in the walls of Coriole. Click 'em to enlarge. Neat, eh? Go visit: eat, taste, drink.



Coriole McLaren Vale Chenin Blanc 2014
$16; 12.5% alcohol; screwcap; 92+ points

Only a few years ago I attended a Meet Your Maker tasting, where a large mob of Queensland wine retailers and waiters were flown in to be shown the best McLaren Vale has to offer. They came crusty and yawning by bus straight from the airport to be confronted with a breakfast table groaning with about thirty local white wines. There wasn't much audible groaning from the visitors, but the nonplussed faces and semi-somnambulent arse-scratching indicated internal groanings: only the brightest tasters honed in to two or three wines which I agreed were the best there, and perhaps should have been the only ones presented. Coriole's Chenin blanc was one.

Coriole proprietor Mark Lloyd seems to have had an epiphany since then, hiring a hot new winemaker,  Alex Sherrah, formerly of O'Leary-Walker, and establishing new vineyards on different geologies. They're trialling a wide range of varieties, mainly from Italy, with much more skill and, I trust, more business success than many. On my recent visit, I drank experiments of this and that from here and there: singularly impressive wines all: watch for their Picpoul over the next years. I tasted a cracker first crop 2014 Alex had made in a bin.

But still, the Coriole Chenin - an ancient Loire Valley variety - remains one of the Vales' best whites, and at this price stands out as the district's top blonde bargain. This newie could be their best yet. Alex's previous experience with the O'Leary-Walker Rizza kings shines through.

Mark joked that years ago I'd written the infamous line about one vintage smelling like an old lady's handbag, a descriptor that has always amused such connoisseurs as the legendary Peter Goers, who thought I meant a hooker, and not my grandmother, who was married to a street preacher. At that bonnie table at Coriole, we talked of the aroma of handbags being more along the lines of mobile phones and sex toys these days, so the original metaphor seems rather diluted given the current market and the naughty dreamings of young Goers.

This vintage reminds me even more of the face powder, Oil of Ulan, sachet of lavendar, scented hankies and leather-bound New Testament my granny's bag exuded when I'd consult it to pinch the odd sixpence. Perhaps one of the thrills of pouring it is the edgy risk of being caught. It takes me a while to realise I can wallow around in here with no such threat. It's a disarming, sweet and heady bouquet, with just a hint of lemon pith giving it edge. It has perfect unction, acidity and flavour. It's fresh and bright, clean as a whistle, and manages that rare trick of being both soothing and exciting. It has just a touch of butter, which triggers hunger for the more oily molluscs and crustaceans: scallops, prawns, crayfish and the like.

This wine would be a bargain at twice the price. 

That's not stonemason's mortar between the river stones: it's one solid chunk of  riverbed, with ancient mudstone holding the much older rounded rocks together ... just one piece of the fascinating Coriole walls
 
Coriole McLaren Vale Fiano 2014 
$25; 12.5% alcohol; screw cap; 93 points

An old Roman grape, Fiano's a buzzword around the traps in recent years, but many of the initial offerings are low on the whelm factor. Not so here. Coriole first planted this variety in 2001 - Australia's first offering was their 2005. The wine has a rustic gooseberry jam aroma, with a tidy burlap edge to tickle and prickle the nostrils. There's also a good smell of pears: maybe a burlap sack full of them, ripe. To drink, it has big presence and an oiliness to offer counterpoint to its bright, neat acidity, and more pears: this time poaching in lemon juice and sauternes. It's like the Passe-Crassagne, the lovely Norman cross of pear with quince. It even has a little of that grainy mouthfeel of quince. The whole experience seems to come from somewhere in the distant past, when a gradual afternoon's accubation was much preferred to a quick tuck-in sitting up. Bring me another Guinea fowl, prithee, and yes, more poached pears. Now, could you massage my neck? 

Coriole Lalla Rookh Adelaide Hills Fiano 2013 
Not yet released; 12.5% alcohol; screw cap; 90 points

A tighter, more crunchy aroma makes this instantly different to the Vales model: this has as much of that rustic character as the other, but its cooler source in the ranges, near Kuitpo, makes it more of an alpine bracer than an afternoon's ooze down on the humid banks of Tiber. It has a slightly weedy hint which is probably from the youthful nature of the vines. Pears, yes, but smaller, higher acid ones, this time with the oxalic acid of rhubarb in place of the quince. It whips across the palate rather than wallowing, maybe like a top young Loire Sauvignon blanc (not a Kiwi version). It has a powerful hunger trigger in its chalky, bone-dry tannin, at which point it's worth recalling that 'bone-dry' originates in the old prophet Ezekiel's hallucination of the valley of dry bones, which he watches the Lord re-assemble and refit with flesh and sinew, so the army could get back to war. Praise the Lord! There'll be no war here, but if you wanted to wait, a few years' cellar would see some flesh emerge. In the meantime, regard this tannin as the equivalent of ground-up bone china. I shall enjoy watching the fruit of this high country vineyard as the vines grow older: it shows great promise in its infancy. Yum-o with a yellow curry of chubby European carp and saffron rice! 

Alex Sherrah with an after-work beer ... all photos Philip White  


09 October 2014

AI WEIWEI ON CHINA'S NEW RICH

Grape, by Ai Weiwei: Artist not in residence is The Economist's headline: because the great Chinese artist is not permitted to leave China on account of his bad attitude, he has designed this major retrospective exhibition in Blenheim Palace, Churchill's birthplace, digitally, from afar. The show is loaded with wry comments on the China's new hyper-wealthy ruling class. Looks like another handy cultural backgrounder for those aiming to sell wine in China. If you're in the UK, go check it out!

OLD STYLE SHIRAZ FOR THE BLOOD MOON

Blue Pyrenees Shiraz 2012 
$24; 14.5% alcohol; screw cap; 89+ points 

They were grand old days when the wicked Francois Henri was redesigning the Blue Pyrenees vineyard north-east of Ararat, which his employer, Remy Martin, had originally planted in the 'sixties to make premium brandy. The brandy business was taxed into oblivion in the early seventies. Out came the brandy grapes in the ensuing decade; in went the standard red varieties of the day. 

Colin Lanceley was called in to paint the vineyard beneath the full moon and Francois had a handsome label designed which copied the packaging of Rothmans International cigarettes, a deluxe brand of extra-long smokes for duty-free airport stores. That label was ultra radical in its day, not because it was influenced by the tobacco business, but  because it was blue, then a definite no-no for wine. 

We were tasting the components for his red blend, which was a Bordeaux-style mix with a little Shiraz, when I convinced him the peppery, feisty, young vine Shiraz was so good it should have its own label. A game and adventurous soul, Francois called it Australis, as he hoped it would be exported to France, to show the Rhone blokes a thing or two. Here, it was considered one of the better early cool-climate Shiraz offerings of its day.

Remy hit the international financial shellgrit eventually, and retired hurt. After one thing and another, a group of investors bought the business in 2002. They're still there.

Keeping in mind my sentimental connection, permit me to suggest this is a warmer, softer red than its zappy ancestor. Now those vines are hitting some proper age, it's rich without being strong, and more mellow and soulful. It's not at all gloopy or jammy. It has a dark damp earth and tomato bush aroma, in with its old leather upholstery and polished walnut wood: it smells like an old Jaguar with a warm engine, an oil leak and potted tomato plants on the back seat. Maybe some mushrooms, too. It calmly settles in on the mouth without any challenge. Settle into it, and it's a nostalgic sort of a ride. The tannins are fine and dry and drawn out, and seem well suited to tea-smoked duck or roast quail with pine nuts, reduced spinach on the side. It's no grand cru, but a good drink for the money, and stylistically, a bit of a rarity.

While Francois' original blue-and-gilt Rothmans label is gone, it's good to see Colin's full moon survives, especially beneath a Blood Moon eclipse like tonight's. 

Longhop Mount Lofty Ranges Shiraz 2013 
$18; 14% alcohol; screw cap; 89++ points 

This baby's a year younger, so it has a touch more bright berry fruit, but it's pretty much after the 'Blueper' in style. Made from low-yielding older vines in the high Barossa and the hills to the south and west, it has similar hints of tomato garden and mushroom with a little white pepper piquancy in place of the old Jag which has yet to arrive. Give it a couple of years. Maybe it's a tad yeasty, as in doughy bread. That's a fault in the nostrils of the show ring technocrats, but it's fine by me. The palate is sinuous rather than plush, still comforting, and a little cheeky. Instead of Colin Lanceley, it has a fine George Grainger Aldridge portrait of an old vine on the front, setting the tone just right. As it slowly draws out to its dry tannin taper, it makes me dribble for the sort of delicious blue steak the kitchen at the Lion Hotel does just perfectly: no bucking, no moo, no horns, a little crusty and caramelised on the outside, and warm all the way through. To push the blue mood, both these wines are perfect accompaniments to the Miles Davis masterpiece, Kinda Blue. They also make me dangerously nostalgic for a slow draw on one of those long-gone Rothmans. Mmmmm.

Blood Moon eclipse 09.10.14 from International Space Station