“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)





08 December 2016


Post-modern posters posting post-truth posts? Shelvish chaos sure infests liquor lists and walls

Lucky to have perched more than most at the bar at the bustling Salopian Inn, I have made a bit of a study of gin chaos. They stock well over 100 gins there, many of them the work of the new wave of hipster or craft distillers.

Of course the intention is not to encourage customers to drink them all. Not at once, anyway. One can be goaded through a tasting of selected types. One even has a choice of craft tonics. But however I look at it, that wall of gin seems chaotic, even threatening. Sinister. A lot of people have a lot to learn about making good gin. Vodka with herbs. Botanicals. Or essences.

Add to this spiritous realm the entire walls of deconstructionist post-truth wines that are blooming malignantly in many cellars, bars and diners, often masquerading as natural, and we begin to see what I was taught to recognise as a mess.

Many wine lists and liquor shelves become as cluttered as old notice boards ... the additions develop their own layers of relativity, reflecting generations of indecision rather than skill ... note the George Grainger Aldridge portraits of the staff here in my beloved Exeter, whose crisp chalkboard wine list is the tidy opposite of these priceless layers of pin-ups

Usually of the belief that most people are too stupid to actually conspire, I nevertheless think it's no accident that the destructive reactionary orange flash of Trump coincided with the advent of orange wine.

"Things fall apart; the center cannot hold ... "

Not to mention the new army of beer-makers. Or producers of beer made largely by other people somewhere else in bigger factories that the nuts-and-berries-pretender-vendor would prefer you to overlook. 

Beers awkwardly flavoured with chocolate, coffee, honey or ginger seem quite faddy this week.

To deal with this fractured market, another army of instant critics foments away on the blogs and gossponds of the cobweb, trumpeting forth, seasoned scholars of the sauce; gooing lugubrious praise on products that didn't exist the day before. Instant provenance. 

Just whip it in.  

I'm guilty, your honour.

Regular readers may recall me suggesting that such chaos was utterly predictable. Once nearly all the beer in Australia began to smell like Carlton United hop essence one could see the unrest fomenting as boutique brewers first tentatively appeared in pubs like Coopers Alehouse, the Lord Nelson, the Port Dock and Matilda Bay in the later 'eighties into the 'nineties.

Liquoristically, beatniks became hippies became yippies became the weather underground. I've yet to see serious Panther activity, which will probably come. That'll be better.

But like the tides, those reactionaries disguised as revolutionaries came and went in their various guises. Now they're tsunamied right up. Fractal chaos!

Sometimes I prefer to gaze upon a simpler, more classically-stacked shelf 
Same in the wine world. Submerging the country in very ordinary Chardonnay or lumberjacked gloopy Shiraz for twenty years didn't help much with variety and texture in the marketplace: somebody with a beard was certain to make a break back toward the days when viands actually varied.

One of the first such knights to get errant and loose in the plonk cosmos was one Kevin John Casmir Jacob Donovan Symons, who bought the Auburn Temperance Hall from Rick Robertson in 1982 and filled it with barrels of fortified, largely of a sort of portish variety.

Having previously worked at Golden North Honey Icecream , Symons recommended his customers wander across the road to the Golden North deli so they could blend his marsala with the cool honeyed ice.

This early example of what has become known as 'pairing' opened a window of what the vigneron saw to be opportunity: he began blending flavour essences and whatnot with this fortified grape juice, to be sold in handbag-sized (200mL.) bottles. His chocolate port and blackberry nip were novel enough as far as quirky tinctures went; I drew the line when he claimed to have perfected the steak-and-kidney pie port with some strange essence he'd procured, perhaps from Royce Wells.

I remember making bad tomato sauce jokes. Rosella feathers in the barrels. Unfair to the adventurous Kevin, who was at least having a go.

Thirty-five years later I notice Black Stump Wines setting up over the ridge from Auburn in the Riverton Railway Station, proudly offering a range of flavoured fortified  Rieslings in 375mL. bottles: Riesling Forte Lime Fresco, Lemon Fresco, and Mandarinho, which makes a bit more sense than torturing port 'til its tastes like steak-and-kidney.

Sweet Riesling juice has been fortified to 16.5% alcohol with brandy spirit, flavoured with Riverland citrus and aged for a year on oak before bottling. They're pretty good with ice and soda.

The old pint of hock, lime and lemonade comes to mind.

At least, given their fortified nature, such products offer some reliability and consistency. What deters this critic from recommending many of the craftier spirits, beers and wines is their variability: like bladder packs, artisan batches can change so much there's no guarantee that my reader will get to taste the same product I recommended, if indeed I did.

As for natural wines, the orange people and these neo-Mennonites? I can't for the life of me understand why anybody would make, sell or buy wine with the shelf life of unpasteurised milk.

I mean, like, you wouldn't drink it, would you?

Reminds me of the old Paul Keating joke. How do you make yoghurt? Put a glass of milk on the mantlepiece and get Paul to stare at it for two minutes.

Anyway, talking stability, I reckon I've got that gin wall licked. If I want a genteel, fragrant delight I'll take a shot of The Botanist, that brilliant stuff developed by master malt whisky maker Jim McEwin at Bruichladdich on Islay. Last thing he did before he retired was make a spirit flavoured with local botanicals, just as the ancient whisky-makers produced before they discovered cheap sherry barrels and the flavours changed. 

I prefer it neat, with one small ice block.

Bruichladdich on Loch Indaal on the Rhinns of Islay photo supplied

Well, neat within reason. I dribbled like a goon as I slurped through a bowl of Goolwa Beach pippies with my Botanist at the weekend. Something very Islay about that: the seashore cockles with their mild herby broth seem to meld spiritually with the long list of foraged botanicals that Jim and his crew collect in the nooks and crannies of that windswept isle between Scotland and Eire.

Just don't ever use that 'pairing' word within my earshot: I can't hear it without thinking of toenail clippings.

Which pushes me into the realms of desiring a gin more brusque and brutal to finish the job: something more forceful with some martial rigour to tidy this mess right up: Plymouth Navy Strength will do the trick, thankyou. Neat, with one big ice block and a crisp Navy salute. 

Bacchus only knows how a US Army gin would compare to the British Navy model ... at the risk of pushing the martial rigour too far, spare a thought for poor Thomas Thetcher


a bit of an ink line from another old notepad by Philip White ly

03 December 2016

02 December 2016



A prominent fore-runner of today's nationwide trend to Italian varieties and wine types, Professor Brian Freeman quit his wine science post at Charles Sturt University to plant an adventurous but cleverly planned vineyard up in the Hilltops region between Young and Wombat in New South Wales. More than most pioneers, Freeman carefully chose his terroir for its capacity to produce the wine types he'd found and loved in north-east Italy.

I've kept a steady admiring eye on the lovely Freeman reds for some years; it's good now to have two smart whites to relish.

First the Freeman Prosecco 2016 ($23; 11.5% alcohol; cork) is from two clones of this Veneto sparkling variety planted in 2011 at 560 cool metres in the Pinnacle Block of the Altura Vineyard. If this wine's pretty pale straw meadow aromas and delicate waft of honeydew melon oozed from a flute of the sparkling wine made in that part of France they call Champagne you'd be happily paying at least three times this price, so that's a dollop more incentive if this fetching bouquet doesn't suck you in far enough. It's a husky, freckled sort of a blonde. In keeping with that, the wine has a gentle pale flesh, inbuilt deliberately by fermenting half the assemblage in barrels and keeping that wine on yeast lees for regular stirring. So you get comforting texture made more reassuring with a barely-detectable sweetness, delivered in a slightly prickly, petillant fizz that dances right bonnie to a  bagatelle of crunchy almond biscotti. I imagine my Ferrari ticking impatiently outside when I drink this.

A smart follow-up is the sweet, botrytis-riddled Freeman Dolcino 2015 ($25 .500 mL.,  11% alcohol; screw cap) which the Prof urges is best had before, or between meals, with some serious duck liver paté or a terrine. Made from Viognier deliberately unpruned to encourage botrytis strike, it has a prickle all its own in that alluring pickled ginger fragrance. It's fluffy of texture, but that cushion, with its appropriate sweetness, is neatly offset by considerable high-country acidity. So sure, take it with your afternoon paté on toast, even with contrasting crudités or giardiniera, or try it for elevenses with Haigh's ginger chocolates.

It's that time of year ...

01 December 2016


Fifteen vintages later Castagna Genesis Beechworth Syrah tips out Whitey, herbs, spices and all

Something happened in the Shiraz class.

Almost fifteen years ago to the day, I was halfway down a row of about 400 masked bottles of Shiraz when something happened.

Happened. Not much other than boredom and paranoia happens in those nether regions half way along such a row: the taster begins to doubt their own organoleptic skill because everything seems the same. It's the loneliness of the long distance runner. The Nullarbor plain of Shiraz. No coverage.

Right at that moment when the paranoia and imposter syndrome had their teeth in my bum I hit a glass of something unbelievable: vibrant electric wine with a sinister gunmetal glint. I had the stewards check that it was Australian. Not because I really thought it might be French: I'd never had a red south of Lyon that jumped and teased like this shiny sassy bastard.

And I couldn't recall smelling a Shiraz like that from Australia.

I mean it did remind me faintly of barrels Gerard Jaboulet had recommended I sniff in the chais at Tain l'Hermitage, but it wasn't really like those. It was more Martian. It reeked of ozone and glimmered like violet neon all the way through the blood and the lucky moist lungs to one's perfect, delighted exhalation.

There were yellow and orange sparks in my miasma. Lightning. With Rahsaan Roland Kirk playing three saxaphones at once, plus a nose flute and a police whistle.

Ping! You'd think all the glasses would shatter.

I asked the ground crew to renumber the bottle and put it back in the line-up a lot further along and I reckon I could smell its vivacity coming again from ten glasses away. I still didn't know what it was, but it was already making a total ass of the notion of blind tasting. There it sat, daring me. Kootchi-koo. We repeated that exercise twice before the final Shiraz taste-off. Damn thing won not only that vast Shiraz class in my 2001 Top 100, but ended up with the highest points by far out of the thousands of entries in that whole damn exercise.


It turned out to be Castagna Genesis Beechworth Syrah 1999. I'd never heard of Castagna. It was a fairly quick getting-to-know-you. Tasting Castagna is since cemented in as one of the very few totally revered rituals I anticipate each year.

I last drank that 1999 exquisity at the winery in 2013, when it had me dribble "Not like any other Australian ... creamy, opulent, luxurious, harmonized essence of Shiraz, almost leaden in its incredible authority and weight.  The fruit simply melts into a pot of red gold."

So there. You got blue and red and molten, firearms, the most in-your-face outa face brass section ever to emerge from one mouth (and a nose) you got cream and sparks and teeth in your arse and lightning and gold and blood and two wierd gasses and straightout goddam sass.

So what's in the new one? The 2014 Genesis. You ready?

It doesn't smell so blue. Not violet, anyway: maybe deeper. The dark edge of it, where the ships fall off. And that pirate bit of it is the first thing requiring addressing: like once you're aboard you gotta look 'em in the eye.

It has that deep mahogany and dried kelp seacaptain's cabin reek: more cognac than Royal Navy rum; more Flinders in Baudin's cabin than Baudin visiting the bay-rummed Englishman. Or maybe he dug out his powdered wig especially for it. I can smell that, too, but I reckon it's the Frenchman's.

Wig powder was the beautifully-scented product of the ground roots of irises, just by the way.

Then the currants begin to ooze through the starch and dressed leather, and that prickle of cordite from the powder-keen cannon lads seething belowdecks seems to go quiet when somebody opens the oven with the panforte and dumplings with the blueberries, blackberries and blackcurrants - even some juniper - and it all comes wafting up from the galley.

After half an hour there's a shy zephyr of confectioner's sugar perfumed with musk and lavendar and these fresh ethereals gradually bloom and you realise the whole cornucopia's about to spill all over you and the charts table and everywhere and a lot of that fruit's not cooked at all ... 

You're much closer to land than you thought. You can smell Australia in the summer coming over the ocean. And you'ver gotta get there because it turns out your hull's full of fresh fruit.

I like the way this vineyard has spent fifteen vintages morphing from extra-terrestrial, like that UFO 1999, through a maritime approach then back to shore after this new vintage takes a night emptying its sails of gust, nudges its rubbing strakes against the bar and starts unloading fruit on the wharf where the fresh flowers, herbs and spices are stacked up to the galvo.

Rahsaan adjusts his horns and peals into a burst of In a Persian Market ...  

"Those vines were two years old," Julian Castagna gurgled discussing the 1999.

"I reckon I picked an average of one bunch per vine."

Since then, those vines have threaded their roots through the volcanic loam with its granitic gravels with all that potassium and reflective crystals of quartz and micah ... I reckon some of those black flakes are tourmaline: black cufflinks for French cuffs ... and found their way through the clays to that massive slab granite that forms those Victorian Alps. Granite. Crystallised magma from the gooey deep of the planet.

So it seems fitting to this vagrant mind that after that UFO start, we've landed and now pump out fewer sparks. Now it's all the smells of labor and horse tackle and human endeavour decorating that juvenile perfumed fruit and the smug earth below. The garden.

Carol-Ann Castagna, by the way, grows a bonnie herb garden just off her wide veranda, and collects the seeds from a wide array of aromatic plants. These she spreads through the vineyard, to add fragrant complexity to the sward. I shall never forget once alighting from the car there after a long drive. The full moon was humping up out of the blue eucalypt ranges to the east and the whole magic atmosphere was redolent with the smell of that ripening pasture and its myriad facets and wafts.

And the maritime stuff? The square-riggers? That's what happens when you know too much. A fortnight back, before these Castagnas arrived, I was with another brilliant winemaker, McLaren Vale's Stephen Pannell. As we drove around his vineyards, I remembered the old Jones Block, a legendary patch of Shiraz there on Oliver's Road.

"That's it next door," he said, nodding to the south. That's the vineyard he introduced Julian Castagna to, nearly twenty years before. That's where Julian chose to take most of the Castagna Shiraz cuttings. You can stand in those vines and look west to the Gulf St Vincent, just around the Cape from Encounter Bay, where those rival French and British sea captains just happened to bump into each other in 1802.

I wonder whether the wine would smell like sailing ships if I'd not known that.

Now. It's morning. Twelve hours since I drew that cork. Maybe I'd better taste it.

But that fragrance comrade, that bouquet? Ew. Man, you should smell it now! I gotta start my descriptors again ... 

The Castagna Genesis Beechworth Syrah 2014 is 12.5% alcohol and $75. It contains "a touch of Viognier." It is a magic drink.

Four real chestnuts: Castagnas CarolAnn, Alexi, Adam and Julian .. photo of author at Castagna herb garden by Annika Berlingieri, all other photos by Philip White