“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)





23 October 2016


After a horrid wet windy winter - and more to come - a burst of sunshine purges the cabin fever

A lost farrier with horses in his float just drew me outside for instructions. Dressing gown. Uggies. Ouch. But watching him skillfully inch his rig back and forth in a limited space to ease it back down the hill got some sun on the forehead after a forgettable fortnight wrestling with an infectious demon within. The burst of bright warmth and fresh air felt good. It's a splendid sunkissed morning.

The horses remained cool in their carriage. There goes a good bloke.

Bring the lemony green tea to the veranda. Sit. Following his direction to the west end of Eyer's Flat the keen eye can spot a mob of 'roos basking in the dapple of a eucalypt coppice. The mind almost convinces the eyes they see the ears flicking, but the distance is too far.

Pan the eyelid cinema to the north west, to the spread of a big industrial vineyard where a tractor hurls fungicide at the wiles of a shifty breeze. That explains the distant whine I first heard at dawn. Country life.

Turn further toward the north east and zoom, and the forested horizon jumps with springtime birds which are also far too distant to discern. I can hear white and black cockatoos out there: the noisy nesting business active in the trees here in my yard extends right through these bonnie ranges today, from the tiny pardalotes nesting in a crack in the wall to the giant wedgies daring to risk the great windy sky beyond the Onkaparinga gorge.

Last warm morning we had I was awoken by a great screaming din: it seemed all the middle-to-large birds on the block were fighting right outside my window. A swarm of bees had decided to move in to the shade of my veranda. 

Apart from the hives across the dam, and a permanent swarm in the red gum outside, I've lived with bee hives on-and-off through my life, but had never before realised how vulnerable bees are when they move en masse: I drew the blinds to see a feeding frenzy: all the bug-eaters from willy wagtails through welcome swallows to magpies were going nuts, feeding on the wing and floor. Even the sulphur-crested cockies swept through repeatedly, closer than they ever come. Doing gonzo aerobatics flat strap through a tiny space, spraying other birds aside. I couldn't work out whether they were feeding too, or were just being crazy larrikins in the melee.

Apiarist at work with hives on Yangarra ... photos by Philip White 

It's perfect to have bees; better when the good birds move them away from the bedroom window. Vines need pollination, like nearly everything else. But it's interesting that the same birds tend to leave the bugs in my roses to sort their own little wars: an initial plague of aphids quickly brought on a mighty swarm of ladybird beetles and tiny wasps which cleaned up any leftovers.

Focusing up close brings embarrassment at the unmown grass, which turned from a daggy lawn to a complex meadow in the last fortnight. It seemed to grow ten centimetres in that Supermoon alone. It's been too wet and lush to admit my little mower. And since the vines have sprung into vigorous growth, the sheep have been removed, so I can no longer borrow a small flock to turn my backyard sward to fertiliser.

Which only reminds me of viticulturers everywhere. In too many vignobles, the ground is too muddy for tractors, right at a time when shoot and leaf growth is unseemly rapid and most would normally be spraying fungicide before the rains return.

Not to mention dealing with the new meadow weeds, by mower or spray.

I made a bad mistake yesterday. On his way home, Michael Lane, the viticulturer in charge of the vineyards that surround my cottage, was dropping me at the dreaded pharmacy.

"That was a lovely steady rain last night," I said, commenting on the fact that the recent weather had been far too wild and destructive and some calm was a relief. There was a sullen silence, during which I realised that in any normal season, such observation would be welcome. But right now, a man with big vineyards to manage needs no more rain, however friendly and calm.

The ground is full.

The Onkaparinga at Clarendon, mid-September ... photo Mick Wordley ... below is the same gorge, a few kays downstream in March 2014 ... this winter has seen this stretch of the Onkaparinga look like a giant milkshake ... you wouldn't be sitting back to a feast on this spot!... photo Off Piste tours

Michael made a wry philosophical murmer about being better off than those with vineyards still mucky or indeed flooded on river and creek flats, where they'd planted for ease and efficiency of farming. Some of the hills in his care are gentle, rolling and easy. It's the precipitous Clarendon vineyard that worries him.

I don't begin to understand the stoiicism even the brightest, most sensitive farmer shows inclement seasons. It's discomforting to watch them see-saw through their list of measured logical and scientific reactions to finally accept the unacceptable nature of nature. Flexing their knowledge and capacity right through to harvest. I couldn't handle it.

The weather scientists warn that we can expect more rain into November, when the vineyards are usually quite dry and safe for machinery. In anybody's language, 2017 is already a very tricky year.

Add the awkward feelings this bestows on anybody with a viticulture bent to the mess the rest of the world's in and even the jolly brilliance of a day like today is spoiled by the expectation of lesser joys to come.

But I never finished my panorama. You got the gist of the distance, and the close-up? The best bit was the mid-field. As the turbo whine of this morning's distant tractor phased in and out on the breeze, I heard gentle voices. No, not dreaming. Once the farrier was on his way I realised that there were people in the vineyard across my fence. They were spread through three or four rows, working up the slope in a studious group, plucking excess shoots from below the original flush of leaf.

This will limit unwanted growth, of which there's probably more to come. It's the first step in adjusting the size of the 2017 crop, and on a wind-swept shoulder like this it opens the vine canopies so no drying breeze is wasted as it gusts through.

A good clean breeze is a fungicide, too. If you let it in.

21 October 2016


If you survive as a farmer in Australia you must be good ... but does this apply to the 486 wineries James Halliday has awarded five stars

Only rank winemakers want is five star bling all red ones thanks otherwise black ones ok chiz ta

"If you're not a good farmer in this country you just don't survive," the respected ABC Landline reporter, Pip Courtney recently told us.

After the release of James Halliday's latest guide to the wines and wineries of Australia came the annual frisson of excitement about the large number of wineries awarded five stars.

It would seem that James and his team believe that most wineries that survive are pretty good, too.

Of the 2,800 wineries on his list, James awarded some 486 of them five stars, whether black or the more desirable red ones.

This is unlike, say, the attitude the mighty Michelin Guide shows the restaurants of the Old World, where the highest award is three stars. Of the 5,000-plus restaurants in Paris, for example, Michelin's completely anonymous inspectors generally regard only about ten of them to be worth the three brightest stars in food heaven.

Even more extreme and austere is that most perfect and unmatched handing-out of stars, when in Revelations 2:28, God promises, that as a reward for his Son's good efforts,
"I will give him the morning star."
Indicating perhaps that in this matter of apportionment of celestial bodies the one should probably be enough if God's your Dad.

Since the embargo lifted, on October 6th, from reviews of the new Penfolds Grange, the 2012, that frisson about very high scores spread to a minor outbreak of winetard bitchery. Too many critics, it seems, awarded the wine very high points.

While reviewing any Grange is a task certain to earn very tight scrutiny - I was content to liken it to a fit young Henry VIII in full plate armour - this matter of awarding scores is back in the digital chat big time.

Funny old thing, the notion of awarding alcoholic drinks, and their makers, a score, like kids used to get at school.

In my very early days, for example, at Winestate magazine, I inherited a three-star system for ranking wines. This seemed rather confining to the young editor. After having three or more highly-regarded winemakers individually examine and rank the wines, and then discuss them so their comments could be crashed together into one brief review, it seemed rather wasteful of that combined intelligence to then rate the better wines only three possible awards.

Tellingly, these included three, four and five stars. The worst you could do was three. There was no two, no one. 

This, however, was about all many consumers really appeared to need.

When I went on to Wine and Spirit Buying Guide, the other booze magazine of the early 'eighties, I changed that organ's three-star system to five stars. This was directly related to the average scores of the judges employed on each tasting: an average of 16/20 was worth one star, 17 two, 18 three, 19 four and the rare perfect score, 20/20 got five, bless its heart.

While a well-intentioned stab at something more rigorous, for a journal reliant on winebiz advertising this was a commercial disaster: nobody, including the readers, wanted one or two stars.

Since the publication last week of my review of that mighty new Grange, folks have given me a mild lashing for my lack of a numerical score.

"Like Whitey, I read your reviews," they'll typically say, "but before I decide which wine to buy, I always depend in the end on a score."

So in spite the critic sitting with an opened wine for several days, examining its every aspect and nuance, then composing a verbal description of the reactions, dreamings and hunger each of the most impressive drinks trigger, some readers remain reluctant to spend the money without having sufficient numbers or stars to drive the hand to the wallet.

My reaction is curmudgeonly: your actual reading must be a lost skill: what we accurately called English comprehension at school now seems a talent vanishing to the wiles of time. 

First, the teachers lost it; now the students.

Perhaps it's telling that said study was a delight to the little Whitey. Maybe there was nowhere left to go but obscurity as the ranking of students gradually became unfashionable: everybody wants five stars, so increasingly, everybody gets them. This criticism is colloquially pointed, for example, at The University of Adelaide's wine faculty: many say that to attract paying students from the countries to our north the rigour of examination is being diluted to the point where the degree is cheapened.

If you remove the importance of a realistic numerical appraisal of the performance of a student, or a wine, it looks to me that all we then have left is an understanding of the language used in a summary of their completed work.

While the scoring of wine is far from a reliable science, and increasingly remains beyond me, forgive this writer for retreating to the preferred field: the exercising of the Australian English tongue.

When James Halliday's Companion hits annually, common winemakers' reactions in my experience reinforce my tragic, paranoid suspicion that the only things many of them read are about themselves or rivals they dislike.

I suspect that this scenario extends too to civilian readers: keen to keep the samples flooding in and the publishers happy, we so-called critics stay very aware that even the literary punters have favourites which they love to see rewarded with starry or numerical bling.

Where there's muck there's brass, son.

Which leaves me with two sour conclusions. While the scores awarded by James Halliday obviously suggest he regards grape farmers and wine manufacturers pretty much as Pip Courtney summarises other farmers, he has available the tasty notion of one day adopting the gold star rating above and beyond his black and more recent red ones.

In the printing and publishing world, the price of gold-looking ink gradually decreases.

But until we see winemakers reacting to the loss of a single star as French chefs do when the Michelin Guide lops one off, that journal remains the most influential. Outside The Book Of Revelation, of course.

Leaving me pretty much content with drawn out examination and contemplation and then some actual writing, as opposed to ranking with numbers or even less complex baubles like the Morning Star.

thanks to the entire Yalumba crew for such a crisp and cruisy tasting room ... if it's easy on the eye it brings confidence so the olfactories approach all opportunities with intensifying curiosity ...  photos of Philip White by Grant Nowell; other photos by Philip White

20 October 2016


Which mineral can you taste? Unique blend of Kurrajong formation feedstock geology at Roger Pike's Marius vineyard on the talus at Willunga, McLaren Vale ... photo Philip White

From back in the 2008 archive: the new minerality: have we worked out what it tastes like?
by PHILIP WHITE – this was published in The Independent Weekly 10 October 08

Geology students lick rocks to help identify them.  This takes a lot of education and practise.  But although they’re implicitly involved in the extraction of flavour from the air and the ground, winemakers never taste their dirt, perhaps because they tend to pump it full of poison.  

So how come, suddenly, they’re all boasting about “mineral”, “minerally” and “minerality”?  Out of the blue, “mineral” makes ordinary wines more glamorous and alluring.  My desk is covered with press releases boasting of wines with “minerality”.   All my colleagues in the wine writing racket see it in their favourites.   Suddenly it’s on more back labels than, say “fruit-driven”, or “goes with most foods”, or, the even more handy “goes with all foods”.

What is a mineral?

My basic schooldays geological primer, Whitten and Brooks, says mineral is “a structurally homogenous solid of definite chemical composition, formed by the inorganic processes of nature”.  The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary On Historical Principles is a little less rigid.  It first permits any substance which is obtained by mining.  Mine-eral, see?  So.  Uranium?  Salt?  Arsenic?  Coal?  Peat?   Then it tightens up, and suggests “the ore of a metal ... any natural substance which is neither animal not vegetable... a mineral medicine or poison”.  The current online Oxford says  “a solid inorganic substance of natural occurrence, such as copper and silicon ... an inorganic substance needed by the human body for good health, such as calcium and iron ... a substance obtained by mining ... fizzy soft drinks”.

“The only allowable exception to the rule that a mineral must be solid is native mercury (quicksilver), which is a liquid”, Whitten and Brooks say, and “this definition includes ice as a mineral, but excludes coal, natural oil, and gas”.

So why, when a wine tastes of organic phosphate, chalk or limestone (mainly from ground, one would hope, packed with marine skeletal remains), or lignin, peat or coal dust (perhaps from burnt oak if not from freaky soil made from decayed vegetation), why would you say it was minerally?

Chlorite is mineral. Diamond, gold, flourite and graphite.  Gypsum, haematite and opal: all minerals.  Silver, sulphur and talc.  At least sulphur’s in there, which is probably what most of these “minerally” characters are, particularly under the sanitary screwcap, which seals and preserves sulphur as much as primary fruit.

Which is not much help to the new drinker.

Such words come and go.  They fester at wine shows, where you invariably have a Young Turk who likes to show off by claiming certain wines have a character they think they can detect.  The more impressionable judges start to look for this character in their own vast suites of glasses, and eventually the word is all over the show.  If the word is derogatory, the character will suddenly seem to be in nearly all the wines which don’t win anything shiny.  If it’s seen as an attractive character, it’ll suddenly seem to be in all the favourites.

Invariably, there’ll be wine writers there to launch the new term in the media, and soon we have a rash.  These words emerge, fester and fade as another one moves in.  It’s fashion.  Mercaptan was THE word in the late ’eighties.  Wikipedia says this is “a colorless gas with a smell like rotten cabbage ... a natural substance found in the blood, brain, and other animal as well as plant tissues ... disposed of through animal faeces ... It is one of the main chemicals responsible for bad breath and the smell of flatus”.  I never met a judge who knew that.  And while I’ve smelt it in their perfidious miasmas, I haven’t heard a wino actually utter “mercaptan” for years.

At a tasting in Walkerville in 1982, I called a wine “dusty”, because it smelled like an Australian paddock in the summer.  My colleagues thought I meant sawdust, and before long “dusty” was being applied to wines with overt sawdust characters.

Those of us in the business of floating these new terms win shiny approvals of our own when such terms catch on.  The greatest trophy is to see the chemical industry produce an essence named after your word.  I’m sure I was the first person to use the word “fluffy” in published regard to the way certain wines felt in the mouth.  Soon you could ring up your essence dealer and order a product called Fluffy Tannin.  I have yet to see the telltale forty-four of “MINERAL”, but it can’t be far off.

The good folk at the Australian National Dictionary Centre are halfway though the next edition of the Australian Oxford, and they’ve already done M.  It’s highly unlikely that the wine business will nail the meaning in time for the next one after that, so maybe the lexicographers should wait ’til the essence manufacturers get their product out, give them a call, find out what’s in it, then tell us what we mean.

[PS - 20/10/2016: I can't wait to get my copy of the handsome new Australian National Dictionary - Australian Words and Their Origins Second Edition Bruce Moore, Amanda Laugesen, Mark Gwynn, Julia Robinson Oxford University Press 

Black pepper is not a mineral. Salt is. This is a hint of the aromatic flavour of Jeff Deckers' 1951 Vincent Black Lightning ... 



“A beautifully perfumed, seductive and minerally wine, with lovely freshness, richness and generosity of flavour.  Drink it now or cellar for a while.”

Minerally?  Oh really? Could this Master of Wine refer to the Silicate class of minerals, like, for example, those silicates with ions of aluminium, magnesium, iron, or calcium?  Big range of flavours there.   Could he refer to the Carbonate class, which includes calcite, aragonite, dolomite, and siderite: microscopic dead stuff commonly deposited on ocean floors or in caves. Does he mean the Sulphate class, like calcium sulphate, strontium sulphate, barium sulphate (which they squirt up your bottom to check for bowel irregualrities), or hydrated calcium sulphate (as in gyprock – plaster board)?  Is he confused with the chromate, molybdate, selenate, sulphite, tellurate, and tungstate minerals?  Maybe it’s the halides he likes in his wine: calcium fluoride, or maybe sodium, potassium or ammonium chloride?  Does he mean the bromide or iodide minerals?  The oxides?  Hematite, eh? Magnetite? Chromite, magnesium aluminium oxide, iron titanium oxide, rutile, or Di-hydrogen oxide?  (That latter baby, by the way, is ICE: frozen H2O – maybe he likes his Mourvèdre on those rocks!) Is it the Sulphidic minerals he sees in his drink, like fool’s gold, or lead sulphide? Does he mean phosphorus or arsenic, or apatite, the major component teeth and bones?  Could it be antimony, bismuth, graphite, or sulphur?  Does he smell whewellite, moolooite, mellite, fichtelite, carpathite, evenkite or abelsonite?

Time to get over this minerally bullshit, folks, unless you know what you’re talking about. Not pretty.

18 October 2016


Indigo. I know, I know. Wrong colour. To make orange. But indigo KILLS orange, see. Maynard, lead singer and head wine waiter in Puscifer and proprietor/winemaker with Jen at Caduceus Cellars, Jerome Az., is the first winemaker on Earth to make a vid in which he bets his gender on a fight with Ronda Rousey and ends up joining with her and others to slime out Trumpzilla to a cool Puscifer tune from Money Shot. Click here to view, listen and check the Puscifer Oz/NZ tour dates in January 2017 ... Maynard's hand photo by Maynard

12 October 2016


photo by Philip White, back when

07 October 2016


Penfolds Reserve Bin 15A Adelaide Hills Chardonnay 2015 
($100; 13% alcohol; screw cap) 

Short of somewhere extra-terrestrial Elon Musk probably thinks he can afford to go, you won't get many Chardonnays of this calibre, even at this price.

The best way to approach it is first taste it at what I call Kangarilla winter windowsill temperature (window closed): somewhere around cellar cool. Not chilled.

Do that with one glass while you put the rest of the bottle in the fridge. If the wind's blown the power out and the fridge don't work, open the window to the top of the label.

Sniff glass #1. You get your standard textbook Burgundian oaked Chardonnay facets: prickly burlap superphosphate sacks; smoked bacon; grilled cashew; enoki and oyster mushrooms; Bosc pear; honeydew, canary melon and canteloupe. Which adds up to more than just facets. That's facetious.

Drink. It's very dry. It's chalky - like the sacks. There's that buttery pear, with the tannins of its skin. Then the melon juices and the canteloupe peel. As only Chardonnay can do amongst the whites, it manages somehow to make all this appear balanced and calm.

When the bottle's cold, like Tasmanian winter windowsill temperature, take it out of the fridge and compare. Here we go. That burlap stuff has partly mellowed; partly developed the acrid cordite whiff of the 12-guage. Its edge is sharper; its soulful heart softer. In the middle, all the fruits have poached and mellowed and melded. The peel tannins are better assimilated; the gently forceful acidity sings a little louder without even looking like it might lurch outa the harmony.

Chill it further and it'll sure lurch. You'll spoil it. Too cold and it's like you're sitting there with your windscreen smashed and shattered all over your lap. With your ego. So just don't.

Grill scallops on their half-shells with shredded mandarin peel and a slurp of really good soy. Garnish with shredded spring onion. On your marks!

Penfolds Yattarna Bin 144 Chardonnay 2014 
($150; 13% alcohol; screw cap) 

Oh Lordy. All the above wound up to 11. It's smoky. It smells darker. These mushrooms are no longer white. They're more like fresh-picked shiitake. It has bright glistenings of lemon rind. This time, the pear is the brilliant Passe-Crassane, which is half quince, so it's viscous but grainy. It has the texture of a good red. It has a long long linger of a tail. It's authoritative and assertive. Have it at mild windowsill temperature and you begin to see why it started life twenty generations ago as "The White Grange."

Drink the rest at Tassie winter temperature and you see a change of gears like we rehearsed above. As far as complexity, viscosity and sheer weight goes, it's closer to Grange, but maybe sitting at the level of the more subtle equivalent: St Henri.

The white St. Henri is cool enough for me. That's far enough. I can't ever see anybody getting a Grange out of Chardonnay.

I'd bone and stuff a lamb with boned and stuffed guinea fowl and heaps of garlic and fresh tarragon, tie it up like a big sausage, cook it real slow in a wood oven, then crunch its skin up by finishing it on a spit. You can slice that from the end into dribbling dinner plate sized serves. Plenty of lemon juice.

Yattarna. Whew. Best one yet.

Penfolds St. Henri Shiraz 2013 
($100; 14.5% alcohol; screw cap) 

St. Henri is always a drink of pure emotion.

Made the very old way in big old oak tanks, it should be softer and more approachable than the more recently designed reds with all their posh new barrels. After a few years where the style seemed to veer in their austere right-wing direction, with more angular fruit, even given the mighty nature of the vintage, the 2012 seemed a determined swing back toward the original, more soulful, slow-dancing school.

Without compromising one atom of its bright modern cleanliness and purity, this is yet another respectful step toward the past, and fellows like the Burgundian Edmund Mazure who started it in Kanmantoo in the late 1800s, and John Davouren, who revived it at Magill, partly in reactionary response to Max Schubert's radical new punk Grange in the early 1950s.

After all that fanatical fruit selection and the big wood vats, where everything does its ultra slo-mo and decelerating waltz; after appreciating the killer force of the best reds from 2012, it took me some time to realise that this too is a wine of considerable might. It may well blow the '12 away for sheer silky midnight business before I wear the pine overcoat. It's probably even more likely to do it after.

In the meantime, I'm very happy to have it now.

The fruit here is still cheeky and fresh in its way: it takes a couple of days after first breath or a proper schloosh in a decanter to get past that brash infancy and begin to don the more demure demeanour it'll project after its next decade. Where it'll reach its early adulthood safe beneath its lovely protective screwcap.

This is the best St Henri in years. The longer I keep it open the more ravishing and seductive it becomes.

There've been some real treasures in the intervening years, but apart from this 2013 exquisity, the most vividly memorable St Henri I've had in years was the celestial 1971.

A year in the life of Grange: my birth vintage in New York: bottle empty; glass half full ... photo by Milton Wordley
Penfolds Grange Bin 95 2012 
($850; 14.5% alcohol; cork) 

While I've dared in recent years to suggest Peter Gago and his troops have tended to gradually angle Grange away from the huge sap and volatile acidity era it traversed under consecutive winemakers Don Ditter and John Duval, give the Gago crew a truly mighty vintage like 2012 and they'll simply use every dribble of that precious fruit to make a classic Grange more after the style of that famous DD/JD regime.

Given its militant stance, the '12 does begin to show little strands of elegance earlier than those '75 - late 2000s wines usually could. Like three days open, without decanting, but taking a glass each day. Wow. That, to my wet memory, puts it closer to the Max Schubert wines.

A big spoonful of Stilton helps.

It's certainly not much like the '11, a very tricky wet year in which the Grangers made a particularly supple and feminine wine which needs no Stilton.

While this brute has its eyes fixed firmly on a horizon well beyond mine, peer long enough through the tiny joins in its full plate armour and you begin to realise that it's mainly muscle and sinew in the flesh department beneath. So far. Even Henry VIII remained svelte and fit as a fiddle until his mid-forties.

Quietly ticking away, finishing the job: 2012 Grange nearing the end of its ferment in American Quercus alba oak from Barossa master coopers, A. P. John ... photo by Milton Wordley

And the armour? This surly beast hides its fruit in a shiny carapace of A. P. John Quercus alba white Missouri oak. Its volatility seems more of the sap of that tree than the acetic vinegary acid that tended to dominate for years after the 1973 retirement of Penfolds genius wine chemist Ray Beckwith and Max Schubert in 1975.

Which is never to say it lacks that distinctive teaspoon of sweet ancient balsamic. After that touch of ancient Rome this king of wines takes me on a swoop through the exotic orient. Its bouquet is often curry-like, edging towards turmeric. Below that I hit a Zhuancha brick of aged Pu-erh tea.

Just as quickly, it fires me back to occidental aromas: bitter Valrhona cooking chocolate and all the honey, dates, figs, candied fruits, nuts, cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, nutmeg and black pepper you find pre-blended in a full-bore Siena panforte. Yum. Half of which sounds like it was brought home by Marco Polo anyway. To add to that Chinese compressed brick tea, there's also the threatening darkness of the leaves of the tomato, blackberry and deadly nightshade. Deadly. 

Notice my lack of mention of fresh dark berry fruits. They're hardly here yet. They're asleep. But recently, upon the occasion of my birthday, I drank Max's '71. Plenty of fresh berries had grown in there. That was 45 years old. Henry VIII putting on flesh, see? Glory be!

Food? Max's favourite: Stilton. Served with something he may never have tried: a proper panforte. 

These outstanding wines, and the rest of the suite, will be available at Penfolds Magill Estate and other good outlets from Thursday 20th October. I shall add my reviews of the rest of the collection in the coming days.

The old Lalique lampshade trick in the most aromatic version possible: 2012 Grange pumpover at Magill ... other than the bottles at the top of this post, and the one below, which are by Philip White, all these  photos remain the copyright of Milton Wordley, from our big photo-essay book A year in the life of Grange

05 October 2016


1st October, 2016: Flooding of the Langhorne Creek vignoble, on the estuarine lakes at the mouth of the Murray-Darling, Fleurieu Peninsula, South Australia. Traditionally, 'Larncrk' depended upon annual flooding of the Bremer River for deep soil moisture. Once Premier Dean Brown made possible permits for the vignerons to take water from the adjacent Lake Alexandrina, the region has grown on an enormous industrial scale, but as you see here, can still flood quite impressively, as have many of the winegrowing regions of south-eastern Australia ... photo from Langhorne Creek Winemakers

Floods, eucalypts, grape flavour: remembering the 'minty' reds of 1983 and a drive with The Ferret

It's probably too late in the season for all this water to have much good influence on the flavours of 2017.

If anything, growers will face big trouble when the spring properly arrives and the weather warms and settles: there'll be a huge surge of leaf growth which will cramp canopies and make it hard for any breezes to penetrate that thick green thatch.

Unless there's a lot of fungicide spraying, like too much, vignerons will have to be shoot-thinning and leaf-plucking to admit the drying and healing breezes to the bunches as they form and swell.

As the sousing rains set in across the south east of Oz, Bayer, the new owner of Monsanto, was hard at work teasing the paranoia and pride of grape-farmers, pumping the conscience of the lot of them with full-bore social media advertising of their fungicide, Teldor. 

Drinkers who bother to read the Teldor back label may well hope any growers who use this stuff should advise us of its use on the back labels of their wine, just so's we know. The incessant ads are there right now. It'll be used. Bayer's also going for the strawberry growers.

Botrytis and other moulds aside, these dramatic rains will do one other thing to many vineyards. In some, the fruit will likely be minty with eucalyptol.

In the late 'seventies and early 'eighties a lot of reds from the new cooler climate Victorian regions like Heathcote, Bendigo and the Yarra Valley were sometimes very minty. This excited show judges looking for new aromas and flavours. These wines often came from vineyards in forested regions. Many boring tasting games depended on the drinker identifying these prospective vignobles by their pepper - which usually indicated unripe fruit - or what we called mint or peppermint, which we eventually learned was really eucalyptus.

When those terrible fires had been extinguished on Ash Wednesday, in 1983, leaving 75 dead, there was a teasing belting of rain that came too late to help. Instead, it washed a lot of precious scorched topsoil away from the areas that were burnt. In those that weren't, the water flooded through, picking up gum leaves which it deposited as a thick layer in downstream vineyards. Some of this vegetable gunge was knee-deep when the water went down.

When those '83s were eventually poured, with tasting games like Options one could tease the proponents of those trendy new cool spots of Victoria. If one poured, just for example, a Barossa Shiraz from the flooded slopes of Stockwell, Light Pass or Nuriootpa, it was so stacked with eucalyptol the taster would often imagine it must have come from those forested regions to our south east. In the memories of most, the rich, ripe Shiraz of that north-east Barossa had not previously showed that character so overtly.

Some winemakers were very pleased about their usually blackberry-and-chocolate reds suddenly showing some of the style of the exciting new regions across the border; others regarded it as an alien intrusion and attempted, usually in vain, to dilute and diminish its character by blending or masking it with toasty American oak.

But it was fun to trick pompous old wine buffoons who thought they knew everything. Pass a glass of, say, Elderton Shiraz from Nuriootpa and they tended to sniff that minty eucalypt and say "Bendigo" or "Heathcote".

The first person I met who understood the source of this new aromatic was John "The Ferret" Glaetzer, the master nose and vineyard expert behind the success of Wolf Blass.

The author with Wolf Blass and John "The Ferret" Glaetzer ... photo Johnny "Guitar" Preece
We'd been having a beer in Paulos' pub in Tanunda sometime after the Ash Wednesday reds had begun to appear, when I suggested the source of the "mint" or "peppermint" was in fact eucalyptus.

"Whatterya doing this arvo?" Glaetzer shot back, through a cloud of tobacco. He offered me a seat in his car: he was off to Langhorne Creek to collect ripening bunches for analysis back in his Barossa lab. His was the only company car in the Blass camp with a sunroof: folks in the know joked about him needing it to let the smoke out. I recall a cartoon somebody drew of that Falcon, tearing across the countryside like a steam locomotive.

We laughed and smoked all the way down the Bremer Valley through Harrogate, Kanmantoo and Callington to Larncrk, as he called it, me mystified by the nature of my inclusion in the exercise.

When we got there, we went from vineyard to vineyard. My job was to collect soil samples from beneath the vines he sampled, and take notes of the appearance and aspect of each site, paying particular attention to the number of adjacent red gums.

Back in the lab, he crushed each bunch and put its juice in a numbered glass. The relevant soil samples were lined up in little piles, also numbered, on another clean white bench and an assistant shuffled both lots of samples. We sniffed the glasses for an hour. Most showed the aroma we'd called mint, some overtly.

Then we sniffed the soils. Those with the most obvious mint, or eucalyptus,  generally matched the bunches with the same bouquet, and tended to come from the vineyards my notes showed to have the most red gums surrounding them, or indeed, big ones growing amongst their vines.

From this highly unscientific exercise, we agreed that the eucalyptus in the soil, or in the air, was volatile, so its airborne particles must have settled on the matte blume of the grape skins, where it stayed until skin contact with the fermenting must transferred the aroma into the wine itself. You only needed a few parts per million or trillion or something miniscule to obtain the affect.

"That's where our Jimmy Watsons come from," the Ferret enthused: he'd recently won his boss three Watson trophies in a row; still the record. 

"The show judges can smell it through the fruit and the oak, whether they recognise it or not. They seem to like it."

Recalling the frigid industrial hall in which the Royal Melbourne Wine Show was judged reminds me that sometimes all one could smell in that joint was high volatiles and fresh oak sap; it was so cold that berry fruit was barely perceptible in comparison to such harsh edges.

A few years after those Ash Wednesday floods the eucalypt in the Stockwell/Light Pass/Nuriootpa reds had declined to previous levels, but the young Whitey's hooter never forgot that eucalyptus, for good or bad, was something to look for in the snifters.

For those who live 'down among the gum trees' this aroma is often overlooked: it's the normal background bouquet of great swathes of Australia.Locals breathe it without smelling it until they get home from somewhere else.

Of all South Australian vineyards, it was Glaetzer's Langhorne Creek favourites that tended to exude the aroma regardless of whether or not their source had been flooded during vintage. 

The stuff was in that black muddy ground.

I wouldn't dare suggest that 2017 will smell of gum trees across the board. But I'm willing to bet that if and when this water ever goes down, growers whose vineyards sport a new layer of eucalypt leaves may well find a new mintiness in their reds.

When the 2017 berries grow fat and full, that eucalypt will rise from the ground and settle on their skins, especially when the humidity soars in a summer thunderstorm.

If they're lucky, this might see such winemakers coming home from the Melbourne Show with a Jimmy in the boot.

On the other hand, growers of whites will want none of it. You don't want eucalyptus in your Riesling, Savvy-b or Chardonnay. Or Pinots, for that matter. Please Bacchus, Pan, Huey ... anybody listening ...

One other thing. While these persistent deluges will pump leaf growth and then the 2017 bunches to a discomforting degree, they'll be having a profound influence on the tiny buds already forming deep inside the vine wood for the 2018 vintage.

As the remarkable diaries (1891-2016+) at Kay Brothers' Amery show, it's almost invariably the year after sousing rains that are the greatest producers of flavour. Any grower who can't manage and control this tricky 2017 by finicky shoot-thinning, leaf-plucking and selective bunch-dropping, might console themselves in the hope that my theory delivers the bacon, if not the Big Jim, with their 2018 wine.

Touch wood. But make it seasoned French oak, not red gum.

If the broadacre industrial grapeyards deliver the big yields likely after such extreme rain, and then have access to a surplus of very cheap irrigation water, the Oz discounting liquor duopoly, Coles and Woolworths, will be sure to slurp up anything that sinks to the bottom.