Graham "Charlie" Melton of Charles Melton Wines
by PHILIP WHITE – This was published in The Advertiser in 1992
These are very strange times. Strange times indeed.
Vintage has started, right? Right. Because of that, and the forthcoming Barossa Vintage Festival, the Barossa boys have been pretty quiet in the promotion ring, right? Yep. The wine industry’s in a nosedive anyway, sos there’s not much money going into the promotion of anything, right? Unfortunately, yes. Right. Charlie Melton runs one of the smallest wineries in the state, right? Yes, of course. If not the state, then most certainly it’s the smallest in the Barossa. Right. So he’d be the last bloke you’d expect to be campaigning his brands through the wineshops of Melbourne like he was running for Presidency of the United States, wouldn’t you say? Well, sure. So what am I doing in Melbourne, at Charlie’s expense, sitting back with the fat Melbourne food and wine prophets and scribes, chin-deep in fabulous tucker and completely awash in French wine?
Why? Launching the new releases of Charlie Melton’s Nine Popes, dunderhead.
Strange times indeed.
This is a true story. And, it turns out, a story of success.
We’re in a lovely grotty pub in the backblocks of Richmond, see, surrounded by terrible high-rise apartments crammed chock full of Vietnamese. This pub, the All Nations, is Richmond’s version of the Exeter, see. Charlie, who’s really called Graham, and never Charles, which is written boldly across his bottles, is nervous. He gets nervous when there’s Big Stuff afoot, as anyone’s who’s caught sight of him on the eve of things like the Barossa Classic Gourmet will guarantee. And here is, trapped in the All Nations, a long, long way from home. The more hardened members of the Fourth Estate are tipping in freezing beers with the Fifth Columnists, the back-biters and syndicators at the pock-marked bar, while the more prissy of the pressfolk hover warily in the background. Charlie’s pacing up and down.
“Well”, he says, “well I might have a beer with youse and then, well, some of us might like to go through for the tasting ... well, it’s just a bit of a tasting I’ve set up.”
“Gorn Charlie you’re jokin’ arncha? Not a masked tasting!” the brutes guffaw, and Charlie says “well it’s a bit of a tasting” so we up and down the beers on Carlie’s tab and head through to the tasting where our man has masked a string of bottles which include several medium-to-good Chateauneuf reds, a wicked little Italian dolcetto, and his own Nine Popes from 1989 and 1990.
Now Nine Popes is so named because that is what Charlie thought neuf-du-pape meant, and he makes the black, wickedly sinful stuff more or less from the grenache grape, which is the prominent red berry in that veritable zoo of weird grapes which they run in the lumpy limestone of the Chateauneuf-du-pape region of France’s Rhone delta.
Grenache has also been a very widely planted variety in places like the Barossa and McLaren Vale, where in days gone by it was the staple red for blending with shiraz. The advent of the steely-eyed wine technologist, however, saw this rather farmyardy workhourse berry fall from favour, and things like the notorious Vine Pull Scheme sentenced swillions of lovely old grenache vines to death by dozer.
Remembering the agricultural majesty of those grand reds from the past - Max Schubert says he happily used grenache in the odd Grange – and observing both the continuing significance of the grape in France and its fall from grace in Australia, Charlie quite correctly saw it as a cheap way of getting back to the heartland of traditional Aussie wine lore, while offering his customers something warming and unusual along the way.
It worked. Nine Popes became a cult item. But here on the bench at the back of the All Nations in Richmond, the more callow of the hacks began mumbling that Charlie had gone too far, putting his booze up against the expensive Frogs.
But these are strange times, remember. To a bitch, sorry, woman, the Melbourne winos and foodists, who are not only the nation’s fattest, most precious, and certainly most parochial and parsimonious, voted Charlie’s Nine Popes 1990 the best tot on the table. Not just the best, but the best by about six furlongs. And a nose. The Barossa boy triumphed.
They all take these things with great reverence and seriousness in Melbourne, so during the meal, the guests stood, one by one, and offered their testimonials and judgements and their admirations of Melton, and I have to tell you, it gave me a little gooey rush of pride for our side of the border and latter-day pioneers like Charlie.
There is some irony in that while doffing his hat to the smelly old Aussie grenache wines, and the smelly old Chateauneuf-du-pape red wines, Charlie makes very modern, clean grenache under his Nine Popes label, and it seems this perhaps accidental major doffing of the Melton hat to squeaky cleanness and stainless technology is what attracted the palates of Melbourne’s press.
Being more of a traditionalist in the true barnyard sense, I was much kinder to many of the imported wines, and when my turn came for testimony, I suggested there was some tragedy in the ruthlessness with which my esteemed colleagues beheaded the brews which showed all those lovely whiffs of cowsheds and meatsafes and unwashed children and isovaleric acid.
These, I believe, are the very smells which make many of the greatest wines great, the not so great wines good, and, of course, many of the worst wines awful. They are not, in themselves, a sinful act. They are simply there, like the red colour, or the wetness. The mob sniggered at this blasphemy, so I sat down, and let Charlie enjoy his day.
While I completely agree that the Nine Popes 1990 is a good wine, I suspect that its reliance on grenache alone makes it more straightforward than the Chateauneuf-du-pape wines, which usually include a further fruitsalad of varieties like cinsault, mourvedre, muscardin, vaccarese, cournoise and shiraz. It is also common for the French to add measures of the white varieties piccardin, roussanne, terret noir and bourboulenc to the reds.
Few of these varieties are grown in Australia, and, until they are, close comparisons of such blends to wine like the estimable Nine Popes, or indeed the Rockford Dry Country Grenache, are of little value other than to satisfy curiosity, and, I suppose, as seemed to be the case in Melbourne, opportunities to reinforce old prejudices.
I must say that Nine Popes aside, I found the Clos du Papes 1984 great fun because of its naughty turned French pungency and long, teasing finish; the ’83 Jaboulet Chateauneuf deeply satisfying because of its profound toasted chocolate and leather; and the ’85 Guigal Chateauneuf-du-pape fascinating for its impenetrable, taut nose, a common indicator of astonishing longevity in many of these warm climate reds. All these were purchased in Melbourne shops for around $25-$30.
The other unsung star of the day was the Charles Melton Cabernet Sauvignon 1989: a taut, big, silky, simmering wine; sweet and long and jumping with a lovely whiff of violets in there among all the darker stuff. It needs at least five years in bottle, perhaps ten, and sells for about $15. It costs less, of course, at Charlie’s cellar door. In a sense, this clean, sharp mod was closer in style and gastronomic intelligence to the Nine Popes than any of the funky imported punksters.
Anyway, we burbled and bubbled and frothed the afternoon away in the All Nations, and only when the Melbourne lot began to fall did Charlie suggest we try another establishment for the quiet cleanser. One bright spark said he’d take us to a Spanish pub, because the Spanish have grenache, and we zig-zagged through the cobbled backlanes of four or five suburbs and drew up outside a noteworthy thirst emporium prominently labeled The Robert Burns Hotel. Inside, its walls alternated from big swathes of tartan to white Spanish stucco, and, yes, the place was overflowing with Spaniards. This of course played a major role in me missing my aeroplane, my being vigorously frisked, nay, rough-handled at the aerodrome, my being finally placed in a seat surrounded by silent Moslem women, and my consequent whiling away of the hour aloft listening to a team of rather brimming footballers chatter quite loudly about the possibility of these hooded women being on a suicide mission while Charlie emptied his red ute of the wines he had for sale and drove himself back to the Barossa .
Strange times. Strange times and perilous..