“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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18 March 2010

AUSTRALIA'S FEAR OF NATURAL ACID

THE GREAT RAY BECKWITH AT 98 YEARS OF AGE: STILL DROPPING IN TO THE PENFOLDS WINERY FOR A CUP OF TEA AND A SNIFF OF THE NEW VINTAGES

"Piggy's Dead, Ray!" ... Ocker Mob Still Running With The Parkerilla ... But Faint Glimmers Of Hope In The Better Balance Brigade

by PHILIP WHITE - a version of this piece was published in The Independent Weekly On 7th MARCH 2010

One blistering summer early in the ’eighties, when the grapes were ripening with unseemly haste, I happened to be at John Frada’s McLaren Vale winery, where I made two very big mistakes. John, flustered by the extreme heat, was trying to squeeze too much fruit through his limited machinery. Outside, Enzo Berlingieri and Katrina Bickford were planting native shrubs. Both operations came to a halt when a cloud the colour of an aubergine engaged its handbrake immediately above us, and, in the time it took to smoke a cigarette, relieved itself of an inch of rain.

This made time for conversation. My first crime was mistaking Katrina, whom I’d only just met, for Mrs. Berlingieri. This greatly amused Enzo, who thought it wasn’t such a bad notion. (Leer would be an appropriate word here.) But Katrina’s feisty Russian genes saw it another way, and she shrivelled me with a look as brief and sharp as her guttural curse.

The second sin was suggesting the rain had conveniently doubled the volume of John’s fruit. I imagined he’d left the full bins outside to quite naturally increase his tonnage. But no, he said, the heat had pushed his sugars far too high, and the water would bring them back to a palatable
level, so his alcohols would not be so overwhelming.

Otherwise, in those glory days, over-ripe ferments, which would eventually have far too much alcohol, were given a bit of the old black snake. This was the insertion of the rainwater hose. Hoses were black rubber.

Twenty years after the Frada episode I sat with a cuppa in the calm household of the great Ray Beckwith, at Nuriootpa. Ray was only about ninety then, and he produced ream after ream of beautiful copperplate handwriting on foolscap paper: his scientific notes from before World War Two. One of this country’s first true wine scientists, he spent his life working in the labs of Penfolds. His discovery of the importance of pH in ferments, and the methods of adjusting it to a narrow, ideal window, revolutionised winemaking, first at Penfolds, and then the wide world over.

To this day winemakers everywhere blithely use Ray’s formulae, with no idea whatsoever of where they came from.

He produced a more recent document. This was his record of the average alcohols of Barossa shiraz released in the preceding decade. He shook his sage old head and tutted, and remarked on how stupid it was that the alcohols had marched so determinedly upward, year after year. They
had, in fact, lurched from 13.5 per cent to the high fifteens.

We talked of how this was the industry’s response to the ornery American critic, Robert Parker Jr., whose palate is addicted to very high alcohols, seemingly irrespective of whether the wines are in true balance, with life and natural acid and appropriate pHs to guarantee harmonious structure, drinkablity, and savoury gastronomic pleasure.

We commiserated about the servile nature of our rockstar winemakers who greedily sought the international recognition a high Parker point would bring them; the glossy magazine attention they’d thus get; the adoration they’d enjoy when they hit the wine stands in the States.

It is an exemplary tale of the weirdness of industrial psychology, this blind lurch from savoury to soused. Winemakers blame it on global warming, which must take a shred of the blame. But my attitude has always been contrary. I think that, lacking any true gastronomic education, the hard-hatted industrial chemists pumped out by the Adelaide University’s winemaking course simply managed, in blind mob mentality, to feed each other’s belief that higher alcohols were not just the way to go, but the only thing possible.

The Lord Of The Flies comes to mind. It’s high time somebody uttered the essential “Piggy’s dead, Simon.”

Apart from the blistering freak heatwave of early November, which killed most of the setting Grenache in McLaren Vale and the Barossa, this vintage is proceeding with ideally warm, breezy days, and cool, breezier nights. If the weather patterns hold, it could be the best year in many.
And you heard that from my mouth, not from some dumbarse PR blomo.

But I have also munched on vibrant red berries whose skins are still thick, well-formed, and resistant to the teeth; whose pips retain that lovely puckery nuttiness that will give the wines natural balance, and guarantee good long lives in the right cellars.

Most importantly, I have relished their beautiful mouth-cleansing natural acidity. There is no substitute for this. It will lock their myriad flavours together, and train them to sing in harmony. Which shovelled corrective tartaric acid additions, as taught rotely, can never really do. Added acid always looks awkward and angular, never really harmonising.

This is why, in many of the colder premium French appelletions, the addition of sugar before ferment – chaptalisation – to replace unobtainable grape ripeness, is permitted. These winemakers, after two thousand years of trial and error, have understood that natural acidity is not just better, but essential, even if it means occasionally adding sugar, which will eventually be fermented to dryness. So they prefer the colder sites for their top-grade wines. Even chaptalised wines end up better balanced and gracious, as the sugar melds better into the wine’s form than added tartaric acid ever will. So the addition of acid to chaptalised wines is illegal.























In Australia, chaptalisation is illegal. But, anticipating the rote addition of tartaric or citric acid at
some point during the winemaking process, we generally ripen Shiraz grapes until they “bag up” on the vine. This is when their skins begin to wrinkle, shrivel, and dimple, like a golf ball. I’ve sloshed such grapes through my mouth this vintage, from vine and hopper, and to me it’s obvious. They’re too far gone. Their pips have lost all their savoury walnut edge, and their skins have shed their drying, preserving tannins.

Robert Parker Jr. will love their finished product.

If you were to open your fridge and find a tomato or a strawberry there that looks like that, you’d avoid it and select find a fresher, tighter one.

Infuriatingly, given the ideal vintage conditions so far, I have also seen very expensive fruit that was quite baggy and hyper sweet – enough to make a wine of, say 15.5 per cent alcohol – but with pips that had never ripened, and were still very bitter. This is often the result of the refinery grape purchasing officer wandering blithely through the grower’s vineyard at one stage or another, and ordering some change to the viticulture, like “turn the drippers off, we want this raisined.” Against the better wisdom of the grower, the vines go out of balance, stress, and desperately make sugar before their pips have developed sufficiently.

The wines will be awful.

But I have one sweetening yarn for Ray on the occasion of his ninety-eighth birthday. Last week I phoned ace Vales winesmith Steve Pannell.

“Whitey,” he said, “for the first time I can remember, I’ve just crushed red grapes at 13.5 per cent, and guess what? I’ve got the best flavours ever.

“You know what I reckon?” he continued excitedly. “I reckon this whole business has convinced itself that natural acid means unripe!”

Piggy’s dead, Ray.


my picks


J. de Villaret Brut Crémant de Loire $28; 12% alcohol; cork; 91 points Chenin blanc grows well amongst the Loire’s royal palaces and châteaux, traditionally making intense, fragrant, steely wines of serious longevity for the likes of Leonardo da Vinci. Chenin’s stiff natural acidity makes it ideal for crunchy, austere wines like this sparkler, which is half Chardonnay. It’s a complex, alluring, perfectly yeasty drink. It’s like a properly characterful Champagne, falling short, but heading determinedly in the Krug direction – with Chenin doing the job of Pinot meunier. It’s certainly a better-formed drink than the many of the megabulk cheapies from the big refineries of Reims: a dry, finely-moussed fizz at a price that makes me snigger. Go, buy!

Clancy Fuller Two Little Dickie Birds Barossa Rosé 2009
$??; 12.5% alcohol; screw cap; 93 points The Dickie Birds are Paul Clancy, founder of Winetitles, and Peter Fuller himself, owner of SA’s other wine publishing and propaganda mob. Peter Schell made it from their old vine Mataro (aka Mourvédre or Monastrell) and Grenache, on the fast-draining rubble of the Barossa piedmont. It’s a classic bone dry pheasant-eye style, after the beauties you sink with saffron-rich bouillabaisse in the bistros of Marseilles, a Gauloise smouldering threateningly on the side. It’s as acrid as a burlap superphosphate sack, with cute maraschino, framboise and cranberry filling the middle, and very fine stony tannins to finish, like the alluvium from whence it came. Adults only.

1 comment:

peter said...

yes a wonderful vintage it is
the winery i work at has harvested all and packed up except for a small amarone parcel crushed early in the last week of march. we pressed our grenache off ther same time. this was harvested 12 days earlier at 13.8 and 14.2 baume respectively and natural acid to boot
the shiraz was in and fermented by the time grenache was being picked. full berries no bagging fresh ripe flavours and mature ripe tannins all before it reached 15 baume.
wonderful vintage that is looking fantastic.
i get to spend the day with my wife for her birthday for once and i get an easter long weekend
its looking up for all