“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

VAUCHER BEGUET REWRITES HISTORY

THE FIRST VINTAGE AT YANGARRA ESTATE'S BRAND NEW WINERY AT KANGARILLA, McLAREN VALE, SOUTH AUSTRALIA. LEFT TO RIGHT: WINERIES BY DESIGN'S MD, GERALD ASBROEK, JACQUES BLAIN, CO-INVENTOR OF THE VAUCHER BEGUET MISTRAL GRAPE SORTER, AND PETER FRASER, GENERAL MANAGER AND WINEMAKER AT YANGARRA

Vibrators And Hair Dryers ... Handbag Raid Produces Perfect Fruit ... New Aussie Winery Starts With A Deft Polish
by PHILIP WHITE ... A VERSION OF THIS STORY WAS PUBLISHED IN THE INDEPENDENT WEEKLY ON 12th MARCH 2010

In the late eighties, I lived for a while on the edge of Australia's vast Murray Mallee, between Truro and Eudunda. It felt like the edge of the desert.

There were no vineyards within a thirty minute drive, but I always knew when vintage was on. Mighty juggernauts piled with grapes suddenly began to roar by, 24/7, trucking fruit from the Murray to the Kaiser Stuhl/Penfolds refinery at Nuriootpa. Blokes who normally carted landfill and gravel would seal the tipper flap at the back of their trucks with stuff they called Gorilla Snot – it came from a tube - and suddenly switch to the fine wine business.

Curiously, I slipped in to the winery one afternoon to check the quality of that fruit. After hours of dirt roads, the sticky grapes had gathered a thick layer of dust, which was mud by the time of arrival. They’d break the seal and simply tip the muck into the hoppers, where the great worm screws would force the disgusting load into the winery.

Mud wasn’t the only contaminant. Harvesting machines pick snakes, lizards, rats, mice, snails, birds, earwigs, spiders and everything else that lives in the vine canopies. Everything went through the big worm, with the sugary mud. Unless the wine- makers used various chemicals to remove the resultant protein and filth from the finished wine, we drank it.

No other food industry would permit such contamination.

The machinery has improved since those days, but mechanical harvesters remain indiscriminate. To make better wine, and provide a more marked point of difference, thereby justifying higher prices, proper winemakers still go to the bother of picking by hand. There are fewer stalks, leaves and critters, and hand- selected bunches I see each year going through the hopper at Penfolds Magill, for example, look as if they have been hand-washed. They are pristine.

For many years the fanatical winemakers of Bordeaux, and other grand French vignobles, have been hand-sorting such carefully picked bunches once more before they hit the crusher. Bunches with botrytis, other moulds, too many raisins, or the slightest blemish get the flick. Australian wine industrialists regard such care as prohibitively expensive.

JACQUES BLAIN AT THE YANGARRA ESTATE REVIEVAL HOPPER. THE GRAPES ARE PREMIUM HAND-PICKED GRENACHE FROM THE HIGH SANDS VINEYARD: ALL UNIRRIGATED BUSH VINES PLANTED IN 1946

Enter a suave French engineer, Jacques Blain, of Lyon. He runs a company called Vaucher Beguet, designing and supplying the best wineries of France with grape processing machinery.

We sat chatting in my patio last week, a short stroll from the new Yangarra winery near Kangarilla. Inside that handsome building sits a glittering example of Jacques’ ingenuity: a Vaucher Beguet Mistral grape-sorter. This single invention is changing winemaking forever.

“A customer in Bordeaux complained that human grape sorters were far from perfect,” Jacques said. “They talk with each other, you know, tell the jokes, take their eyes from the work, and still we see imperfect fruit getting through. So they ask me to design a sorting machine. We have three weeks to deliver.”

Jacques sat down with his business partner, Gerard Vouchet, and designed a machine that destemmed the grapes, then vibrated a sloping perforated steel panel which let the smaller imperfect berries fall into a bin before the better fruit went into the crusher.

THE WASTE FROM THE SHAKING TABLE; BOTRYTIS BERRIES; EARWIGS; MILLIPEDES, ASSORTED GREENERY, AND ONLY BACCHUS KNOWS WHAT

“It did not work very well,” he explained, “because all the leaf and stem and other contaminant still come through with the must. So I say to myself ‘We should try with wind’. Gerard said ‘Give me five minutes’ and he soon came back with his wife’s hair drier. It worked. I patent the machine and we delivered ... In 2005 we have sold seven sorters: four in France and three in the USA. Now we have sold 300. There are six in your country.”

GREEN WASTE AND MUCK BLOWN OUT BY THE MISTRAL FAN

I can watch this machine for hours: it’s hypnotic. Other wine- makers can’t wait to put their fruit through it ... there’s a queue. There are four bins surrounding it. One fills with the stalks from the destemmer. The next fills with a shitty grey pulp of raisins, unripe berries the size of lentils, crawling with earwigs, snails and whatnot. The third fills with leaves, more stalks, petiols, bits of critters, mucky broken berries, more earwigs, snails, and numerous surprising unmentionables. There was perfect kidney in there last week.

WASTE FROM THE MISTRAl: PREVIOUSLY, ALL THIS ENDED UP IN THE FERMENT

And the fourth bin fills with perfectly-matched individual grapes, looking as if each one was hand-selected and polished clean. It’s incredible to think that it took so many centuries of dirty wine- making to see the need for this improvement, and get on with designing and building the machine.

But the biggest shock came not with your average machine-picked fruit, but the first batches of fastidiously hand-picked whole bunches. Stuff that we’ve always regarded as clean, perfect material for the very top shelf, suddenly began spitting out the hidden greeblies from within each bunch: not quite the volumes of contaminating crap the harvesting machines deliver, but enough to make all who see it curse in disbelief.

The ferments are brilliant.

FINISHED POLISHED GRENACHE

my picks


Dowie Doole Tintookie McLaren Vale Chenin Blanc 2008

$30; 11.5% alcohol; Diam cork; 94+++ points
Brian Light makes this beauty the old way, with wild yeasts, lotsa lees, some old oak, and the best handpicked old vine Chenin Lulu that Lunn and Drew Dowie grow on the deep Semaphore sands of Blewett Springs. It’s still grainy, like an old Bunuel movie, but finer and less agricultural than the 2006, which I pointed equally, but has the same propensity to age for decades. It has the perfectly pithy dry finish that makes the drinker feel starved for fresh char-grilled seafood, and the darned thing sits in your mouth like a belligerent squatter, long after the eviction order has been issued. A new benchmark!

S. C. Pannell Adelaide Tempranillo Touriga 2007
$27; 14.5% alcohol; screw cap; 93+++ points
Adelaide is an appelletion super-zone, covering everything from Clare to Kangaroo Island. Steve Pannell made this from Spanish and Portuguese varieties grown there, in respect of the mighty but rare Wendouree pressings reds. Since wendouree is a western Victorian aboriginal word meaning piss off, it makes those wines seem rarer still. This is not quite so scarce. But it has all those magnificent bone dry tannins, in a boisterous, forceful mouthful with still retains some berries, natural acid, and right royal poise – it’s not based on brute alcohol. I could utter many fulsomely profane curses here. Go buy!

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.

01 March 2010

BASKET RANGERS TUSCANNED RIGHT OUT

BASKET RANGE






Hillsbillies Polish The Snifters
Thirty Years Of Uphill Toil
Brodericks Catch The Sun

by PHILIP WHITE - a version of this was published in THE INDEPENEDENT WEEKLY


“This place was Doug Watson’s orchard,” Phillip Broderick said into the stiff mountain breeze.

“It grew great apples, raspberries and cherries, so thirty years ago we planted some grapes. It was pretty poor country; all cleared by hand in the 1920s … People worked very bloody hard in those days.”

Last weekend, Broderick, and his wife, Mary, staged a “bit of a tasting” for the hard-core fans of their brave Basket Range reds, beginning with the 1989 vintage. As we nudged the glasses there beside the vintage shed in the bonnie sun and the summer gusts, even the most casual glance about the place revealed that the bloody hard work has never ceased.

There were very few vineyards anywhere in the Hills thirty years ago. The current plague of tax-evading industrial grapeyards and hobbyists had yet to hit malignancy. But Brian Croser was busy filling the Piccadilly Valley with vines for his beloved Petaluma; Steve George and Peta van Rood were well underway at Ashton Hills; Tim Knappstein, the Henschkes and Geoff Weaver were nose to the winestone a few ridges away at Lenswood, and at Clarendon Brian Light and Alan Hickinbotham were also beginning to capture the advantages of higher, cooler viticulture in their racy new wines.

“Croser was always very supportive”, Phillip said. “The first time I picked a couple of tonne all those years ago he gave us a corner of his new winery and said ‘Put it there, and if you can’t always get here to plunge your cap, give me a call, and I’ll get somebody else to do it’.”

Some of last week’s throng had visited Basket Range before; the first gathering was in 1986. We met then at the other side of the hill, in the bottom of a gully in a long, dark sandstone house. The first little vineyard snuggled alongside in the scrub, facing north, but often struggled to reach full ripeness at such a lowly, sheltered location. Since then, the Brodericks have planted a bigger, breezier, happier twenty acres on top of the hill, and moved to a brighter house on its shoulder.

“Everyone was pretty much Tuscannned right out by ’98”, the wry Phillip reflected. “It’s a better life up here.”

















PHILLIP AND MARY BRODERICK AT THEIR VINTAGE SHED

The notion of soil is a joke at Basket Range. Here and there a few inches of it have somehow evaded being washed or blown away, but mostly it’s pure and simple: massive sandstone with the odd ironstone intrusion. Sandstone holds water; ironstone adds might and intensity to red grape flavour.

Broderick’s intent has always been the elegant intensity of the great red blends of Bordeaux, so the vineyard is set accordingly to grow Cabernet sauvignon, Merlot, and Petit verdot. The Cabernet is classically leafy, with the methoxypyrazine flavours of the nightshade family: tomato leaf, hop and hemp atop a cherry and blackcurrant juiciness. Merlot is more earthy, with mossy, mushroomy soul, while the Petit verdot – “little green” - adds complex tannins of the vegetal sort. This latter variety, always the last in Bordeaux to ripen, might seem an unwise selection for a place where full ripeness is elusive, but here it performs a clever service of the Tuscan sort. Somehow the tannins of these wines are akin to the structure of the great Nebbiolo wines of northern Italy. Where, say, a fat Barossa shiraz is packed with tannin from the base up, these elegant Italians seem to sport a cloud of savoury tannin that floats above the juice, providing a more ethereal and entertaining effect.

The first wine poured, the 1989, looked Italianate, but in a nutty Dolcetto way (and I mean very fine Dolcetto): its flesh and primary fruit was truly fading, leaving the tiniest lozenge of blackcurrant jelly in the middle of the tongue, whilst the sides were worked by fresh, vigorous tannin. The Dolcetto analogy applied too to the 93, a cooler year wine which had started life quite green, and is only now softening sufficiently to reveal its soul. Like most of the wines, this has an array of confectionary musk and mints decorating its pretty bouquet.

The younger wines boast another adornment: they smell of face butters and creams, and the alluring sniff of R. M. Williams’ leather dressing. While the fruits – cherry, blackcurrant, raspberry and blueberry - are presented like fresh Medlar gels, these fleshy facecream extras are obviously the result of the better ripening now achieved. These are best seen in the current release, the stunning 2006 I raved about here a few weeks back, but looks like being even more elegantly intense and tantalising in the 2007, which time may show to be an even better wine.

If your penchant is refined, beautifully balanced reds of modest alcohol and price, and you have the patience to lock a portion of what you buy in the dungeon for a few years, Basket Range is amongst the very best our Hills have to offer.