24 June 2010
Rick Burge's Bio-D Alchemy
Keeping The Tribe Alive
Semillon To Swoon Over
by PHILIP WHITE
- a shorter vesion of this story appeared in The Independent Weekly
Rick Burge is Grant Burge’s cousin. They run completely separate businesses, and wide apart they are, in flavour, size, attitude and presentation. Like in those fast post Krondorf/Burge & Wilson years when Grant was passing everything in the only brown V8 Porsche ever seen, Rick was quieter and quicker on his café racer.
Grant was still living in the halo of the Jimmy Watson Trophy he'd won with his partner, Ian Wilson, for a 1979 McLaren Vale red they'd got from that wild old genius of Ryecroft, Jim Ingoldby, who complained about his young clients' reticence with the cheque book. Through the glittery nous of Ian Wilson, B&W were the first winemakers to use FM rock radio to promote themselves: the ad they ran had one of those deep male voices echoing "the youngest winemakers ever to win the Jimmy Watson trophy". It sounded like the intro to a rock concert, and presented them as something like the Simon and Garfunkle of Australian winemaking. It worked. But soon after, Grant and Helen, not Ian, were featured at the top of the list of Mode magazine's annual list of What's In and What's Out, with their matching brocade dinner suits at the Grand Prix ball.
They were not in the list they would have preferred.
In 1986, Rick, and his wife, Bronnie, bought Grant and Helen out of all the old family Wilsford winestocks, winemaking equipment, and the family’s Draycott property. Rick and Bronnie never made it to Mode magazine, but I recall tasting fortifieds with Rick when he was winemaker at St Leonards, and photographing him for The National Times around about then.
He didn't dress like Grant.
Rick had been making wine at Rutherglen, much in the footsteps of his dad, Noel, a fortifieds expert who’d worked twelve years at Berri Estates before taking his place at Wilsford.
Grant’s father, Colin, retired in 1981.
Since those days, Rick and Bronnie have quietly run their Burge Family Winemakers at Lyndoch, managing their small suite of precious vine gardens increasingly along organic and biodynamic principles. They now reserve the Wilsford brand for the stunning ancient fortifieds from the old family cellar, established in 1928.
That, of course, was long before the petrochem opposite of organic and biodynamic farming was even dreamt of. The petrochem business was still regrouping then since nobody'd ordered mustard gas since World War I. Anyway, nobody in the Barossa in those days used petrochem poisons on the precious vine gardens God gave them.
The grandest of these old Burge Family wines, the Three Generations tawny port, is over thirty years of age, and a ridiculous steal at $35. Full bottle. Swoon city. 95 points.
Rick now makes the smartest Semillon in South Australia.
Semillon, the white of Bordeaux since the early 1700s, was one of the first whites grown successfully in Australia, beginning in Sydney and the Hunter Valley. Captain Charles Sturt was sent off to Cape Town soon after to buy more white cuttings when a smoky roomful of affluent South Australians passed the hat around in the new South Australian parliament. As much of the Cape’s whites at that stage were various types of Semillon, we imagine that most of what he brought back was that variety.
His 60,000 cuttings went to Clare and the Barossa.
In the Hunter, it was variously called Shepherd’s Riesling, Hunter Riesling, Chablis, White Burgundy, or just plain Riesling, until the 1980s. In the very early days it seems the Barossa called it Clare Riesling, which, confoundingly, was the Clare winemakers’ name for Crouchen until about the time the Hunter began using the name Semillon.
In those early ’eighties, when I suggested the Clare winemakers should call their Clare Riesling by its proper name, Crouchen, and instead call their “Rhine Riesling” Clare Riesling, to claim it as their own, they were convinced people would think their true Riesling was Crouchen.
At least we got that sorted. Crouchen disappeared. Some lucky buggers even got paid for removing it in the mid-eighties Vine Pull Scheme. Not a great variety, Crouchen. It wasn't helped by the big old oak vats it was generally stored in: much of it tasted like rotting rowboats.
But I digress. There’s even a slightly bronze or pink-skinned type of Semillon in some Barossa vineyards, which is called Red Semi in the local patois. This is a stunning grape. I suspect this may be what the Hunter blokes labeled Verdelhao until things began getting real in those crucial early ’eighties. I don’t know of any of the original Hunter Verdelhao surviving, so I’ve never checked this itch. From dim memory of the amazing ’65 Lindemans Verdelhaos, the flavours are very similar. I’d better ring Karl Stockhausen. He probly made them. If any Hunter blokes can help, please barge in.
Last week Rick presented me a glass of his 2010 Semillon. He has chosen, after many wooded vintages, to make this one without any carpentry. It seems to have freckles, so pale and shy it be. It smells of beurre blanc, the sauce one makes with butter and lemon and pours upon king whiting fillets wrapped about prawn mousseline, with which Cath Kerry broke hearts in the late ’seventies. I’d like to have some now with this wine. But this ’10 also has a layer of cool cucumber, which chills everything just so neat and true you feel just like that. Like thaaat. Fresh cool cucumber sliced onto the eyelids. The original Issye Miyake for lasses. Which I love to wear.
It should last fifteen? Twenty years? Another reason to stay alive.
Then he poured the 2002 model. Oaked. And this was the last year he used cork, so they vary. This was the prettiest, lightly buttery drink. It reminds me of the ’82, ’84 and ’86 Quelltaler Estate Wood-Aged Semillons made by the brilliant Michel Dietrich at what is now called Annie’s Lane in Watervale. It's owned by Fosters, which has it in mothballs, and has gutted it of all its essential machinery. Bugger them. It's the Seppeltsfield of Clare, and has been gradually butchered by various owners since Remy Martin's Francois Henri reluctantly sold it to his nemesis, Wolf Blass.
With Semillon, it’s the telling decade, that first one after bottling: once the fresh lemony primary fruit begins to segue into the butter-and-toast of maturity you can see which wines will simply chug on forever: I recall drinking the ’65 Hunters in the early ’eighties: they were still stunningly fresh, corks willing.
Dietrich’s Semillons are still majestic, totally seductive wines when the corks permit, and I think some of the best wooded whites yet made in this state.
This '02 Burge Family is still pale and polite, and so goddam elegant it seems to belong in an 1870s Adelaide diary of Edith Caroline Tomkinson or a 1905 pamphlet by Thistle Anderson. But whilst salon savvy and gently curved, it has a taut equestrienne within.
It will not get to to the top of the What's Out list in Mode.
It reminds me of that whipsnake of equestriennes, Nora Young, the gay grand dame of Kanmantoo property owners, who was the grandaughter of Lady Charlotte Bacon, who was the bastard daughter of Lord Byron.
She could gallop a throughbred without saddle. Or reins.
As a kid, I mowed her lawn. Her dad, Harry Dove Young, founded the Oakbank steeplechase, and employed Edmund Mazure to make the St. George wines at his great vineyard there in Tappanapa schist, where Mazure perfected his recipe for St. Henri Claret, which was named after his kids, Henri and Henrietta. Kanmantoo St. George's Claret won the gold for best red in the world at the 1889 Paris World's Fair staged to coincide with the opening of the Eiffel Tower.
But I digress. Again.
Rick makes many utterly delicious reds too, in that sort of spirit. He’d decanted them, poured them back into their bottles, so they’d had 24 hours of air when we tasted them. And now, another 24 hours later, they’re still awakening. These are amongst the best we have to offer: honest, open-hearted country wines devoid of bullshit which are direct reflections of their terroir.
The savagely industrialised Barossa, and many who stupidly call themselves artisans, a term introduced there by Dan Phillips, now in receivership in Australia, could learn much from them.
I shall soon post notes on many Burge Family wines on DRANKSTER.
In the meantime, go visit Burge Family at Lyndoch. Take money. Be very thirsty.
20 June 2010
Making The Best Wine
With The Least Bullshit
by PHILIP WHITE
Last year I was involved in a live satellite cross between Adelaide and Moscow. I sat in a room with a handful of Australian winemakers who took turns to present their wines to a much grander roomful of sommeliers and merchants in Moscow. There they sat in a high-ceilinged baroque hall with rows of immaculate linen-decked tables, waiters, and rows of the best Riedel glassware; we were in a shabby alcove in the Hilton with the camera, a big screen, a few dozen parfait glasses and no napery.
After two efforts to improve the glassware at our end, I finally screwed something with boles and stems from our laconic waiter.
“See those glasses they have in Moscow”, I hissed, pointing at the Russians. “They’re $100 each. They’re Riedels. I want professional wine glasses like those! We’re presenting to them. These are parfait glasses! These are for desserts! We look like honkies!”
Eventually some glasses appeared, the sound popped on, and we progressed, each winemaker discussing their wines, one after the other, as the same thing was poured to the sixty or so appreciative souls in Moscow. Questions and answers went back and forth across the globe through a translator; each end could manipulate the other’s camera, to zoom and pan. The technology, and the impressive room at the other end, was dazzling.
What prominently failed to dazzle were the claims blithely made by a couple of the winemakers. They are obviously accustomed to skiting in front of each other, as this is their mob mentality whenever flogging ethanol to foreigners they generally expect to be susceptible or threatening. But the thought that they would blithely deliver such nonsense about soils, geology, environment, history, the sources of grapes, and their winemaking, in front of me, was a bruising affront.
They obviously expected my implicity in their scam, expecting me to accept this as normal behaviour, and keep schtum. The open link to Moscow was no fit place to be correcting or contradicting them, but I felt sickened to think that the nonsense that flowed would one day have to be unravelled and put right.
This sort of thing rotely occurs internationally, inevitably contributing to the collapse of Australia’s premium winemaking image. Put simply, many of our ethanol pushers are capable of the same sort of bullshit you’d expect from any shady dealer.
For the first twenty years of Australia’s phenomenal wine boom – maybe we should begin calling it the Wine Bubble – such habitual screwing of the truth was easy to hide. But since the blogosphere boom and the instant omnipresence of the internet, the old citadels of nonsense are seeing their ramparts crumble.
Correction: they WILL see that their ramparts have crumbled. Most Australian wineries have yet to realise the power and immediacy of the internet. They are a decade behind their drinkers, and two decades behind the bold new opinion-formers of the wine-loving world.
I have never met S. Indra Sathiabalan, and have no idea about this writer’s propensity to ring out the truth when promoting alcohol in a Muslim country like Malaysia, but I shook with a Moscow-sized baulk when I read his/her piece on Pernod Ricard winemaker Nigel Dolan (left) in Malaysia's Sun2Surf on my browser this morning.
“You can say that wine, and not blood, runs in Nigel Dolan’s body,” the writer recorded. “This son of wine-making legend Brian Dolan has been described by an Australian wine magazine as a ‘master at producing reds with a beguiling mix of elegance, complexity and intensity...’.”
I cannot be sure of the source of this, but it is the sort of quote the industry habitually steals from people like me. These are used without permission, usually out of context, and frequently without acknowledgement of the author, who usually retains copyright.
I would presume a company whose skilled propagandists exercise the sophistry I have learned to expect from a company like Pernod Ricard would have actually named the magazine, if not the author, in their press fluff. I expect also that S. Indra Sathiabalan chose not to mention these as it would mean nothing to the Malaysian reader.
As for the content of the quote? I would have suggested something more along the lines of “a master at producing amorphous, highly-refined, deeply-coloured industrial reds of a certain sweetness, high alcohol and overt oak, usually of the cheaper, sappier Quercus alba American variety”.
But it’s not all bad. One could truthfully point out that the source of the wine Dolan was promoting, the Wyndham Estate Bin 555 Shiraz, is a place called South Eastern Australia, which is a stretch
of mainly desert country as big as the whole of the European Union. So while the wine could in fact legally contain some fruit from where Wyndham Estate was, the fact is that it’s not there anymore.
“The junior Dolan was in Kuala Lumpur last month” the article continues, “to hold a workshop to showcase the wines of Wyndham Estate, a 180-year-old winery in the Barossa Valley in South Australia, of which he is chief winemaker.”
There is no winery called Wyndham Estate. Wyndham Estate is a brand invented by Brian McGuigan in the Hunter Valley, 1,200 kilometres from the Barossa. When I first encountered it, it produced things with names like Chablis, Graves, Sauternes and whatever, from grapes that came from anywhere but Chablis, Graves or Sauternes.
In fact, they came from around Australia.
McGuigan’s father, Perce (right), had been the longstanding winemaker at Penfolds’ Dalwood in the Lower Hunter. Perce had been there for 28 years when Penfolds dropped this inefficient, outdated, unsustainable business to him for $24,000 in 1967. Penfolds took the Dalwood name north to the Upper Hunter, where they started again with Perce’s son Brian as winemaker. The Penfolds brothers spent $2 million, a motza in those days, and failed.
So Brian quit, and rounded up some financial support from two Sydney businessmen with little wine knowledge, and convinced his father to sell him the former Dalwood. He renamed the business Wyndham Estate after George Wyndham (left) , who’d had two acres of vineyard there in 1832.
The ebullient McGuigan (below, right) soon built Wyndham into the biggest of the lower Hunter wineries, which is not saying much on today’s scale of things. His expertise was in the sweet wines, red or white, beloved by the gullible Sydney throat, and the sort of marketing and packaging sophistry I have since come to expect of Pernod Ricard.
Which is not surprising, as that big French pastis concern now owns the Wyndham name along with what was once Orlando Jacob's Creek.
The Barossa’s beloved Orlando Wines had been owned since 1970 by the British bathroom and laundry goods specialist Reckitt and Coleman until a consortium led by that company’s aerosol expert, Chris Roberts, borrowed money from South Australia’s State Bank in the twilight of the ’eighties and executed a daring staff buyout.
This was trumpeted by the financing Premier, John Bannon, as a triumph for his state: the new crew had bought back the farm from the evil, uncaring multinational. They soon also bought Wyndham from McGuigan’s mob, which was riddled with family and business problems mainly due to dangerously rapid expansion.
Before long the likeable Roberts was sheepishly telling me, across his grand Orlando Wyndham desk, of what a dud the purchase turned out to be: he had used South Australia taxpayers’ money to buy New South Wales vineyards, stock and machinery that looked good on the inventory, but became very difficult, if not impossible, to locate.
Then in an even more audacious move, under much suspicion that it had been his plan all along, he sold Orlando-Wyndham to the French Pernod Ricard, leaving custard all over the Premier’s face.
Bannon was then ruthlessly dumped from power after the bank went down to the tune of four or five billion: the precise figure is as ethereal as the Wyndham stock inventory.
So while there’s a chance that a skerrick of the fruit in the Wyndham wine actually came from where Wyndham used to be, in reality it’s like its big sister, Jacob’s Creek, whose fruit comes mainly from vineyards nowhere near your actual creek. Both brands tend to come from the same refinery.
RECENTLY RETIRED CHIEF WINEMAKER PHIL LAFFER ON JACOB'S CREEK, WHICH GAVE ITS NAME TO THE HUGELY-SUCCESSFUL EXPORT BRAND
And when S. Indra Sathiabalan proceeds then to write that Dolan “has a degree in oenology (art of winemaking)”, I feel an urge to suggest the artistry wielded here is of a different appellation.
Oenology, of course, is wine science.
“Even the oak barrels the wines are stored in have a purpose, pointed out Dolan. Wyndham Estate only uses American and French oak barrels which, he explained, help the wines to mature well. American oak imparts a delicate vanilla flavour as well.”
Delicate? Get off it! I could go on.
Suffice to add some irony. A few days before this nonsense was published in Malaysia, I was driving around McLaren Vale with a couple of discerning Malaysian mates who spent thousands on super-premium Vales wines: the very best this district has to offer. Neither would be interested in Bin 555 Shiraz. These guys were sharp as tacks and highly sensitive to bullshit.
One, a cool modern moderate Muslim, was buying for his home cellar as well as building a formidable stack of gifts for his business associates and clients. He made very sure that the gift wines were sealed with corks, but accepted nothing short of screw caps for his own consumption.
Neither would have the slightest interest in anything with residual sugar, overt American oak, and no home vineyard.
To finish, and bring this back to the troubles besetting the Australian wine business, it’s worth asking of these extremes: which range of products wastes the least water and makes the fattest profit?
It’d be the wine that the sleek Moscow buyers would prefer, too: the best wine with the least bullshit.
Now there’s a slogan the exporters should steal!
17 June 2010
Milton Wordley Records The End Of A Long Yearling Day At Yangarra
CLICK ON ANY IMAGE TO SEE MILTON WORDLEY'S WEBSITE
THE YEARLINGS, PARKES AND ROB, AT THE END OF A SIX HOUR (!) SET
YEARLINGS ROCKIN FOR MICHELLE GRACE AND SCULPTOR GREG JOHNS. CHECK HIS AMAZING WORK: CLICK GREG JOHNS
THE LAST SET WAS PERFECT; THOSE IN THE KNOW VOTED ROBYN CHALKLEN THE BEST RHYTHM GUITARIST IN THE COUNTRY ... GLITTERING STEEL FERMENTERS ASIDE,YANGARRA USES OLDER OAK FOR ITS BARRELS, BUT THE GOURMAND TIMBER ON THE GUITAR RACK (AND SOME MASONITE IN THE DANELECTRO) IS, ON AVERAGE, THIRTY OR FORTY YEARS OLDER ...
ANNE-MARIE CHIN, EDUCATIONIST, AND ROBYN WORDLEY ABOVE, PARTNER OF MICK WORDLEY IN MIXMASTERS STUDIO, (BELOW) WITH THE AUTHOR ... GO HOME YOU BOYOS!
16 June 2010
Winemakers And Ibis Return
Good Fruit Rots In Big Glut
Smart Dudes Move Straight On
by PHILIP WHITE - a shorter version of this appeared in The Independent Weekly
In McLaren Vale, the winter has moved in with some authority. A frost or two; around zero centigrade each night; not much rain yet, but it sorta looks all right as far as winter goes in the world’s best Mediterranean climate. It’s so damn moderate it’s almost too polite.
The smaller birds that were scared off while harvest progressed have returned, and the ibis are back on the flats, drilling thousands of little holes in the sod. Gentle neat aerating holes that no heavy tractor and plough can match, with their great squishing, compacting mass.
I love those stately, prehistoric ibis. They put some ancient Egypt alongside the kangaroos and horses.
I don’t recall a vintage in which the vineyard leaf has hung on for so long after the harvest. This is another sign of a contented, balanced vignoble: happy, confident plants. After vintage there was a great desperate scurry of winemakers off to Britain for various competitions and promotional trade events; as they return they’re surprised, and remark about the leaf still hanging. This confirms their suspicions that the vintage they’ve just had was very good indeed.
This, of course, cannot be claimed by everybody. If you want a reliable touch of depression, follow the drive I took the other day with Roger Pike. We zig-zagged from The Victory on Sellicks Hill right along the piedmont of the Front Hills to Willunga. In other words, we covered half the length of the entire Willunga Embayment’s eastern boundary: some of the most promising vineyard land in the whole of McLaren Vale. There are vineyards all the way; very few of them have been picked. In some, brave owners have commenced pruning the dead bunches along with the canes; others will be left unpicked and unpruned, as there’s not enough money, and little chance of a buyer next year. Half the place is for sale.
Roger, photographed above by Kate Elmes, always sells out of his Marius Wines: they're more ravishing than ravaging. Right now, he's deep into pruning his little vineyard, which grew a stunning crop of black, sinuous assuaging fluid this year. He lives in his vines: it was 09, when the heatwave buggered everything, that he with-held his crop, and made no wine. It wasn’t good enough.
Pity more winemakers don’t have the honesty and balls, and respect of their customers, to do the same.
This year, he’s made three beautiful Marius wines, because the vintage was good.
It’s a tragic comment on the state of things that elsewhere, last year’s inferior wines are clogging up the veins of the business, occupying barrels and tanks, while the grapes of a truly grand year are hanging rotting and useless in the vineyard. This racket is full of people with absolutely no gastronomic intelligence. They are mere sugar miners and ethanol pushers.
Keith Richards says three per cent of rock music is good. I think the wine business, too, is 97 per cent abject crap.
There’s another insidious thing that knocks the corners of one’s mouth down, and it, too, has to do with contrasting philosophies about farming. Where I live, on Yangarra, the big vineyard is in transition to organic management. Yet for the last week, the chill winter air was a-throb with the aggro pulse of a helicopter spraying broad leaf herbicide on vineyards somewhere further back up the escarpment. I’m not suggesting this spray infected Yangarra, but you can smell this stuff as it spills down the creeklines and gullies, to infest neighbouring properties whether they want poison spray or not.
Rather than hire a helicopter and a truck full of petrochem, the crew here has just completed fencing the vineyards so they can use cattle and sheep to eat the weeds through the winter, leaving their exceptionally tidy spread of fertilizing pellets on the neatly-trimmed sward.
As many larger agribusinesses – it’s not restricted to wine – gradually convert to a safer, cleaner, farming regime, this matter of spray drift will become the cause of much irritation and litigation. I’ve seen it happen on a terrible scale in different places, at different times: I was at Rosemount in the Upper Hunter one dry summer, when a farmer of something other than grapes let go a huge application of something that smelled atrocious and killed large swathes of vineyard when the breeze wafted it along.
I also recall the first organic vineyard in Coonawarra, Highbank, proudly standing, clean and happy amidst a glower of aggro petrochem-addicted neighbours who blamed every stray spore of mildew or botrytis on the organic vigneron who refused to spray the same poison. Eventually the neighbours solved this by employing aerial spraying techniques, so the plane happened to fly a bit too far across the boundary before it turned its squirters off, thus purging the nasty clean intruder. That took a lot of sorting out, too.
At one point the vineyard workers at Southcorp threatened to cease handling petrochem sprays because of their danger to health. “But you must spray”, they were told, “or there’ll be no crop.” They politely pointed out that the Highbank Vineyard always produced a beautiful crop without any poison, so there was an example supporting their case. That took some sorting out, too.
But the helicopter’s throb is not always a bad sound to everybody. At Petrus, the great Merlot vineyard in Pomerol, Bordeaux, the owner has been known to wrap the vineyard ground in plastic to protect and conserve the soil’s natural moisture, taping the stuff up around the trunk of each vine. Merlot likes wet feet, along with dry leaves and bunches. So he sits above the vineyard in his hovering chopper at night, ensuring the leaves and bunches stay dry, and frost and disease-free until harvest.
Here is a good case in point. The sound of his beautiful, incredible machine is very satisfying to him. The vineyard workers, who live in cottages around its parameter, probably have a different point of view.
09 June 2010
Virgo Nut Admits Hun Pen Fetish
Bic Owes Da Vincis Whole Motza
Something A Little Lighter From The Archive
by PHILIP WHITE
Being just about the most virgoan of virgoans, I’m a fanatic about the way I hang my washing on the line: all the tea-towels there with red pegs; the tee shirts there with blue pegs; the bedsheets there with yellow; socks in pairs with green.
It’s an exercise that also challenges my chronic colour-blindness. I can sort them darn pegs into colours! No flies on Whitey!
Any neighbouring lass who sees my clothesline just has to mutter “Wow!” Then it’s out with the john and tinic and into the violin playing.
Which leads me to the matter of the quality of clothes pegs. I’d been really shitty about the Chinese ones I’d persevered with for months: damn things kept popping open and springing to useless bits, leaving the jeans in the dirt and my sheets halfway across the vineyard.
So I broke open the vaults and bought some nice new French ones. Red, white and blue. Bic.
I often wonder how much money the Bics owe the estate of Leonardo da Vinci. The two gadgets they’ve made their scrillions from were both invented by him.
The first is the ball-point pen, which uses a ball-bearing.
Leonardo (below) invented the ball-bearing, and the ball race. M. Bic merely put the ball in a writing stick, filled it with sorbitol-moistened ink instead of oil or grease, and soon bought a yacht that takes about half an hour to walk past.
But only one of Leo’s inventions went into production before his death: the wheel-lock.
And that's not something sticker-lickers use to bolt your car down.
In his day, countless thousands of musketeers ended up impaled on enemy pikes because their damned muskets misfired, or never fired at all. There was only one spark from the flintlock, and if the charge didn’t ignite and send the ball flying off into the enemy on the first pop, the poor buggers would have to empty the barrel of gunpowder without blowing themselves up, recharge it, pack it all back with the ramrod, put new powder on the flash pan, cock the hammer, aim, and have another go, by which time the pike had got well and truly into their gizzards.
Leo thought awhile and reckoned he should devise a method of extending the duration of the spark. So, using the mechanism of a spiral door spring, and a dismountable crank handle, he built a musket that wound a serrated wheel over the flint, giving a good few seconds of constant spark. Fizzzz ... BANG! The wheel-lock musket. Suddenly it was the pikemen getting their gizzards spread, and Leo rose to favour in the eyes of the King.
Who was probably Piero Antinori’s great grandfather.
Anyway, the Bic family cunningly turned this, the wheel lock, into the Bic Flick cigarette lighter, and whole generations of us are dying of lung cancer without ever having to strike a match.
So, apart from the fact that this writer once sprang Murray Tyrrell for adding sorbitol to his wines, which is highly illegal, what’s this got to do with the Devil’s Brew? Well, obviously, a wine writer needs a pen, although I can’t abide a ball point. You can’t write cursive copperplate with a friggin Biro – it’s the Deux Chevaux of writing sticks.
It works, but won’t get you picking up Lucinda Williams at the Strath dances.
Nossir Ma’am, since high school I’ve been addicted to the Germans for scribe’s tools: you can’t beat the old Hun Rotring Rapidograph technical drawing pen. You can’t write copperplate cursive with one of them, either, mind you, but if you affect eccentric spidery microscopic writing like mine -- you need fewer notepads – the old needlepoint is impossible to beat.
DIARY FROM MY SCHOOLDAYS ... THE SCRIPT IS NEVER TALLER THAN 1.5 MILLIMETRES, BUT IT'S STILL QUITE READABLE
Besides, the Rapidograph uses indian ink, so you can spill a whole magnum of Margaux on your notes and they’ll never smudge or fade away.
Rotring ventured into the conventional fountain pen business for a few years, and couldn’t get it right. I loved my matte gunmetal black hexagonal-barreled brass-bodied model, which reminded me of an old Winchester carbine, but the Huns somehow got the cap catch all wonky, and when you wore the pen on its clip in your chest pocket, the pen would fall out of the cap and spread Quink Royal Blue (same colour the Duke of Edinburgh uses) all over your Savile Row suit and Richard Anderson shirt.
Not to mention the Krug tie, if you happened to have been listing to port.
A man could wake up with an enemy pike through him
On about the tenth time I returned that beloved Rotring fountain to the vendor to have the problem fixed, the sanctimonious pseudo-Christian bitch behind the counter advised primly that Rotring had sold out to Parker who’d immediately ceased production of said macho chickmagnet and accepted no responsibility for inadequacies of their production.
For a moment I thought she meant Robert Parker Jr., who would go and do something like that, then increase the width of the nibs to about seven inches.
“Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean he’s not getting you Whitey”, I told myself sagely, before remembering that Phil the Duc uses a Parker, which is a pen and doesn’t come from a house with a glass-topped table in Maryland, which is what them Parkers have on their fluffy carpet.
Something the farting bulldog can watch through.
Anyway she hated me for regularly bringing that pen back for repairs under warranty, especially when I
reminded her that for eighty-four-point-seven-five per centum of the duration of my ownership of it, the lovely black brute was off in Sydney or Hamburg or someplace getting its lid fixed.
I bust into a cold sweat, imagining the Rapidograph, too, had gone.
A few panicky phone calls got me through to somebody in Sydney who promised Rotring was in the technical pen stakes for ever, at which point the pike came back outa my chest and I muttered something about Rotring needing Leonardo and never saw that woman again.
She sold the shop, actually, before she drove all her customers away. The new people are utterly polite and charming, but those beautiful Rotring fountains have never been seen since, which is a horrible shame. I reckon a touch of Bismarkian perseverance would have sorted it eventually. Damn!
Anyway the Rapidograph needlepoint technical is my main side arm still.
And short of Rotring making clothespegs, I’ll stick with Bic for the clothesline art.
I wonder if Leonardo invented the clothespeg?
06 June 2010
Vintage Cellars Cuts Mustard
Coles Cultists Killing ABC Slide
Hey Hey Hey - It’s Chardonnay
by PHILIP WHITE - A SHORTER VERSION OF THIS STORY APPEARED IN THE INDEPENDENT WEEKLY
Chardonnay took a long time to hit Australia. The earliest white settlers had brought the best grape varieties of Bordeaux, the French Mediterranean coast, Germany, Portugal and Spain, but perhaps wisely steered clear of the great white of Burgundy, where it snows.
Not many Australian wine regions get snow.
Sir Samuel Davenport (right), of Beaumont Cellars, recorded his belief that “Chardonet” would be a critical grape for South Australia, and perhaps planted it at Marble Hill and Macclesfield in the very early days; we do not know. His beautiful ampelography resides in the Adelaide Library, with his pencilled note from the earliest days of the colony.
The C word seemed hardly to be uttered again for 120 years.
It wasn’t until about 25 years ago that it was worth conducting a comparative tasting of Australian Chardonnays. These would come from Padthaway, Coonawarra, the Hunter, the Riverland, Barossa, McLaren Vale, and the Yarra Valley. They were largely terrible: oaked awkwardly with coarse American and Limousin wood; usually chips.
David Wynn’s Mountadam was also well underway then. Using cuttings from a single Marble Hill vine (destroyed in the Ash Wednesday bushfires in 1983) and the Hunter, and better wood from the Allier, Troncais and Vosges forests, his High Eden Ridge wines were very good from the start.
As were the early Tasmanians, Pipers Brook and Heemskerk.
Encouraged by Len Evans, the Petaluma chairman who controlled the show ciruit, Chardonnay suddenly grew everywhere from Berri to Bourke.
There’s a push now to reverse the wise ABC - “anything but Chardonnay” - trend of the past decade, but this appears to have been hijacked by that small cadre of terroiristes headed by Grant Ramage in Coles’ premium wines buying sector. They’ve decided to show us a thing or two by having some of our better cool district Chardonnay makers prepare 2009 wines which they sell exclusively through Vintage Cellars. There’s no expensive middle man, so the prices are lower.
And the wines are very good.
Starting at the top end for those of us with no money, the cheapest is Emma Woods’s Seppelt Grampians Chardonnay ($19; 88+ points), a tight, steely wine with little discernable oak but savoury twists of butterscotch, honeycomb toffee and cushioning charcuterie fats. It’s your-right-down-the-line salt and pepper squid accompaniment: a lot more satisfying than 95% of the current squinty flood of Kiwi savvy-Bs.
The only one from outside Victoria is the Alterum Adelaide Hills Chardonnay ($25; 92+ points) made by Martin Shaw, of Shaw and Smith. Compared to the sparse Grampians wine, it’s a big step up in complexity, soul and alcohol, the latter factor probably due to the warmer nature of the Adelaide Hills. Its fruit is fresh, fragrant, and tropical, with lovely, lightly smoky oak. The palate is authoritative and weighty; there’s a pleasant powdering of oatmealy tannin in the tail, and very firm, stony acidity. Cook a braised free range chook in a hotpot in cider with onion, capers, and live tarragon, and you’ll be just juicy.
Kooyong’s Sandro Mosele (left) firmly holds a place in my Australia top twenty winemakers, and it’s a reflection of the Coles/Vintage Cellars buying team’s acuity that they’ve squeezed the Ballewindi Vineyard Mornington Peninsula Chardonnay ($30; 91++) from him. It’s a tight, complex, stony wine to sniff, with rusty iron smells as much as refined, juicy pears: Bosc, Anjou and Rocha varieties come to mind. There’s also a pleasant layer of pancetta fat, perhaps from some malo-lactic fermentation. It finishes dusty, stony and appetizing, in a perfectly Mediterranean manner. Napolitan spaghetti vongole would sit it pretty!
To the Yarra Valley next, and Dave Bicknell’s Oakridge Parish Of Gruyere Yarra Valley Chardonnay ($33; 90++ points). This is sharp, acrid wine to sniff: carbide and cordite give leading edge to a wedge of crunchy fresh pear and pithy dried apple aromas. In the mouth, an aluminium-like acidity dominates the tapering fruit, making a receding wedge … while it lacks complexity, it would beat many a Chablis of this price into my anxious glass. It’s long, lean and appetizing; go bouillabaisse!
Thence up bigtime in price to the rk Beechworth Chardonnay ($58; 93++). Giaconda is the grail of most Victorian chardomaniacs, who do tend to xenophobia. 09 being a difficult year, what with the horrid incineration of the alpine forests and all, this is the only Chardonnay Rick Kinzibrunner (below) will release from that vintage: Coles got it all.
Easily the best of this entire range, it shows true Giaconda form: the slightly peachy, cuddly, squishy fruit, seasoned with the peculiarly spicy Sirugue French oak favoured by this maker. But there’s beautiful astringency, too: an appetising string of acid and very dry red earth tannin that stretches the palate beautifully. It’s by no means cheap, but it’s more modestly-priced than your true blue Giaco. Stewed fowl with fresh herbs; goose cassoulet; anything from Richard Olney’s immaculate Provence The Beautiful cookbook will be perfect.
Such endorsement of the scary big Coles will make me no friends amongst the small local producers of Chardonnay. But they should rest assured that this fine suite of good-to-almost-great Chardonnays will help reawaken your Chardonnay receptors, which is in their interest if their wines are any good.
No other single company but Penfolds can table such a platoon of Chardonnays, but their prices are as mighty as their wines. In the case of these Coles wines, the prices are very good. If you buy a straight or mixed case, you get another 30% off!
Since Coles have “let go” Jeremy Stockman (right), who played a vital role in the selection and blending of these wines, it will be very interesting to see whether they can maintain this quality. Very few independent wine stores have a Chardonnay shelf as reliable and well-chosen as this tight-knit bunch. You’ll usually have to wade through dozens of very awkward wines to find anything like these.
Jeremy is now working as a consultant: most Australian Chardonnay makers would be better off using his blending skills, if these wines are anything to go by.
And they are. So go buy.
03 June 2010
England Spain And Portugal
Tell Us What We Should Learn
by PHILIP WHITE
Andrew Jefford (left), the noted English wine writer and poet, has returned to the old country after a year in Australia, researching our terroir. His book should be more than interesting: the thought of somebody unravelling the terroir of Australia in one short year is a big rock to lick.
There are two ways of looking at this: the larrikin might suggest the Poms should understand said terroir. They’ve known about it for two hundred years. They wouldn’t have sent us convicts to a place with good terroir, would they?
The other aspect is a lot more serious and a little sad. Australian winemakers have tugged their forelocks into oblivion, kow-towing to great white hopes from foreign shores. While the blogosphere has severely eroded his influence, the overt power exercised by the likes of Robert Parker Jr. is a perfect example. He also came here once or twice.
No wine show is complete without a star guest from afar, a sort of a missionary, really, to justify the enormous budgets allocated, and the countless hours of winemakers’ time squandered arranging and judging the competition. The winemakers’ employers permit this in the hope, of course, that they return from said show with a trunk brimming with bling for wines they have made themselves.
The thought of anybody unused to such competitions ploughing through miles of wines foreign to them, and coming up with opinions that extend beyond rhetoric is bemusing. Their scores are always mangled by the two other judges in their tasting team, anyway. The points awarded any wine are the average of the scores of the three judges in each panel.
Any winemaker judge who doesn’t recognize their own wine should not be judging; any winemaker judge who doesn’t then award high points to their wine or wines like them should withdraw them from the market, or at least cease expecting the consumer to buy them. Inevitably, when faced with a dangerous self-opinionated foreigner, the two locals work together against him, pointing low wines they imagine he will prefer, and pointing impossibly high wines they think either of them may have made.
Winemaking judges therefore severely cramp the arguments and scores of the glamour ring-in from Blighty. But eventually the star is wheeled up to the lecturn to vent their point of view at the awards banquet, everybody claps, the visitor climbs aboard the rocket, and things quickly return to normal.
A local critic might have touted the glories of a certain wine or style until their credibility expires; when the star visitor says the same thing, delighted winemakers copy out their comments and send them as triumphant press releases to the first bloke.
On the other hand, a writer like myself may, say, argue against the use of inferior cork for decades, which I did, promoting instead the vastly superior screw cap, only to find the winemakers of Clare suggesting they changed to screws only in response to a writer from England, whose writing they obviously regarded as heavier. Bigger pictures. More rock star in England.
This also occurred with my decades of complaining about Australia’s addiction to cheap, overt American oak, which is mercifully dwindling.
Sour grapes? Absolutely.
The word terroir itself is interesting: the EU language stormtroopers seem to have overlooked the possibility of outlawing our use of this unique French term. If we, the guardians of the indigenous Tawny Frogmouth Owl, are no longer permitted to use the word tawny, and claret, port, sherry, champagne and hermitage are out, even methode traditionelle, then the miracle of our continued permission to use terroir is surprising.
In any case, it is a brave human that would take on a task the size of Andrew’s. But he’s done brave things before. Bravely, John Armit, Jancis Robinson, and chairman of judges Stephen Fry over-ruled Auberon Waugh’s dissenting vote to hand him The Bunch award for wine journalism in 1994. It was the youngish Jefford’s first such gong. Bron thought Stephen Spurrier’s writing, and that of Harry Eyres and Charlotte Lessing were better efforts, as he felt Andrew’s piece on his visit to Serge Hochar’s Chateau Musar in Lebanon was not really wine writing.
“Drinking wine is an experience of the senses”, Bron (below left) pondered.
“To describe the taste of wine in terms of other tastes or smells … is bound to be an affectation. Every wine tastes of itself and nothing else. Yet in order to sell the stuff, one has to do one’s best. The wine writer’s job is to help sell the stuff by communicating his own entirely genuine enthusiasm for whichever wines please him.”
Andrew had “visited at the time of some Middle-Eastern war or another”, Bron recalled, “when the grapes were being driven over the mountains from the Bekaa Valley to the winery in Ghazir were regularly strafed by Syrian fighters ... wine writing is not about dodging Syrian fighter planes in the Bekaa Valley.”
Bron’s opinion stands worthy in itself, but may well have been influenced by his concern that in this instance, one wolf had broken bravely from the pack: one winewriter was trafficking dangerously in an ethereal field which was highly unlikely to result in the filling of his cellar. Bron was more of a bottle man than an ideas man when it came to his wine efforts.
A few years later, Serge politely laughed off my query about this wartime vintage when I took him to Adelaide’s famous Exeter for a few quiet ones. Looking rather anxiously at its artistic clientele, this elegantly besuited Lebanese suggested The Ex was a more dangerous place than his winery. He also pointed out that as that grape delivery trip across the Bekaa took so long, the fruit was flyblown and rotten before it arrived, and was distilled into an arak he refused to recommend.
This fact was not exactly advertised loudly when Andrew’s journalistic efforts put Serge on the front cover of Decanter as Wine Man Of The Year. It could have been that sage journal’s first Maronite Pastis Man Of The Year, but never mind.
I think the disgusting thing was the Decanter illustrator, typically, drew Serge as black man. Serge is not black. Australians are lucky the same dumb crew does not draw us as black: they certainly fail to get other basics facts right, and are capable of breath-taking fuck-ups in sub-editing and in naming photographs, and failing to credit the photographers where credit is due.
I wonder how they'll deal with black Australian winemakers, when we finally get blokes who'll fill the gap left by winemakers like David Uniapon, the only aboriginal to get on our money.
Perhaps this reckless background programmed Andrew to make a list of Australia’s ten bravest winemakers in the May Decanter.
Bron felt one of his bravest moments in wine writing was at a party for an edition of The Adelaide Review at Carrick Hill. This was then an independent paper whose every publication was considered such a miracle that it deserved an extravagant launch party, sponsored by generous wineries which were supposed to be sold on the idea by the wine writer. Which had been, for many years, me. As we stood talking on the mansion’s parched lawn, near the parched maze, I imagined Bron’s strange wincing and twitching was an eccentric Englishman’s tic, or perhaps some involuntary neurological result of his war injury, incurred when he accidentally blew his chest to shreds with his own machine gun in Cyprus in 1958.
“Excuse me old chap,” he interrupted, waving his Croser fizz, “do you happen to know that woman?” I turned to spy a waiter hurling champagne flutes at my back, and while these were falling well short on the dead grass, I realized he had been dodging her incoming ordnance. “She was aiming at me,” I explained, “not you. You’re the guest of honour.”
Bron went back to write in The Spectator of what fine and lucky lives the derelict urban aboriginals of Australia lived, lounging on the manicured lawns outside the Adelaide Hilton, enjoying endless masked tastings of Australia’s beautiful fortified wines.
It was Brian Croser who got the funding for Andrew’s Australian sojourn: some from my dear friends at Amorim, the world’s largest rubber and cork company, for whom Croser wisely works; some, I believe, from Xavier Moll, the Spanish media magnate who owns the limp Adelaide Review, as well as some vineyards near Greenock, which have remained unpicked in recent years. And some from the University of Adelaide, of which Brian was deputy chancellor and which awarded him an honorary doctorate for his efforts.
Nick Stock, long-serving wine critic at The Adelaide Review, lost his job when Andrew fronted with orders from above. Lawyers were employed.
This matter of importing Thinkers In Residence is a strange South Australian quirk which extends well beyond the arcane world of wine writing. Whilst blithely ignoring very smart humans who have lived their entire lives here, thinking about which errant behaviours are unsustainable and what should replace them, Premier Mike Rann (right) and his government pays enormous amounts of money to selected foreigners, who come for a few months, write a report on this topic or that, take their bucket of money and go.
The first of these soon discovered the best place for ideal suggestions was The Ex, where the permanent thinkers rested their rubbing strakes against that mighty bar. He passed this knowledge to the next temporary Thinker In Residence, and so on.
THE AUTHOR PULLS INTO THE EXETER FOR A THINK
That lovely thirst emporium was responsible for some great local thoughts finding their way onto the Premier’s desk, if not to the innards of his haughty brain. He put a quick stop to this by banning the smoking of cigarettes in bars, immediately disbanding what was obviously a dangerous cadre indeed. Now only smokers who want to quit drink in The Ex, but they’re dead boring dissatisfied and dissolute bastards, every damned one of them. The Ex is still the best, especially for lunch and great rare reds, and hot indie bands in the evenings, but the good old days are gone.
Anyway, Brian thought he’d import his own Thinker In Residence to tell us about terroir, and sensibly chose Andrew. But only the passage of time, and the eventual book, will reveal whether or not this admits our English friend to the rare category Brian used in the past to classify an approved acolyte as “a Croser animal”.
In his usual astute avoidance of any conflict of interest, Andrew precludes Brian from his Ten Bravest, so I should immediately nominate the former deputy chancellor as The Bravest Of Them All, especially with respect of terroir.
On the other hand, he will also deserve the award should Andrew remain truly independent, making up his very own mind. He may indeed have precluded Brian from his ten most brave believing he’s not brave at all. In other words, Andrew may not be a Croser animal. Making Brian very brave indeed. That's him looking at a drink, above, left.
Brian had a crash course in the nature of geology during the drawn-out legal tangle over his insistence that his Sharefarmers Vineyard should be included in Coonawarra. I think he was still deputy chancellor of the University and chairman of the Australian Winemakers Federation at the time, positions which provided some push. This interminable wrangle ended (2001) in the boundaries of Coonawarra being drawn so widely to include his patch that any attempt to give it a consistent terroir is, in my opinion, futile. The disparity between Sharefarmers geology and that of the original Coonawarra terra rossa strip was so great that I wonder that he doesn’t now attempt to have the boundary extended another thirty or forty kays to include the Koppamurra Vineyard he bought near Naracoorte. That would make space for much healthy expansion. But perhaps he thinks Coonawarra has lost some of its clarity, so he shall start another.
Now called Whalebone Vineyard after the whale bones in the limestone beneath, Koppamurra provides fruit for Brian’s Tapanappa outfit, which is backed by the Bollinger family and the Cazes of Lynch Bages. I believe his beautiful daughters have married away up into these exotic tribes.
LIMESTONES IN THE WHALEBONE VINEYARD, PASA ROBLES, ADELAIDA, CALIFORNIA
“The erosion of the limestone continued underground” the Tapanappa propaganda enthuses, “and has formed a large cave complex exposing the bones of the 800,000 year old whale in its walls below the vineyard. Such is the stuff that makes a unique ‘terroir’.”
In reality, Tapanappa is a dead boring micaceous schist rock formation about half a billion years older than the Whalebone limestone. It lies hundreds of kilometres to the north-west, along the eastern border of the South Mount Lofty Ranges in the Kanmantoo Group and the Adelaide Wine Zone. It contains no fossils. But Brian’s propaganda says that he has used the name because of his insistence that he should “stick to the path of the best possible wine quality from unique Australia terroirs”.
“In the language of the aboriginal people of the Fleurieu Peninsula of South Australia” he writes, “Tapanappa is probably a variation on the aboriginal words that translate as ‘stick to the path’.”
It must be a fluke that the word includes the vaguest insinuation of the Napa Valley, just as Brian’s previous Adelaide Hills company, Petaluma, has little to do with the chicken farming capital of California, prominent there on the road to the Napa. While he was studying at Davis and drinking in the Napa, Brian drove straight past the stripjoints, whorehouses and arm-wrestling bars of this broke town. He stuck to the path. Only the sweet-sounding name stayed with him.
Neither does Tapanappa have anything to do with California’s Whalebone Vineyard “In the heart of Adelaida, west of Paso Robles [which] derives its name from the many whale and marine fossils trapped in the vineyards’ broken shale and limestone (above). Calcareous treasures were left behind after the underwater canyons and basins retreated, and when the earth shifted and folded during the Miocene, some six million years ago.”
That quote comes from the original Whalebone Vineyard website.
Confused? You should be. NEVER forget that “Tapanappa is probably a variation on the aboriginal words that translate as ‘stick to the path’.” The keen reader will recognise the italics are mine; the keen scholar of terroir will realise the easiest path to stick to is the one that probably varies according to what is translated as what and by whom. Especially if it's you.
Brian’s intellectual precision surely displays determination, nay, bravery much more intense, than, say, Andrew’s first Decanter nomination, who turns out to be another Brian. And this is where Brian Croser really loses control of his dead fish. The ocean is still full of lost fish.
As knows Brian Franklin, the former abalone diver who makes audaciously delicious wines at Apsley Gorge (below), at Bicheno, in Tasmania.
Of course ab diving can be regarded as brave; but another ex-diver-cum-vigneron, Graham Ford (below right), of Boston Bay Wines at Port Lincoln, suggests it’s “like picking up $50 notes from the bottom of the ocean and putting them in a string bag”. Which is a joke, considering the white pointers Fordie and his boys have spent their days dodging. They extend this humour with their Sauvignon blanc, which is called Boston Bay Great White.
If you ever get to visit Boston Bay, ask them to tell you about the bloke who stuck his head up out of the seagrass to see a white pointer with the girth of a Volkswagen cruising, mouth agape, towards him.
In bravely jamming his bag of abs in its mouth, he lost the end of his little finger, which leaked blood into the water. Sharks like blood. The only thing he could do was push aside his breathing mask and stick the finger into his own mouthto remove the blood streak from the water, and try to get back to his safety cage, and then away back up to the boat. The shark harassed him every inch of that long journey. He said the worst bit was finally trying to get his legs out of the sharks’ terroir and into his own, when his weight belt caught on the gunwhale.
It’s interesting how this marine theme recurs. The great white that harassed that poor ab diver will no doubt reappear beneath somebody’s vineyard millions of years hence, its fossilised carcase celebrated on dainty brochures and pernickety back labels. They’ll probably give the wine a stage name, too. Little Finger would be nice.
In fact Little Finger will by then have probably varied in translation to become aboriginal for 'somewhere'.
Look at Stefano Lubiana, Andrew’s second brave bloke. When he told his proud Italian father the vineyards - which he’d spent his life developing in the Riverland for Steve to inherit - were in the wrong place, and that he’d be selling out and moving to Tasmania, maybe that was brave. But it was nothing on Brian telling his stern teetotalling beefer dad he wasn’t gonna be a stockie after all, but a plonkie. One can only go so far into animal husbandry.
I could go through the whole ten of ’em, but I’ll bore you shitless, and it’s better that you read Andrew’s crisp prose.
Maybe other than a mention of Roman Bratasiuk, yet another animal husbandry dropout, whose inclusion is perhaps the bravest fissure in Andrew’s seamless organoleptic theorising. Roman is not what I would call brave. He’s Serbian, which is something different. His grail is Astralis, which always brings to mind Australis, a name owned by whoever owns whatever’s left of Remi Martin, and arose from an early ’eighties night on the Krug with Francois Henri and Dennis de Muth.
Australis? Talk about a name that encompasses terroir! It was given to the first Shiraz from Blue Pyrenees Estate, Remy’s Victorian vineyard away back when Roman was just starting at the Institute of Medical and Veterinary Science, enjoying the opportunity to learn about wine over intense lunches in The Ex. He obviously doesn’t drink there any more: there are three bottles of his expensive Grenache there, heavily discounted. They’ve been there for years.
I suppose, on second thought, that like Brian, and Remy Martin, Roman (above) has a determinedly brave attitude to place. It seems to depend on his translation of a varying sort of a path. Like, you’d think his winery is on the hills of Clarendon, but it’s away across the river at Blewett Springs. He’s also kinda vague about his aboriginal linguistic skills: of the vineyard he calls Onkaparinga, he says its “name comes from the indigenous people of the area, and means ‘local region’.” Onkaparinga is in fact a European mis-spelling of the Kaurna ponkepurringa, which means, very specifically “women’s camp on the river”. In place of listening to the women, Roman bravely preaches terroir.
I live in the midst of the vineyards from which Roman buys his fruit. It’s easy to find this stuff out. Prices, owners, nomenclature. I walk over and ask a neighbour or two. The last time I saw him was five years ago, at an Adelaide restaurant. Gary Steel, who sold pallets of Bordeaux and Burgundy to Roman, and happily distributed his wine, back when Robert Parker still had sway in constantly issuing Clarendon Hills high nineties, asked me to attend in order to make peace with his favourite Adelaide son. I was descending a staircase when the giant Steel arrived: he picked me up for a hug, and fell on me. My already cactus spine became a sockful of smashed windscreen glass. I cowered over a walking frame for months, and have never fully recovered.
So you may regard this writing as responsive. Let me assure you it is: on that conciliatory night, Roman told me I did not understand the great wines of France, and therefore could not begin to comprehend his.
Andrew’s second piece in the May Decanter concerns Tim Kirk, the former Roman Catholic priest who makes exquisite wines at Clonakilla, near Canberra. In this, he agrees with my belief that humans are an essential part of terroir, although I wouldn’t stretch quite so far in my God-bothering as Tim. I’m sure it’s another co-incidence that Andrew’s principal sponsor, Brian, was nicknamed God by his workers at Petaluma. As both of us are preacher’s kids, I share a deep understanding of the power of God with Andrew.
Then he quotes Doug Neal, another brave from Geelong. Andrew was probably unaware that Doug’s suggestion that the winemaking taught in Australian institutes which “promotes fear … it tells you that nature is the enemy”, is precisely the sort of dry technical science that Brian introduced and dug into both winemaking universities. Students have been brutally taught for decades that science over-rules terroir. There was one interminable WineResearch Institute experiment that lasted years and absorbed lots of seminal terroir budget: it was designed to prove there was no difference in flavour between Coonwarra Cabernet grown on the precious terra rossa and that grown on the mucky black dirt that surrounded it.
In decrying this philosophy, Doug is very very brave. Maybe Andrew should have put Doug in his Ten Bravest list, and mentioned Brian in his piece on God.
What he failed to add was Doug’s suggestion that a vital part of Australian terroir is its old alkaline terroir, which tends to make acid additions necessary, as opposed to France, where the lack of warm sunshine makes sugar additions necessary.
“Why is he so adamant that we fight against our terroir by adding acid?” Doug asked me yesterday. “Is it any different to the great Frenchmen adding sugar?”
So there. Doug and Andrew, and perhaps even Brian, would agree with my longstanding theory that natural acidity, if it can be achieved, will always trounce shoveled acid as far as beautiful balanced wine goes.
But then we must also admit that in many Australian wines, the most prominent aspect of their aroma and flavour comes from the terroir of an oak forest somewhere in Europe or America - the Old World. Which, after all, is where the vines came from. And Andrew.
Even Brian John Croser is an introduced species.
So let’s be reasonable, eh?
I look forward to Andrew’s book.
JOHN LIVINGSTONE-LEARMONTH HAS A GRENACHE IN McLAREN VALE
On matters of terroir, the same issue of Decanter contains a piece titled “Rhone Flair, Aussie Finesse”, by the erudite and passionate Rhone terroir expert, John Livingstone-Learmonth. He came here to McLaren Vale as the star guest international judge at last year’s wine show. As I had only a brief moment with him to summarise this district’s confoundingly complex geology, it is easy to imagine his prolific notes misquoting me.
This involved a classic example of truly dumb colonial hamfistedness. Because I had been studying the geology of McLaren Vale for years, the winemakers budgeted to cover a twenty-minute helicopter tour of the Vales, so I could introduce their guest to this district unknown to him by pointing out the basic tenets of its geological history from above. Wise! But at the last minute the local PR blomo told me I could not take the ride, as the seat was now going to a writer from a glossy magazine, whose coverage would be rated more highly by the winemakers who paid for the chopper. The fact that he knew nothing of the local geology was neither here nor there.
In the end, of course, John and Decanter got it badly wrong, and credited me with stuff I did not say. Nothing new in this. Andrew Jefford gets McLaren Vale geological history wrong, too, in his accompanying piece The Land Down Under. But not nearly as wrong as David Sly, the bloke who took my guiding chair in the chopper.
“The hills of Willunga, near the fault line”, Livingston-Learmoth writes, “are said by South Australian wine writer and geologist Philip White to have some of the region’s most promising sites. ‘The vineyard area is moving toward the Willunga Hills, which are more than 1,000 billion years old …’.”
This means those old hills were there 986.3 billion years before the universe appeared, which is a claim not even I would be brave enough to make. Their various formations stretch from 520 million years to 1.6 billion years of age.
Furthermore, while I have a background in geology and the mining business, I am not a qualified geologist. I have, however, been delighted to help convene the creation of the official geological map of the McLaren Vale Wine Region, which will be published next week.
In the mid ’seventies, when I worked in the South Australian Geological Survey in the Department of Mines, we would ponder, the great W. A. “Bill” Fairburn and me, about producing geological maps of South Australia’s wine regions. With the passage of time, I went off to pursue a career writing TV news, while Bill quietly got on with his geological work, part of which was his mapping of the McLaren Vale district.
It was a great pleasure some years ago to re-engage Bill, and two other revered geologists who worked on the same floor of the Mines Department all those years ago: Jeff Olliver and Wolfgang Preiss.
The four of us have now completed Bill’s map, certainly the first of its kind in Australia, and perhaps the world: it is much finer in detail, for example, than the Charles Pomerol’s essential book The Wines And Winelands Of France – Geological Journeys. The McLaren Vale map shows the complex geology of the district with exacting precision, indicating the location of each winery, overlaid with the vineyards and roads.
Published by the Department of Primary Industries and Resources South Australia, which now contains the Geological Survey, this publication, Geology Of The McLaren Vale Wine Region, will be available from PIRSA and the wineries of McLaren Vale next week.
If you want to learn about the terroir of South Australia, consult publications like this, not Decanter.