They Just Had To Do Something
So. Eventually, finally, the French capitulate. They’ve just permitted their winemakers to begin using sawdust, chips, shavings, and planks in place of expensive, carefully toasted barrels from carefully selected trees taken from brilliantly managed forests. They’ve been sick with envy of the Australian industrialists who invented this short-cut carpentry to hack away at the bottom of their traditional market.
The new method means French coopers, too, can make good money from the sawdust they'd normally sweep into a bin.
Since the Roman invaders first reported the beautifully hand-hewn barrels Celtic boat-builders had introduced to France, barrels have been the go in the Old World. Now, with the equivalent of food grade particle board submerged in their tanks, they reckon they’ll regain lost ground.
This surreal news broke on Radio Nash as I was purging some old desk files. One jumped at me: Time magazine, February 18, 1980, with French gastronomes Henri Gault and Christian Millau on the front cover. Suddenly famous for their routing of France’s ancien regime of food traditionalists, these bright, radical publishers were the herald angels of the nouvelle cuisine movement.
In the most influential editorial mention to date of an Australian wine in Time, Gault and Millau included Tyrrell’s Hunter Valley Pinot Noir in their Drinkers’ Dozen. It sat there beside the megabuck Chateux: Petrus, Lafite-Rothschild, Mouton-Rothschild, Haut-Brion, and d’Yquem, with a few top Burgundies, one Spanish red and a Californian Cabernet.
The only other reference to liquor was a two-page ad for Seaview. “All wine should be this good”, it trumpeted, boasting of 215 medals in the previous seven years. We were then entering the era of big-time sappy American oak, without which it was nearly impossible to win show gongs. Most drinkers quite reasonably felt the best wines were those plastered with medals.
We’d just had a series of feasts in Adelaide, importing freshly converted practitioners of this new cuisine lite to cook it for us: Gay and Tony Bilson of the mighty Berowra Waters Inn, Stephanie Alexander (Stephanie’s), and Damien and Josephine Pignolet (Claude’s). Tetsuya was yet to cook his first hamburger in Tony Bilson’s subsequent Kinselas; the great Cheong slaved away, largely overlooked, in Neddy’s. His own world-changing east-west fusion was on the way, but remained overshadowed by the French revolution.
So while we drank many Australian wines smothered in American Quercus alba oak at those dinners, the French glories Gault and Millau listed showed barely a splinter. And neither did the Tyrrell’s Pinot noir, which was always soft, from big old barrels, while dense and richly fruity, like a traditional Burgundy.
Among the list of “commandments” Gault and Millau imposed as indicators of cuisine nouvelle were recommendations of reduced cooking times for many types of meat, fish and vegetables, and “the elimination of heavy sauces that assassinated the taste of good food and masked that of bad”.
Australia’s wine manufacturers were never much for gastronomy. Unwitting or misunderstanding of these new enlightenments, they went on to establish their cheap, reliable product internationally by masking much of its fruit with oak chips, shavings, or essences.
This was a giant remove from the traditional wine barrel, that simple stable container which permitted gradual oxidation and gentle seasoning rather than adding the brash sap, toast, caramel or coconut flavours that came from roasted chips.
Since that, Australia’s gone for ever-increasing levels of alcohol, as if to preserve forever that stroppy sawdust. And now, a quarter of a century after we discovered their clean new cuisine, the French, from whom we also copied our original pre-refinery wine styles, are copying our vinous breach of the old Gault Millau laws about simple honest elegance.
THE TRADITIONAL COQ AU VIN, COOKED IN SHIRAZ OR PINOT BARREL LEES, IS HARDLY NOUVELLE CUISINE ... BUT IT CAN HANDLE QUITE WOODY SHIRAZ IF THE WINE HAS BEEN PROPERLY AGED photo PHILIP WHITE
If you’re hissing “Hypocrite!”, knowing I sometimes recommend fairly alcoholic wines, and, to a lesser extent, wines with a lot of oak, I confess to be right now working my way through a sinister broth of Spanish onion, woodsmoked bacon, porcini, ginger, lentils, garlic and pinot noir. It’s taken four days to decay sufficiently on my stove. 1980s Gault and Millau would call this more of a dark provincial sewer than a dish. It is NOT cuisine nouvelle. And I drink with it, the austerely oaky Rockbare McLaren Vale Shiraz 2004, and in contrast, the juicily fruity Five Geese McLaren Vale Shiraz 2003. Swoon.
It’s about balance, see. I suppose the French should permit themselves the chance to balance their bottom rung grapes with some sawdust, just as our industrialists have done for decades, and the Greeks do with retsina loaded with pine essence.
But is this sawdust trail the simple, smart equivalent of Gault and Millau’s recommended “reduced cooking time”, or the vinous version of those heavy sauces that assassinated the other flavours? Will we see Le Blue Gum Pulp Smoked Big Mac served all dahn the Champs, for chomping with a Chateau Masonite Midi Mourvedre? Ah, oui. You enjoy some Aussie balance in there, eh Monsieur?
Not convinced, mon cobber.
OAK PRODUCTS FOR FLAVOURING WINE FROM THE REVERED BAROSSA COOPER, A. P. JOHN ... IN THE EIGHTIES, I COULD PICK BAROSSA SHIRAZ BY ITS 'BAROSSA CHOCOLATE' WHICH EVENTUALLY TURNED OUT TO BE THE FLAVOUR OF TOASTED OAK FROM A. P. JOHN ... MOST WOLF BLASS RED, AND PENFOLD'S GRANGE AND BIN 707, TOOK THEIR BARRELS FROM THIS MASTER COOPER photo A. P. JOHN WEBSITE