“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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17 February 2011

BRIAN BARRY DOES 84 LAPS OF THE SUN

84 YEARS OLD AND STILL ROCKIN IN THE SENSORY SECTOR: GREAT WINESMITH AND RIESLING KING BRIAN BARRY OAM AND THE AUTHOR

Best Nose In The Aussie Business
Brian Barry Opens Some Classics
Vintage Can Begin With Impunity

by PHILIP WHITE

Regular readers may recall that in most years, vintage doesn’t happen until Brian Barry’s had his birthday. He’s had eighty-four of them now – birthdays, that is – and after working sixty four or five vintages seems content to let his son Judson attend to the annual matters of vinification.

I am on the record, suggesting over and over through the last decades, that Brian Barry’s nose is the most sensitive and refined sensory organ in the Australian wine industry. Max Lake was good; Brian is unsurpassed.

This year’s celebration was a quiet affair at The Kensington, which is one of the most coolly civilised pubs on the plain.

The great nose was in fine fettle, and Brian had brought two important wines which had caught my attention upon their release. The great man punctuated the ooohs and aaahs these mighty tinctures triggered with typically dry reflections on notable moments in his long, remarkable life.

When you’re with Brian, history gets shorter. It pulls closer to now.

Like when he reflects on his time working with Hurtle Walker at Samuel Wynn’s Romalo Cellars at Magill.

Hurtle was trained by Edmund Mazure (right), a Burgundian winemaker who’d worked at Clos Vougeot and then in Spain before hitting the high seas for a taste of adventure which led him to to New Ireland, where his open boat was shipwrecked. He made it to New Britain, where he became a trader but nearly died of fever. He got south to Sydney Town, where, whilst awaiting a home-bound vessel, noticed a newspaper advertisement placed by Sir Samuel Davenport (below right) of Adelaide. Davenport sought a winemaker; Mazure got the job. Within a few years he’d made Australia’s first commercial sparkling red at Magill, after the style then made in Burgundy, and the legendary St George’s Kanmantoo Claret which won the top gold at the 1889 Paris international exposition held to coincide with the opening of the Eiffel Tower.

Mazure trained Hurtle Walker; Hurtle’s son was the formidable Norm, who worked on the first commercial wines to undergo deliberately-induced and managed malo-lactic fermentation with Ian Hickinbotham and David Wynn at Coonawarra in the early ’fifties; Norm’s son is the fizzmaster Nick Walker, partner in O’Leary-Walker of Clare.

And there’s Brian in the middle of it.

“Ah, the French,” he sighed. “I worked there with Maurice Ou, from Montpelier. He was a good winemaker. He always did what the boss suggested. And he had a very beautiful wife …”

Speaking of chaps with an eye – or a nose – for extremely beautiful women, Brian recalled narrowly avoiding being run over by Max Schubert, a man who drove furiously.

“Whoosh!” he said, “I was on my to work at Magill and there I was standing in a cloud of dust. I asked who that was, and they said it was Max. He was always late for work. He was away up there then, a big man, but I got to know him as the years went by. He was a great bloke.”

Brian then went on to work for the Hamilton family, at their winery at Glenelg, where vines were first planted around 1840.

“I worked a lot on distillation at Hamiltons … Making all sorts. Gin. I even made whisky. I won them the first gold medal they ever got for a whisky”, he says. “But I couldn’t care less about whisky.”

He poured his Jud’s Hill Clare Riesling 2005. The table fell very quiet. The aroma provoked a fountain of ideas, reflections of real lemon tart, brioche, sabayon, beurre blanc … and then the flavour: smooth, creamy, slick, fresh, coolly authoritative and firm … winding out into a long grainy finish. A magnificent triumph of gastronomy.

“Best grape on Earth, Riesling,” he said.

There were other whites, including a magnum of 04 Jud’s Hill Riesling, sadly spoiled by its cork. Then he produced another magnum.

“You were the first to realize this wine’s potential,” he said, “so we’d better have this one.”

It was the Jud’s Hill Clare Merlot 1998. Merlot seems an unlikely grape to grow in Clare. There have been some magnificent failures with it, like when Vic Patrick, of Mildara-Blass, ripped out the original Buring & Sobels Semillon, perhaps the best old vineyard of this grape in Australia, to plant the trendy new popstar Merlot around Quelltaler.

Merlot is a freak of a grape: it likes slightly wet feet. Not still, stagnant water, but a clean gentle movement, deep down about its roots. Perhaps the best of the new wavers is the Romney Park, which Hahndorf winemaker Rod Short makes from a vineyard on the banks of the Onkaparinga, and sells for a price so low it diminishes that lovely wine’s stature. Another beauty is from the cool damp alluvium of the King Valley in north-eastern Victoria, where Trevor Knaggs (below) makes his ravishing King River Estate on the banks of that alpine stream.

But while the deep chalky calcrete of Quelltaler was hardly ideal, the clayey patch Brian chose for Merlot at the sodden foot of his Jud’s Hill was just perfect.

“Best Australian Merlot nose I’ve had”, muttered Brian’s nephew, Peter, M-D of Jim Barry wines since the death of his father. Peter now owns the Jud’s Hill vineyard, but he’s pulled that Merlot out. The vineyard never yielded much tonnage, and the subterranean water that came down the hill to feed those roots dried out when upstream vignerons built dams.

Brian and Jud bottled eight magnums from that vintage. There are four left, which makes them priceless treasures: Jud plans to eventually release them for sale. Upon its release in 750 ml bottles, the wine cleaned up the Merlot class two years running in my Top 100.

Contrary to popular misconception, Merlot is not meant to be mellow. It can be silky, provided its tannins are, in turn, velvety, and it can be deceptively creamy, harmonious and full, provided it is still complex with its classical aromas of moss, ferny earth, and the sorts of wholesome whiffs you’d expect from those happy, moist roots. This one was all these things, with the umami aromas of shiitake, enoki and oyster mushrooms. It displayed just the right hint of reduced, caramelising spinach, and the prettiest whiff of eucalypty mint. And yet, with all those evocative components, it remains sublimely elegant, smooth and regal. Put very simply, Pomerol with a whiff of Australia.

After a rocky decade financially, Brian and Judson show a new confidence. They’ve worked their way out of a major debt, and have bold plans for a new future. Judson is developing a palate which reflects his father’s teaching and genetics, and Brian shows no sign of losing interest in anything.

I’m sure the 2012 birthday lunch will be even more exciting. Now, on with vintage!

MEGABULK WINE BARGAINS STILL THERE

SINCE MOST BIG AUSTRALIAN WINERIES BEGAN TO LOOK LIKE OIL REFINERIES, THE OCEANS OF BOTTOM-RUNG PLONK THEY PRODUCE HAS BALLOONED TO THE POINT AT WHICH PROFIT BECOMES A RARITY. THAT'S AN OIL ONE ABOVE.

Ozwine's Sickening Slump
Big refineries Dump Bulk
Even Premiums Hit Bottom

by PHILIP WHITE

As the gross tonnage of viable wine grape expected from Australia’s disastrous 2011 vintage continues to shrink, DRINKSTER felt it might be worth taking a look at the current prices of plonk that lies about the country in tanks.

Connoisseurs impressed by today’s Coles 1st Choice promo of Special Reserve labeled and bottled wine at AU$1.89 for 750 ml. might care to study the real prices of Australian wine.

Scouring the current 16,000,000 litres of wine in the current catalogue of Bulk Wine Supplies - just one of Australia’s many bulk dealers - reveals some absolute bargains.

Just as long as you never mention the quality.

On price alone, in Aussie dollars, 2008 Barossa Chardonnay starts at $1 per litre; 2010 is $0.70. 2009 Murray Darling Chardonnay is $0.80. 2010 Wrattonbully Chardonnay is $1.00.

All these prices are wholesale, for one litre.

2008 Clare Valley Riesling is $0.80; 2009 Adelaide Hills Riesling $1.00.

While New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc is in gross oversupply, you might consider a little undercutting: 2010 South-east Australia Sauvignon Blanc is $0.95 if you buy it by the tanker load; Semillon from the same vintage and region, $0.90.

Moving into the exotics, 2009 Clare Valley Classic Dry White is $1.00. 2007 McLaren Vale Gewurztraminer is $1.00, and 2007 Riverland Verdelho $0.35.

In the premium red division, super-premium 2008 Adelaide Hills Pinot Noir is $0.70.

2009 South-east Australia Cabernet sauvignon starts at $1.00; Shiraz from the same region and year is $0.95, 2010 Shiraz is $0.90.

2010 McLaren Vale Classic Dry Red - guaranteed to contain no white wine at all - is $0.90.

2009 Murray-Darling Merlot is $0.95.

While some of these prices apply to relatively small lots – there’s only 2,000 litres of the Hills Pinot, for example – many are in large volumes. You can negotiate below $0.88 for 900,000 litres of 2010 South-east Australia Chardonnay.

The $0.90 white-free McLaren Vale Classic Dry Red is a 500,000 litre lot; some wines are in million litre volumes.

Moving up the price scale a little, we can get the gist of what so-called premium regions really produce.

Bacchus only knows which genius conducted the blending, but Langhorne Creek Viognier/Semillon/Verdelho starts at $1.75; Pinot gris/Viognier is $1.20.

2010 Clare Valley Riesling is $1.75.

In comparison, 2010 Margaret River Semillon/Sauvignon blanc is dreadfully expensive at $2.80.

You can buy 90,000 litres of “Super Premium Quality” 2008 Coonawarra Cabernet sauvignon for $5.00. 2010 Langhorne Creek Cabernet sauvignon is $2.30; McLaren Vale Cabernet sauvignon is $2.60; 2009 Barossa Cabernet sauvignon is $3.65.

Merlot from the highly-regarded Limestone Coast is $2.65 for 2009 Mount Benson; $1.45 for 2010 Coonawarra if you buy it by the tanker load.

Shiraz from Coonawarra? Try 2008 at $1.45 by the tanker load. 2008 Mt Benson is $2.20, same vintage Barossa $3.55, McLaren Vale $3.50; 2010 Vales starts at $1.25.

The invaluable Wine Industry Directory lists eleven of these bulk wine dealers and brokerages, which between them offer bulk wines like those listed above from Australia and offshore, but also concentrates, fresh grapes, juices, market analysis, evaluation services, processing and storage.

“We can sell your excess stock quietly without damaging your brand”, promises one. “We are not brokers – we will purchase the wine directly from you.”

At the moment, it seems, if you’re a grower or maker, you can buy anything you like in the Australian wine business, except profit.

Leave the profit-taking to Coles, Woolworths, your friendly bulk dealer, and the sorts of exporters who fill 24,000 litre bags inside shipping containers to be pumped out and bottled at the other end of the Earth.

15 February 2011

INSULTS FROM THE ARCHIVE - CHAMPAGNE

THE NULLARBOR PLAIN: ONE QUARTER THE SIZE OF FRANCE. A LOT MORE CHAMPAGNE THAN CHAMPAGNE? NOTE THE UNIQUE 70 MILLION YEAR OLD PALEOGENOUS CHALK!

Fizzhags Do Big Dummy Spit
Frogs Take Their Words
Back
Methode Tasmanoise Please

by PHILIP WHITE - from the archive: dusted off and updated

Time’s up. After many years of talking about it, us Ockers are officially no longer allowed to use the word champagne for anything that’s not, well Champagne.

Put simply, the Champenoise have taken their name back.

Boo hoo.

India, Australia, South Africa, the USA ... soon it’ll all be just fizz, bubbles, sparkling, sparks, shampoo, poo, suds. Sophisticate it artfully, and it becomes bucks’ fizz.

Just how our politicians, diplomats, wine mandarins, backbiters and syndicators let this happen beats me: they just rolled over and took the boot on our behalf, and said there’d be no Australian export boom unless we conformed.

Funny, really. Champagne quite literally means an expanse of level, open country, which makes the Champenoise look a bit dumb when you realise that smack in the middle of their joint there’s a bloody big lump called the Montagne de Reims.

Confounding mob, the French. One minute they round up a posse of European Union lawyers, bureaucrats, trade fuzz and politicians to mount a serious campaign (see: campaign: there it is again) to control the language of Australia. Then the French winemakers of Australia, like Pernod Ricard Jacob’s Creek, or Domain Chandon, owned by Louis Vuitton Möet Hennessey, began plastering their bottles with words like cuvée, methodé traditionelle and brut.

Dominique Portet even began calling his Shiraz Syrah.

After William The Conqueror (left) hung the English king’s crown in a hawthorn bush at Hastings, the court and government of England spoke Anglo-Norman French for three centuries. If you were serious about removing the French from English, you’d probably leave us with about 60% of the language. I’m sure Australian ingenuity and our disrespectful creativity in the patois division would quickly fill the hole, but not many other races, including other speakers of English, would be likely to understand us.

At a mere 125,000 square kilometres, our Nullarbor Plain’s a lot more champagne than Champagne, which is only 25,606 km², and our yet unplanted plain is nowhere near so monocultural in its biomass as the big fizz district. Must drive ’em nuts. The Nullarbor’s Cretaceous chalks were deposited at about the same time as Champagne’s – over 70 million years back – but we’ve quite a lot more of it than the Frogs.

In fact, if Nicholas Baudin’s revolutionary lot had actually settled this joint instead of heading home to whinge to Napoleon about their scurvy, they would have called South Australia Champagne.

BUST OF BAUDIN AT ALBANY, ON THE SOUTH-WESTERN COASTAL EXTREME OF THE NULLARBOR PLAIN

Baudin’s maps list the location of the Ford family’s delicious Boston Bay winery at Port Lincoln as the Côtes Champagny. The bay was Port Champagny, he called Boston Island l’Isle de la Grange, and Spencer’s Gulf Golfe Bonaparte.

So Fordy would be well within his rights to release a wine called Port Champagny Côtes Champagny La Grange Golfe Bonaparte Cuvée Brut Methodé Traditionelle Syrah, which would give even the Portuguese the shits on account of them taking port back too. He could use Baudin's map, complete with Napoleon's signature, as his label. I dream of the launch at Willy’s Wine Bar, there in the Rue Des Petits Champs – champs, see? - behind the Paris biblioteque where Baudin’s maps reside.

The librarians would drink a pallet a week.

Not to mention Campania, which happens to be in Italy. That’s quite lumpy, too, come to think of it.

There was a tantalising moment in 1992, when my cobber Francois Henri, who was then the chairman of the Remy Martin champagne group, Krug/Piper-Hiedsieck/Charles Hiedsieck, toyed with my suggestion that he should remove the word champagne from the Krug label. He wanted desperately to hike the image of Krug well and truly beyond its pretender, Dom Perignon. Get it done once and for all.

“Krug is Krug, isn’t it?”, I pestered him. “It’s not just the King of Champagne – it’s beyond Champagne.”

We giggled through a three day research tour in Paris, savouring that notion. Getting well and truly Krugged.

Dear Francois is dead now, and I never got to ask him just how far this devilish idea got. But years later, it was a delight to watch Louis Vuitton Möet Hennessey, upon their purchase of the Krug business, work out how to admit that in its Babel Tower of brands, Krug would have to slot in above Dom, but that’s another thing.

The French, Spanish and the rest of the EU should be delighted that we adopted their terms: it was a much simpler and universal wine language than what we’d struggled to invent ourselves.

Australia had a grape called French Colombard, which Joe Grilli made famous by calling it Primo Estate Colombard. Walter Clappis wanted one too, so he reverted to the original name, French Colombard, which the French immediately said was passing off. I suggested he call it French Calembour, as in pissing off the French, but Walter sold his business to Mildara Blass and the idea went the same way as the Champagne-free Krug.

Pity. I was licking my lips to get into court. Early vignerons had only called the grape French to acknowledge the country which kindly supplied the first cuttings. It wasn’t Colombard from Spain, or South Africa. It’s like Shiraz, which Australians called Hermitage for 150 years out of respect of the French hill from whence their cuttings came. They were not passing off. Nobody in Penfolds ever suggested that Grange Hermitage was a French drink.

As if in a perfect blonde moment, Joe’s cracker Colombard suddenly became La Biondina, which has thus far failed to get a rise from Berlusconi or his whorish mob.

When I started in this racket, the Hunter Valley grew lots of a grape called Semillon, which they variously called Hunter Riesling, Hunter River Riesling, Shepard’s Riesling, just plain Riesling, or, if it had some Muscat in it, Traminer Riesling. In the Barossa the same grape was called Clare Riesling in the early 1900s, while in Clare they called the Crouchen grape Clare Riesling until well into the 1980s. Their own true Riesling was called Rhine Riesling.

To make things really clear for the punter, one company, Lindemans, always ran three Semillons. If it had heaps of sulphur, it was called Riesling. The one with the medium dose of sulphur was Chablis. The one with the least doseage was, you guessed it! Burgundy!

THE IRASCABLE MURRAY TYRRELL, LEFT, NOT LISTENING TO FORMER PRIME MINSTER MALCOM FRASER, AT THE LAST BOTTLE CLUB DINNER, 1984

I stood astonished once at Tyrrell’s cellar sales, watching that old rogue Murray Tyrrell tell customers “Yes, our old Hunter reds start out like beautiful Bordeaux clarets and end up like great old Burgundies.”

Magic.

In another stroke of sheer genius, Murray called his Chardonnay Pinot Chardonnay.

With Murray, anything was possible.

The Frogs have taken claret back, too, which is a bit rich, considering that word was a London wine merchant’s patois abbreviation of the old French clairette, meaning rosé. To celebrate the banning of our use of claret – which becomes law on September 1st 2011 - the bloodthirsty wine bats of Penfolds have blended a beauty, which is in magnums and wrapped in a handsome art deco label. And it ain’t friggin rosé. It’s claret, see.

It’ll become one of Australia’s most collectible collectibles.

Then, take port. That was abbreviated cockney slang for Oporto, so how the Portuguese can claim that as their own beats me. Let alone tawny, which is also now verboten, despite the little matter of our native flying gadget we call the Tawny Frogmouth owl (below), which is, in fact, not an owl at all, although it’s often misnamed mopoke or morepork, which sounds like a bit of a hoot, but is actually the call of the Southern Boobook Owl, which is a real owl and a raptor and a different bird altogether.

The Tawny Frogmouth’s family, the Podargidae, have been continual inhabitants of Earth since the Eocene, 56 million years ago. And they’re tawny, so how the hell somebody can prohibit our use of that name for a fortified wine should be delighted if we call it Frogmouth Fort.

But back to our true masters of gobbledygook in the Hunter. In 1983 I interviewed a famous winemaker there called Mark Cashmore, who threatened to sue my alter ego Sidney Tidemouth MW for calling him Mark Morecash. After Robert Joseph stole Tidemouth’s cartouche for his own Hong Kong dinkus Tidemouth retired hurt before he could apply the word mawkish to Crashmore, leaving Bobby-Jo to get off lightly.

I knew things would never be the same in the wine business when I learned that young Cashmost was addicted to those disco aerobics classes that infested white Australia in that nefarious epoch. But what nobody saw coming was his release of a great wine called Richmond Grove White Bordeaux. This was to complement his Richmond Grove Chablis, Richmond Grove White Burgundy, and Richmond Grove French Cask Chardonnay.

This white Bordeaux was made from Semillon, Sauvignon blanc, and French Colombard, names Cashmore insisted “the consumer would never remember, for God’s sake!”

This wine won invaluable publicity when the French government took him to court. He tricked them by then changing it to Hunter Valley White Bordeaux, just to make everything clear.

When I asked him why he’d changed the name of his Richmond Grove blend of Chardonnay and Semillon from Richmond Grove Pinot Riesling to Richmond Grove Semillon Chardonnay he clarified the issue thus:

“Pinot Riesling doesn’t mean very much at all. Chardonnay’s not Pinot Chardonnay and I don’t think Riesling in the context of Pinot Riesling means very much. I mean Riesling is Semillon and Pinot is Chardonnay, and we have more Semillon in the wine than Chardonnay, so it should be Semillon Chardonnay.”

I know we don’t like having it forced on us like this, but it’s a good thing that Australia, and now France, has finally followed Mr. Cashmore’s brilliant clarification and both countries now tend to use the real names of the grapes in the bottle. While the French will no doubt continue with scams like the pearler they bunged on poor old Constellation and The Gallo Brothers, flogging em a Shiraz Merlot mix in the name of Pinot noir, they’ll no longer be permitted to release Barossa Syrah, and even Portuguese bathers will now do the freestyle in place of the great Australian crawl.

I think I’ll have a glass of champagne.

Tasmanian champagne, please.

10 February 2011

SOPHISTS LOSE OUT IN SPIN DRIFT BIFFO

Cicero denuncia Catalina, Cesare Maccari, 1888

Millions Wasted On PR Bullshit
Winers Shoulda Told The Truth
Vanya Cullen Shows Us Future
by PHILIP WHITE


“They are like nude figures, upright and beautiful, stripped of all ornament of style as if they had removed a garment. His aim was to provide source material for others who might wish to write history, and perhaps he has gratified the insensitive, who may wish to use their curling-tongs on his work; but men of good sense he has deterred from writing.”

So wrote Cicero sometime around 46BC. He was reviewing the crisp historical writings of Julius Caesar. This is the earliest reference to spin I am aware of. As spin-bowling cricketers and clever tweaking baseball pitchers were still a long way off, and Becks was not even a strand of DNA, the critic’s chosen metaphor for the spin-doctors was hair-curlers.

For over thirty years it has seemed the major role of the wine critic has been the reading of endless droll press releases about how wonderful things are in the wine industry: how great each vintage is, and why one wine is more outstanding than any other.

Most of this stuff, like about 90% of it, has been abject nonsense, written by public relations sophists in city offices, far from the reality of the vintage, the vineyard, or the winery.

Quite a lot of it would have been enhanced if somebody had got to it with hair-curlers.

When some dill invented the fax machine, all hell broke loose. A respected freelancer could spend half his income paying for rolls of heat-sensitive paper for the damned things, which would spew out hundreds of metres of crap while one was out in the field. And out there at the front of the PR backrooms, there were idiots who wouldn't just send you anything, they'd send you everything.

One enthusiastic flak was famous for photocopying one's own published work, high-lighting pertinent bits with yellow flouro, and posting one that copy by snail just to ensure one didn't miss the bit he'd underlined and faxed.

I used to laugh and cry a lot with the late Mark Shield, the legendary wine critic in the Melbourne Age, about press releases. In the early nineties, there were only about a third of 2,500 wineries we now have in Australia, but we often wondered just how many terrible writers were engaged by the business, purely to convince us that we could never be trusted to decide anything for ourselves.

We had a plan to offer to write the press releases, corner the lucrative racket by undercutting the bastards, take the money, and copy our favourite works out into the pages of the newspapers which paid us a pittance compared to the fees the professional propagandists charged.

We would have been well in front financially, the spin would have been more artful, and we could have saved the wine industry millions.

We would also have enjoyed stacking the bumpf with double entendres the winemakers would have been far too dumb to pick.

That aside, I often thought that Mark’s death was partly due to the horrid depression he suffered, triggered by the sickening industrialization of the wine business he had loved. As the vast monocultural grapeyards spread, spoiling land and wasting water, we both knew the quality of the wine was standardizing to a sickening, dull level.

I recall standing in a vineyard with Leo Pech, for many years the spokesman of the grapegrowers of the Barossa. His vineyard looked immaculate to the untrained eye: thousands of tall trellised vines in disciplined rows like a Nuremberg rally, with not a blade of any other vegetation. Leo was very boastful of his achievement.

“But”, I suggested, “I can’t help judging the quality of a vineyard by the quality of its ground. When I look at a vineyard, I imagine how the field would look if the vines suddenly disappeared. If it instantly becomes naked, dead ground, completely devoid of organisms of any sort, then surely the fruit will reflect that flavour, and the flavours of all the poisons used to keep it dead.”

Leo was naturally derisive. Things got a lot worse.

And they have changed dramatically in the shrinking world of newspapers. Where wine columns were commonly around 1200 words, the space now available to wine critics is half that: too small to hold the fluff contained in the average press release.

Appropriate to its appellation, Wednesday’s Advertiser ran five full pages of lucrative advertisements for discount liquor in exchange for one page of writing. This was largely devoid of anything vaguely resembling criticism, but mainly direct promotion for one wine or another.

The blogosphere makes all this look really silly: there’s a list of thousands of wine blogs on Vinography, most of which simply say anything they like about whatever they like. They are certainly not short on derision when it comes to any wine that falls short.

They are largely devoid of advertising, and show no sign of being influenced by press releases from professional propagandists.

Times have changed.

And they’re changing dramatically in the vineyards, too.

Yesterday, in response to my Facebook request, Vanya Cullen (right), the pioneering biodynamicist vigneron of Cullen’s Wines, in Margaret River, Western Australia, showed us how it’s now done.

“We harvested the first small batch of chardonnay on 1st February” she responded immediately. “[This was a] fruit and root day, and now with the Moon opposite Saturn (9th February) we are bringing in some more. The fruit looks fantastic ... insects, ladybirds, spiders, crickets, earwigs, garden weevil, dragon fly, are everywhere ... tastes of lime, pear, honey and zinging acidity and only 12.5 beaumé ... so much liveliness ... Great crew of people working harvest … on to more tomorrow.

“It is interesting that the flavours and balance is coming in at lower sugars and also this is a good thing as the birds are literally dive-bombing the nets and we are praying for the Marri blossom to come on so they go back to their natural food.”

You can forget the standard cynicism about biodynamics, because Vanya consistently makes some of Australia’s most outstanding wine.

“Wine is a living thing”, she said on another post. "Wine is alive and no bottle of wine is the same as the one that comes before it; the soil is always changing and so are the grapes. We try to maintain the consistency but every bottle feels anew."

Give me Vanya’s curlers any day. And her wine. I lick my lips in anticipation. Mark Shield, lying back there in his pine overcoat, Shit Happens t-shirt and mirror shades, would absolutely love it!

Which brings me back to old Cicero, who seemed to summarise this situation with uncanny precision:

“Times are bad,” he wrote. “Children no longer obey their parents and everyone is writing a book.”

VANYA CULLEN AND A GOOD BUDDY TAKE A GAZE AT THE INDIAN OCEAN, JUST A KAY OR TWO FROM THE BEAUTIFUL BIODYNAMIC CULLEN VINEYARDS AT MARGARET RIVER

06 February 2011

PAUL HOLLOWAY HANGS UP HIS TROWEL

Planning & Devt. Minister Quits
Big Head Rolls In Vignobles War
But The Battle's Only Half Fought

by PHILIP WHITE

To resounding cheers from wine-loving conservationists and conservatives alike, Hon Paul Holloway MLC (above) has hung up his trowel.

DRINKSTER has spent more time battling this character than any other. He was Minister for Mineral Resources Development, Minister for Urban Development and Planning, Minister for Industrial Relations, and Minister Assisting the Premier in Public Sector Management.

He was the fluffiest of the macho pro-development gang that surrounds Labor Premier Mike Rann (right). While even his detractors in the Labor Party acknowledge that he’s a good bloke who tried to do the right thing, it’s obvious the staff his hard right colleagues packed around him have done nothing to cover him while they crawl obsequiously up the bums of developers and miners.

This government is plagued by the sorts of Laborites who fall prey to the strange belief that they are as good at the business of doing business as the businessmen they are merely supposed to govern. If they were any good at business, you’d think they’d be out making their own money. DRINKSTER wishes to Bacchus that they would at least give that a try. But while they love the smell of other people’s money, they strut about like bantam roosters, oblivious to the fact that the entire state budget of South Australia, the driest state in the driest continent on Earth, is smaller than the Brisbane City Council’s.

That budget must be spread over 983,482 square kilometers and a total population of 1.6 million. Texas, in comparison, is only 696,200 square kilometers and has 25 million people.

In spite of this sad dust-and-tumbleweeds reality, and whatever his personal opinions were, Holloway projected a public determination to splatter ghettoes on the tiny bits of the very best farming land: the only bits with significant history, good rainfall, clean soil, unique geology and attractive locations.

Before the last election, he promised a halt to housing developments in the vignobles.

“Because they’re wine regions, also significant tourism regions, it would not make sense to have urban encroachment to a significant extent into those areas,” he said. “So we’ll avoid those areas and the areas that we’ll be looking at for future expansion are those areas where there’ll be less impact on the important tourism and economic areas ... why would you want to encroach on areas that are important to the economy because of the significant contribution that they make to the state’s economy through the wine industry and the tourism industry? Clearly that would be put at threat if we allowed rampant urban development within those areas."

Partly due to such re-assurances, government was re-elected, and Holloway was straight into his supervision of the housing development of Seaford Heights, spot on the entrance to McLaren Vale, and again on some spectacular farmland at Mount Barker in the Adelaide Hills.

The Barossa, too, has lost vast grounds to a nasty confusion of new housing estate under his watch.

But McLaren Vale first: half of this gazetted vignoble – perhaps the best half - has been built over. The remaining half, the Willunga Embayment (above), is still rural, and largely vineyards. Seaford Heights is on the only exposed geology of its type in the entire Willunga Embayment – the Brachina and Wilmington Formations from the 600 to 650 million years old Wilpena and Umberatana Groups, adjoining the Reynella siltstones on which Paxton’s Gateway vineyard sits. The quality of Gateway fruit would guarantee great and unique flavours from the Seaford land, and the site provides the only opportunity to plant in those old Flinders Ranges rocks.

Stuff of similar age from these same groups - ancient water-retentive siltstones and sandstones - reappears around Greenock Creek in the Barossa, the Eden Ridge in the Barossa Ranges, and the Polish Valley near Clare, all sources of wines with incredible world-wide respect.

Holloway refused to address these issues, and leaves the Vales spitting with rage as his villa rash marches on across the Main South Road – the long-accepted limit of such developments – and into McLaren Vale proper.

The only thing which will stop it may be the huge new overpass the same government is about to build at the end of the main street of the McLaren Vale township.

As the new regional tourism campaign explains: “McLaren Vale: one thing leads to another”.

The 1,300 ha dormitory suburb development at Mount Barker is also in priceless vineyard and gardening country, with particularly generous rainfall. When the organic and biodynamic herbal cosmetics company, Jurlique, went looking for perfect ground for their herb farm, this land was the best they could locate in southern Australia for its cleanliness, and lack of petrochemical pollutants. Ngeringa, the pioneering biodynamic vineyards pictured, are adjacent.

But critical to this development site is the Kanmantoo copper mine, in the rough rain shadow country just a few kilometres over the ridge to the east. Upon his resignation Holloway was lauded by Rann as “the greatest Mining Minister this state has ever had” which those of us who worked under Hugh Hudson find, well, breathtaking.

Perhaps Holloway’s greatest achievement was first approving the Kanmantoo super pit open cut copper mine then approving the Mount Barker ghetto to supply the mine with grey water as nobody would stomach a mine taking water fresh from the end of the Murray, which no longer flows when it’s not in flood. The houses are actually a water-dirtying mechanism - a sort of reverse filter to create politically-correct water for the mine. The new ghetto's location is really handy to the mine: the pipe won't have to be so long.

Mine owner: Hillgrove. Hillgrove chairman: Dean Brown. Dean Brown: Rann's maverick unofficial minister for water issues and drought.

THE OLD KANMANTOO MINES PIT: 200 METRES DEEP, WITH A GREAT DEAL OF SULPHURIC ACID COVERING ITS LOWER BENCHES. THE NEW PIT WILL BE MANY TIMES LARGER THAN THIS, TAKING UP OVER A KILOMETRE OF COUNTRY.

Luckily for Hillgrove, the new suburb is in country of extremely high rainfall for South Australia, so the street run-off alone will be nice.

It's an environmental triumph!

Once the mine is finished with the water, Hillgrove expects to retain it in a tailings dam, but those of us who worked in the original Kanmantoo Mine in the ’seventies know too well how much tailings leaked into the Bremer, which carried it, with all its reagents, surfactants, acids, arsenic and whatever, to the vineyards and butchered aquifers of Langhorne Creek.

The Dawesley Creek, which flows across the mine site’s western boundary, is too poisonous for stock, as it carries more toxic pollutants to Langhorne Creek from the defunct Brukunga mine.

So what else does Holloway leave us? Back to McLaren Vale. He never forgave DRINKSTER for battling him so determinedly over the Glenthorne Farm issue.

GLENTHORNE FARM IS THE ONLY LARGE SWATHE OF THE NORTHERN HALF OF THE McLAREN VALE WINE REGION WHICH HAS NOT BEEN CONSUMED BY HOUSING photo LEO DAVIS

With the help of Senator Robert Hill, then Federal Minister for the Environment, the late Greg Trott, visionary conservationist and proprietor of Wirra Wirra Wines, convinced the CSIRO to sell the 208 ha research farm to the government of South Australia for only $7 million eleven years ago. Then, for the grand price of $1, the farm passed to the University of Adelaide for viticulture research.

Although a deed was signed to very specifically prohibit housing – Glenthorne is surrounded by the suburbia which ate through half the McLaren Vale vignoble - the University waited a few years, then attempted to plant a thousand houses there for a quick $100 million.

After a bitter media battle led by DRINKSTER, Holloway and Rann disallowed the development in March 2009, finally insisting that the University should conform to the solemn Deed it signed.

When he was Australia’s Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the United Nations in New York, Mr. Hill (left) was again instrumental in saving Glenthorne when he insisted “The land was sold to the State Goverment so that it would be preserved from urban development. They nominated Adelaide University ... Part of the farm was to be planted with grapes for research and as a repository of genetic material. The balance was to be conserved as open space and ultimately rehabilitated.”

Eventually Holloway had to agree.

“The State Government's view remains that the land was transferred to the University on the basis that there would be no housing on the site and that it would become a teaching and research centre for the wine industry,” he admitted.

But the University still fails to conform to the Deed it signed to ensure Glenthorne would be “preserved, conserved and used for Agriculture, Horticulture, Oenology, Viticulture, Buffer Zones and as Community Recreation Area, and is available for Project Research Activities, University Research Activities, Education Activities and operating a Wine Making Facility.”

Upon his recent return from the UN, Mr. Hill was appointed Chancellor of the same University, which is now lobbying wine industry groups to release it from its promises on Glenthorne Farm. Whoever replaces Holloway will soon be deciding, once again, whether the University should be permitted to breach its Deed.

What really pisses DRINKSTER is that we fought this battle eleven years ago. Then we fought it again for eighteen months two years ago. And now it’s on again, right at a time when Bacchus knows the Australian wine industry needs the very best viticulture research it can possibly mount.

So, how many of Holloway’s battles can we win? DRINKSTER believes Seaford Heights can be saved, if Fairmont Homes, the contracted developer, can be afforded land somewhere else. Holloway was finally talking about a compromise, offering 500 metre buffer zones between the new ghetto and the road, a buffer which surely indicates the abject appearance of the proposed development.

In Champagne, there’s a medieval village called Le Mesnil-sur-Oger. It’s a walled village, with a stone set there indicating the wall was built in 1698. It’s smack in the middle of the very best Chardonnay country, and its geology produces grapes which make wines of incredible quality and longevity. The locals appreciate this, so the houses of the village are all outside the wall. Inside the wall there’s a Chardonnay vineyard of just 1.8 ha (below). You can taste its fruit in the legendary Champagne Krug Clos du Mesnil, which you can find at around AU$800-$1000 per bottle.

05 February 2011

VINEPULL FOLLOWS THE OZ FLOODS SOUTH

Symptomatic Week For Ozplonk
Hunter Vineyards Shrink By Half
Fosters Battles Wine Australia
 
by PHILIP WHITE


It’s been a symptomatic week in Australian wine.

The biggest end of the Australian wine industry has a long record of ignoring the symptoms of its ailments. This week leaves the callow observer wondering just how crook it’ll let itself get.

First came the news that half the vines in the Hunter Valley have been uprooted in the last eighteen months.

Compared to the Barossa and McLaren Vale, the Hunter has never been a great player, depending historically on fruit from both those regions, and the big rivers, for its bulk products. While its best producers – usually long-term family wineries - can grow and make truly wonderful Semillon and Shiraz, the Hunter’s hardly ideal for viticulture, being sub-tropical, and would probably not be there if there was no Sydney. Nevertheless, the removal of 3250 hectares of vines is a big deal.

In the good old days Max Schubert (right) would flog his horny Rambler coupe – “she’ll sit on 140 MPH”, he’d say with a grin – from Penfolds at Magill to check the vintage at Penfolds’ Dalwood winery in the Hunter. Within years of his death, the Oatleys, founders of the mercurial Rosemount in the Upper Hunter, had raided Southcorp’s Penfolds, and flew regularly the other way in their private jet.

Their audacious 2001 reverse takeover saw Bob “Wild Oats” Oatley (below) paid $1.4 billion - $881 million cash and 94.3 million shares – which swelled beautifully by the time the monolith was “rationalized” and sold to Fosters in 2005.

Fosters soon butchered this prime wine business with further “rationalization”, confusing its management, marketing and sales with its beer sector, an entirely destructive process which it now professes to have successfully reversed in its disentanglement of both sides of the firm for sale.

In ten years it spent AUS$6.7 billion building an empire with a current book value of $3 billion.

Clever operators, the Oatleys. They knew the difference between barley and grapes. And coffee. They made their first fortune running plantations in Papua New Guinea. Of all the coffee-producing countries, it was the closest to the International Date Line, making it easier to influence daily international coffee prices as the sunrise moved west.

Now Rosemount’s iconic Roxburgh Vineyard is part of a coal mine, like an increasing amount of the Hunter. When I visited the region last year, the chopper flew into a thin layer of brown gas the moment we crossed the crest of the Brokenback Range. This was the colour and aroma of hydrogen sulphide, or rotten egg gas, one of the things you tend to get when you scratch open great swathes of lignite and coal shale.

It seems strange that in recent years, the owners of the region’s many thoroughbred studs have complained more loudly about the resultant health of their nags than the locals have about their children.

The coal business is a big employer.

Patriarchal winemaker Murray Tyrrell complained regularly to me about the industrialisation of his beloved Hunter in the ’eighties. At one point he suggested the pollutants in the air were as corrupting of his business as the corruption of the NSW Labor government, and said it was becoming increasingly difficult to fully ripen grapes.

The late Tyrrell (left), “The Mouth Of The Hunter”, once told a gathering of wine writers that with two other prominent Hunter winemakers, he visited Premier Neville Wran, slapped their sugar invoices on the table, and complained that the pollution had become so bad that some years they were forced to illegally chaptalise their wine to get to the point of “ripeness” the market demanded.

Adding sugar to fermenting must is permitted in cold countries like France, but not in Australia, where ripening is sometimes too easily achieved, and acid additions are permitted to bring the wines back into balance.

It says something about the compliant nature of wine criticism that I was the only reporter on that junket who reported Tyrrell’s claim.

Since then, government claims consequent regulations have restricted Hunter pollution, and winemakers say ripening is no longer such a problem.

Newcomers, largely opportunist short-term investors driven by the government’s stupid tax incentives, planted most of the industrial grapeyards which have just been uprooted. If you can stomach their current claims, it is these types of vineyards, and not seriously profitable products like Grange, that keep giant exporters of bottom-end discount plonk, like Fosters, in business.

This leaves the Hunter in the hands of the old families who’ve always been there, stoically growing quality grapes for their old-style wines.

‘‘Fifteen to 20 years ago the dream was to retire from Sydney and live in the Hunter making a wine that was better than Grange and it just hasn’t happened,’’ Tyrrell’s son Bruce (below) said this week.

‘‘There were many vines planted in the wrong place, for the wrong reasons and they will all have to come out.’’

In the same week another small symptom of a huge change: psychologist Karen Hutchison was named NSW Rural Woman of the year at a posh dinner in parliament house. Formerly CEO of the Murrumbidgee Horticulture Council, she currently works for Murrumbidgee Irrigation, which has been responsible for watering enormous vineyards that supply the sorts of wine Fosters exports in shipping containers stuffed with giant bladder packs.

Fair dink. A huge rubber bag is laid into each container, then pumped full of wine which is pumped back out after its voyage.

The current ruin of much of the vast vignoble of the Murray-Darling, through fungal disease and flood in the short-term, and the sudden government-imposed cessation of unsustainable, profligate, environmentally-destructive irrigation in the longer view, must see great reductions in the amount of rock bottom fruit these exporting discounters say they depend upon.

The Hunter diminishing by half is nothing on what’s happening in the Murray-Darling. In the Murrumbidgee catchment alone the draft basin plans irrigation cuts of up to 45 per cent leaving more water to flow into the Murray.

"I've come from the Snowy Mountains, so I've seen first-hand the power of water to build communities and also to change landscapes,” Hutchinson (below) said at her award bash. "I now find myself working in the irrigation industry at a time of fundamental change around water policy so I'm seeing the power of water to both divide communities and galvanise them.”

She has just converted her wine grape vineyards to Sultana production for table grapes.

Which is almost funny. It wasn’t that long ago that highly-irrigated, obscenely high-yielding Sultana was Australia’s most used white wine grape, and Fosters, and the preceding owner/managers of its wine group were amongst its worst addicts. Like, they had to realize that Cabernet franc, watered to crop at 12 tonnes an acre, trucked across two states then bleached, was no longer ideal for making things they called Champagne. At least sultanas are already white - they don’t need bleaching. And you can get forty tonnes of sully to the acre, given enough water.

At the insistence of companies like Fosters, the Murray-Darling growers soon replaced their dual-purpose Sultana with Chardonnay, which yielded just as well, was of a similar quality, and at least had a name you could put on the bottle or bag.

But you couldn’t sell it as food.

Another symptom of panic in the boardrooms is this sudden changing of names. Like Fosters recently rebranded its huge wine group with the name of one of Tony Bilson’s grand old restaurants, Treasury. Constellation took a UAS$1.6 billion dive flogging its Australian business to the investment group Champ, which also delves in mining, media and other industries, and promptly changed the name of its new monster baby to Accolade.

These sound like the names of Korean cars, which is another symptom, given their resale value.

And now that the Australian Wine and Brandy Corporation has become Wine Australia, Foster’s Treasury has had a hissy fit and withdrawn its financial support for Wine Australia’s first big global promo push. Fosters says this campaign, called A+, fails to promote importer's “own labels”. These are the bottom-end Australian plonks exported and flogged under generic labels by supermarkets and the very same giant discounting retailers which have brought the Australian wine business to its knees.

Wine Australia was, in an unusually enlightened manner, attempting to promote the sorts of premium wines that have a home, a winery, a historic reputation, and a profit margin. Sustainable products. Like Grange, and its siblings at Penfolds, which may bear lesser appellations, but in both profit and quality are a serious step above the sort of plonk exported in those big bladders.

Which, incidentally, are bottled by foreign packagers with little of our wine quality control, but ridiculous complexities masquerading as occupational health safeguards.

Could it be that Fosters hasn’t really learned anything?

Or is its spat with Wine Australia a desperate grasp at increasing the value of the discount brands it expects to sell to another Champ in a bulk deal?

And I mean the brands, not the booze. The booze is worth almost nothing. But I suppose that because there’s such an ocean of it still to sell, Fosters’ attempt to outstare Wine Australia could be a last-gasp attempt to flog more grog at any price.

It must realise the Hunter uprooting is miniscule compared to the great vine pull which is working its way down the plagued river systems from the Murrumbidgee and Bourke to Blanchetown and beyond, and that the days are dying when they can pay less than cost price for grapes.

In the meantime, this ongoing devaluation of the once grand Brand Australia is of little consequence to a company which intends to be out of the business the minute it finds its Champ.

That’d leave it with lots of beer, a direct rival of cheap wine.