28 January 2012
DIARY: 120127 – BREAD & VINTAGE LOOMING
The aroma of baking bread is a nostalgic thing. The loaf in my cooker is a typical Casa Blanco hybrid, using Cooper’s Stout instead of water, Vegemite in place of salt, molasses instead of white sugar, a nip of Lagavulin, beautiful Laucke’s wholemeal flour and a couple of spoons of fresh-ground coffee, just to torture the sensories way beyond reason.
Along with those grainy gingham memories of youth, this sweet wave of maltiness and yeast brings to mind the lead-up to vintage 2012, which has progressed more calmly than the viticulturers and winemakers, who have been biting their nails, hoping Bacchus over-rules the sky doctors, who had been forecasting another wet La Niña summer. Not quite as wet as that last horrid thing, but wet anyway. Watch out for February, they’ve been warning. February starts on Wednesday.
November and December looked like even more rain, and gave us plenty. Leaves that had been scarred by late spring hail quickly gave rise to moulds still viable from the previous vintage: the entire South Mount Lofty Ranges had not gotten sufficient warm, windy weather to kill the spores off, and many growers couldn’t afford to purchase the fungicide anyway. People with clean vineyards looked edgily across fences at those who not only failed to spray during that 2011 mess, but never sold a berry, and due to lack of cash, left the crops to rot further on the vines, and then couldn’t afford to prune. Incubators.
We talked of buying a herd of goats which you could truck around the vignoble, like commandoes, to devour all the dodgy bits of those broke vineyards and prune them at the same time. It’d be rough, but clean, and the goats would leave neat little pellets of Caprine Crap brand ferts. I’m sure that the burnt-arse, humiliated owners would have found the exercise a relief, and amongst our refugees from Afghanistan, Namibia and Ethiopia we could find somebody who’d know too well how to manage a herd of goats in the unfenced vineyards. Most of those people can’t find work, and there are various cheesewrights about who’d love to buy the milk.
But Jesus’s 2012th birthday came round with a wave of typical summer heat (typical for a change), and then we had the hottest New Year in over a century. We’ve had drying winds and warmth, and while some vineyards round the Vales showed a little yellowing of leaves in the crown, everything gradually became more and more satisfying to behold.
The local firebug has been busy, setting deadly blazes off every time the mercury crosses 35, or when the winds seem sure to turn the smallest spark into a deadly conflagration. He, or she, got a beauty going last week, just a few kilometres south on the other side of the faultline. The wind kept changing, making it tricky to contain in those steep hills. The water bombers were like a swarm of wasps, and over a couple of days, the heroic fireys finally contained it. The bastard will be very lucky if the police arrest him before the locals catch him and tear him to bits. He’s been at it for four summers now. People are watching each other.
I took a ride to the Barossa a few days ago, and was delighted to see the vineyards of the Adelaide Hills and Barossa Ranges looking really schmick: balanced, healthy and happy. The Barossa floor is the same. The bunches are clean and petite; the berries small. It’ll be a low yield, whatever the weather. Anticipating wet, the growers have done lots of leaf-plucking to ensure the grapes are exposed to whatever drying breezes happen to waltz on through. Some have then flinched at the waves of moderate heat we’ve had, hoping that they’ve not left the fruit so exposed that it may be sunburnt, but so far, that has not chosen to occur.
The far north of Australia, meanwhile is under savage tropical deluge again, the same as last year - the second wettest vintage in our history. Some places have had over a metre of rain in just a few days. Great spreads of Queensland and northern New South Wales are flooded again: freak water that will no doubt come oozing down the Murray-Darling system, convincing the greedy irrigators there that such floods are normal. Wrong. In the Murray Mallee, drought is normal.
At Yangarra, the nights have been cool enough to pull the duvet up, and the days have been perfect: hanging in there just above or around 30 degrees Centigrade, with bright enamel blue skies that go all the way from here right over the Pacific to Farishta in New Mexico. But now that we’ve virtually destroyed India on the hallowed turf of the Adelaide Cricket ground, and the track stayed firm to please our killer bowlers AND batsmen, there’s a mighty thunderstorm building up on the range in celebration, and where I expect to hear the bread beeping its completion, I hear the growl of surly thunder.
Which is sinister, but it beats the coarse arias that Keith sang. The crew here were pioneers in this district, using sheep and cattle to eat the vineyard weeds and keep the sward down in the dormant months between harvest and budburst. This removes the need for herbicide, and diminishes the number of soil-compacting tractor passes required to keep the vineyard tidy. To avoid the little matter of building a shearing shed, they use Dorper sheep, which look a lot like fullback Nubian goats with tight curly fleeces. They simply shed their wool, so need no shearing. But they have the appetite of goats, and do a remarkable job of turning weeds into fertiliser.
One morning I was awoken at first light by a repetitive cry that sounded like a cross between a rip-saw and an angle-grinder. It was Keith 99, the new Dorper ram, who'd just arrived and been parked in the foaling paddock outside my window. Keith was only ten months old, but was built like a Mallee bull at 90 kilograms, and had the number 99 sprayed on his back. This was his time of adjustment to a new environment, so he had the entire field to himself. He behaved more like a friendly hound than a ram, always belting across the paddock for a scratch and a chat; he'd even lean over so Peter's cattle dogs could lick his face.
But that wasn't sufficient solace for young Keith, who obviously felt he had work to do. After a few days, his baying prominently ceased. He'd done a runner during the night, squeezed through the old post-and-rail fence, and fled across several vineyards to where the girls were agisted. He's been happily busy since, attending to his conjugal duties with great commitment. So there are plenty more little weed-eaters out there now, waiting for the harvest to be done so they can get back to their vineyard duties.
While it's not started at Yangarra yet - the extra altitude here delays ripening - I've seen a few grape trucks nosing along the roadways of the Vales, delivering the earliest white grapes to the big refineries, probably for sale for fizz base. It's very early, but clean.
That bread's the most imminent thing at this moment, and the thunder's backed off. I’m in cruel need of just one slice, toasted on one side, and spread on the other with a slab of smoked Tasmanian salmon, the odd caper, a few rings of Spanish onion, and a dob of my sweet neighbour’s marinaded curd.
Not to mention that glass of Roussanne.
The last thing anybody needs now is more hail. Touch wood, and make it French.