Phillips-Parker Axis Axes Grace
by PHILIP WHITE - this was first published in 2006
Robert Parker Jr. must have tasted some more Australian wines. How do I know? Because my phone won’t stop ringing.
For those who came in late, this curmudgeonly lawyer is commonly regarded by his fellow Amerkans as the world’s most influential critic, in any field. But he writes about wine. Which endears him even more deeply, because, well, you know, before Bob Parker came along Amerkans drank Coke, and all the gourmands were in London and France. Anyway, when he points Australian wines high (like above 95), the wineries interrupt my quiet daily business to ring me rather breathlessly to advise me of this fact. Short message to those hordes: don’t bother.
There are various reasons for my attitude problem. One that comes most readily to mind is an observation from Mondovino, the brilliant wine doco screening now in the East End. The reporter manages somehow to get into Parker’s Maryland home with his camera. Now, Parker’s farting bulldog is not much of a secret: it’s as famous internationally as its lookalike human. So no surprise that it features. There are lots of winery dogs in Mondovino. Much more significant to me was the furniture at chez Parker. Fluffy pale carpets and trissy, prissy affectations, no worries. But just between you and me, dear reader: the Parkers dine at a glass topped table!
See-through tables, in my experience, are never found in the homes of gourmands or epicures. They seemed relevant for those few short years of overlap after the invention of the birth control pill but before women stopped wearing stockings with welts and suspender belts; the egg combo days. The transparency of those tables seemed almost to recompense for their awkward clanky chill. But anyone who loves their food and drink enough to indulge in a touch of appreciative table-bashing with fists and glasses knows that a glass-topped table is no more appropriate than a glass-bottomed bed.
One of my other wee problems with His Bobness is his influence on Australian red wine. Not on its sales so much as its style. The current issue of The Australian and New Zealand Wine Industry Journal contains a brilliant scientific paper by Peter Godden and Mark Gishen, of the Australian Wine Research Institute, which has tables showing various aspects of the composition of Australian wines over the last twenty years. The one most relevant to the Parkerilla is the alcohol curve.
While most people can detect changes in flavour of wines when alcohol varies by as little as point one of one per cent, the alcohol in your average Australian shiraz rose from a tad over twelve per cent by volume to settle at a healthy thirteen between 1984 and 1994. During that time, a few heroes had managed to stop the government’s Vine Pull Scheme, and instead of seeing priceless old shiraz uprooted at the taxpayers’ expense, had promoted it as a hearty, healthy drink and saw it commence a rather determined revival. During that same decade, the number of wineries in South Australia doubled, to around two hundred. We’ve got 471 now.
Parker seemed to begin noticing Australian wine in the late ’nineties, when eager young beavers like Dan Phillips, the Californian mail-order bacon monger, began shuffling our strongest Shiraz his way. By the new millennium, this transaction was entrenched, and, like others, Phillips’ Grateful Palate wine business was hitting its rhythm: select stupidly strong Australian reds, get ’em to Parker’s table, score 95 plus, and make astronomic profits selling the wine around those results. Up went our prices.
And up went the alcohol. By 1999, the alcohol in your average Australian shiraz was up to a heady fourteen per cent. There was a glimmer of hope when it declined a tad in 2000, but then the glass-topped table/smoked bacon axis was really kicking in, and the alcohol has climbed steadily, stupidly, since, to a grand total of 14.4 per cent last year. Hey man, that’s our average! What the hell’s going on?
As if dragged up by the same bull-dogged vortex, cabernet has increased from a tad over twelve to fourteen, but has mercifully slipped a little since 2002. Merlot went from below twelve to over fourteen, still rising.
With a few noted exceptions, most of the finest, best-balanced wines I’ve had, in thirty years of keen gastronomy, were between twelve and thirteen point five per cent alcohol by volume. Even the greatest Rhone shiraz wines were of modest alcohol. Give me good health, natural acidity and perfect balance over alcohol, any day.
So when can we expect a return to elegance? When my phone stops ringing? Or when Bob Parker’s table shatters, that farting bulldog finally goes off to be with Jesus, and the Maryland air clears sufficiently for things of modest beauty and gracious elegance to be appreciated afresh?