“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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05 February 2012

WINESMITHS SAFE IN A CRADLE OF HILLS

Five Minutes From Silver Sands
We Thought Of Everywhere Else
Nothin Exploded But The Future
TEXT and PHOTOS by PHILIP WHITE

Paul Smith?  Name rings a bell.  Haven’t we met before?  Nope?  Oh?  You sure?  You were a navy diver?  Ah.  You were you one of the seals I watched scouring the hulls of the ships in Circular Quay at the bicentenary celebrations in ’88?  Looking for bombs when every dignitary and leader right up to the bloody King and Di came to Bob Hawke’s big party.  Yes?  Well.  Get down.  Where you been since?

When you climb into a car with a winemaker you’ve never met before, almost anywhere on Earth, you’ll soon find you have a link, and it’s nothing like six degrees of separation: it’s usually two or three, max.  I’ve met many disingenuous waterers in this business, but I’d never expected to find one of those hard underwater men here.  Learning, learning.

Paul had phoned to see if I was interested in visiting his Cradle of Hills vineyard.  It’s in the conglomerate rubble on the piedmont of the Front Hills, half a stubby from the Victory Hotel at the south end of the McLaren Vale vignoble.  On the same patch as Rudderless, Cascabel, Petagna, and the old Hardy’s trial vineyard which Steve Pannell uses to win Bushing crowns.  


Being sensibly addicted to such wines from the Willunga Fault, I was in like Flynn.

So where’s Paul been since that fastidious purge of Sydney Harbour?  To keep his marriage intact, he left the buccaneering travail of the Navy.  He used the extreme physical conditioning compulsory for Navy divers to go on and become a fitness scientist with a Bachelor of Applied Science degree with Distinction in Sports Science, a Graduate Diploma in Elite Sports Coaching and a Masters degree in Business Administration.  After all that he reckons it was fairly easy to get his Diploma of Wine Technology. 

And he kept his marriage.  Just as well.  Tracy Smith is a soil scientist with another withering list of academic and practical achievements. Including a Bachelor of Science degree in Botany and Microbiology, a Diploma of Applied Science in Horticulture, a Diploma of Education and a Masters in Environmental Management Science.  So she’s got botany, horticulture, landscape design and amenity management nailed.  She’s been a garden judge as well, during the decades she's lectured in Australia and the UK. 

“I think I prefer plants to people,” she said.  “Although there’s nothing nicer than long walks through the countryside with other botanists.”

It’s unfortunately, no, tragically rare for Australians to scientifically and sensually scour the vignobles of Europe -- where such things evolved -- before they decide where to grow and make their favourite wine back home.  But it appears these Smiths did that investigation with the same forensics I witnessed on Australia Day 1988 on Sydney Harbour.  Nothing exploded but the future.


It has more to do with sport and extreme fitness than viniculture, but in 1985 I asked the Formula One champion, Niki Lauda, here for the Adelaide F1 Grand Prix, how he would react, when ripping down Brabham Straight at around 200 mph or 300 kmh, when he was  confronted by a terrible collision of two other cars. 

"Aim directly at the point of impact," he said, fingering the remains of the ear he'd burnt off in that terrible prang on the Nurburgring. "It will be too late to brake and when you arrive the impact of that accident will have cleared the site.  So you go straight through."

In extreme slow motion, these Smiths seem to have done the same thing.  For years they explored the vineyards and gastronomy of Atlantic France, the north-west Mediterranean and the Italian Alps, by bicycle.  They went back, over and over, to Rioja, Pauillac, Provence, Bandol, Gigondas, Vacqueyras and Piedmonte.

“We were trying to work out where we were going to do this vineyard thing,” Paul said.  


“We thought of everywhere else.  Finally I remembered my Navy days, when me and my mates would get some time off, fly to Adelaide, hire a car, and do the wineries of McLaren Vale.  But we only came in winter, so it was always raining.  I finally came back and had a look in the summer, and discovered this place had everything all those European districts had, but better.  Cleaner.  Quieter. Less crowded.  Better beaches. Imagine living five minutes from Silver Sands! Local food.  This shits on Provence!”
 

So in their way, they chose at the last minute to drive straight towards the complex gastronomic point at which those diverse vignobles collided, and found themselves quite safe in McLaren Vale.

They discovered a vineyard with contracts extant for sale of its premium fruit.  It overlooked the sparkling Gulf St Vincent, patron of viticulturers, lost things and schoolgirls.  It included the most unusual cottage, built as a hideaway for the venerable Indian, Mr. Oberoi, the owner of the big hotel chain.  So inside, the place is very much in the spirit of the raj, with high ceilings, magnificent timber joinery and extravagent bathrooms everywhere.  The Smiths were smitten.

St Vincent had played his viticulture card, and helped find the lost nirvana.  He then thrust forward the schoolgirl, daughter Gigi Smith, who after a day in the city announced “Oooh Mum, I love this cradle of hills, it makes me feel so safe.”  So they had a name.  Tracy did a sensual single line graphic of the hills and coast, and plopped a drop of fermenting Shiraz on it.  They had a label.

Time for Paul to withdraw some fruit from sale and make some wine.  He did this in sheds, first with the help of the maker of Deo and Diavolo, Paul Petagna, next door.  After a few tentative trials, he's sufficiently confident to begin dragging blokes like me in to lick the rocks and kick a few barrels.  Roll the odd snifter around.  Have a schlück. By Bacchus it was fun!

The thing about the piedmont rubble beneath Cradle of Hills is its composition.  While it was dumped there within the last couple of million years, its stones are very much older. From the great snow-capped range which once towered across the faultline, repeated glacial actions and sopping effluvia have ground and gouged and washed bits of the ancient strata – fourteen of them between 500 and 700+ million years old – down towards the Gulf.  This means the rubble is of many different types of rock: a stony fruitsalad, most bits rounded by riverine streams but others still sharp from the bulldozing work of glaciers.  

 
Between them, the Normanville, Wilpena and Umberatana groups which supplied the small stones beneath Cradle of Hills contain quartzite, dolomite, and numerous types of siltstone, limestone, and sandstone from different geological periods.  The resultant rubble below the vineyard lies in clay and sand, but not very much of it.  You don’t have to go down very far and you’re in a band of stones that looks like the bottom of a riverbed frothing with rapids. 

Without the rapids. The water has long gone.

They are very similar to formations in the south Rhone and the various piedmonts of the European Alps.  They tend to grow fruit of amazing complexity and depth.  Each specific type of rock seems to impart its own flavour to the juice, via the roots.  In subterranean terms, it’s the opposite of monoculture.

Adding to this terroir is the gusty, drying wind – the nearby Sellicks Hill is whipped by tempestuous blasts which constantly change direction.  

The proximity to the Gulf is also a major factor, guaranteeing a constant background humidity which in turn provides softer tannins.  The classically Mediterranean climate of the Vales gives all this a year-round south-of-France polish.

And then comes the most significant aspect of terroir: humans. Between these wineSmiths, it couldn’t be in better hands.

“The vineyard’s not the way we want it,” Tracy says, “but I’m gradually working through it. It was set up for yield more than flavour, although our buyers are very happy with the quality we’re getting since we began cutting it back.  We’re looking at other south-of-France varieties for our own wine, but we’ll always sell fruit for cash flow.  In the meantime, we buy small parcels from our neighbours if we want bits and pieces we haven’t planted yet.”

I put one vague query about biodynamics and organics.  The response was measured and pleasing.

“I’m a farmer who hasn’t used a herbicide since I got here.  As a scientist, I’m a pragmatic organics person.  There are very obviously good things that rise from biodynamics.  To me, it’s more commonsense than many scientists say.  It’s about management of the cultures of the soil, from very old simple farming practices.  They’ve been doing these things for centuries before the invention of today’s chemicals …

“To me the best example of how not to farm is the bowling green.  Those blokes lay down the sands to specific formulas of grain size, then they plant a monoculture that wouldn’t survive anywhere else.  They mow it two or three times a day, and roll it all the time, and then every year they’ve got to tear it all up and start again. Most viticulture reminds me of that.  Talk about anal retentive!”
 
And the wines?  Put very simply, they are new exemplars for the district.  The Smiths are determined to pick earlier, to avoid the dull alcoholic gloop recently fashionable, and their blending dreams are inspiring.  These last vintages they’ve picked in three passes, maybe weeks apart, starting when most locals simply stand back and snigger.  But they get staunch natural acidity doing that, which they add to the following riper picks.

These folks can rock me in their cradle anytime they have a glass spare.  Which seems likely to be all too rare an event, given the restricted production of these lovely tinctures.

The Cradle of Hills mailing list is a very good one to be on from the start.


 Until the website kicks in, call 08 8557 4023 or email smithandcru@iinet.net.au

Cradle of Hills McLaren Vale Route du Bonheur GMS 2010
$25; 14.5% alcohol; screw cap; 98 cases made; 94+ points
Road to happiness?  If there was enough of it to get me there, I’d call it the Road to Perdition.  It’s that good.  It’s immediately smooth and alluring to inhale, with an illusion of caramel in counterpoint to that prickly stony smell of the Flinders Ranges in summer, where all those strata re-appear like the Giant Snake.  In contrast, its vibrant, living fruit reminds me of a Medlar Gel made from Marello cherries (Grenache), framboise (Grenache and Mourvèdre) and meaty blueberries (Mourvèdre and Shiraz). After that aroma it’s assertively delicious from its first sensual ooze onto the tongue.  It moves in, sides around, and tantalises and teases as much as it satisfies.  I shoulda seen it coming, but after such a seductive bouquet the jaundiced drinker seems to imagine what follows can’t be nearly as good as it turns out to be – this one’s unreal.  (Maybe we’re conditioned to be disappointed in this business.)  It’s not stringy nor astringent, but just perfectly, honestly, slightly gelatinous.  Then it’s a much more elegant and composed wine than most of the Vales, with bright, persistent acidity singing in sweet harmony with those gentle velvety tannins and vivid, juicy, vinous fruit.  While the vintage hiked the strength up above what its producers would prefer, it doesn’t taste as alcoholic as the number indicates, unless you leave it open for two or three days, which is bloody stupid (leave that to me -- I do it to gauge how the wine will age). It’s perfectly happy to go inside you, but seems determined to leave lots of good bits lying around the mouth and the exhalations for a long long time after the swallow – the best finish of the year, so far.  Stunning.  Be quick!

Cradle of Hills McLaren Vale Cabernet Shiraz 2009
$25; 14.5% alcohol; screw cap; 111 dozen; 92+++ points
Ripe Bordeaux.  Not Cabernet or Shiraz, but one of those Bordeaux blends that you don’t want to know about because you’re enjoying them far too much to worry.  It has pretty tweaks of musk, violet and confectioner’s sugar adding Chantilly lace to the nightshade aromas, juniper berries, and the leaves of blackberry and tomato. Like the GMS, it has that acrid Flinders Ranges desert in the summer dust and rock, a perfect reflection of the smell of the air on that Vales piedmont.  There was a little white pepper, too, which is gone now, three days after we opened this bottle: it’s closer to Ribena after too much air.  But it whips me to breakfast at the Wolsely Hotel: it seems to evoke the smell of freshly-ironed broadsheet newspaper, starched linen, English breakfast tea and hot scones with butter, blackberry jam, lime and ginger marmalade and a dollop of wicked cream.  Ooops!  Peggy Lee just drove through the door in a pale blue Bugatti 35.  I’d better talk about the fruit, eh?  Black gels again, but with the pith of blood orange and a handful of ferruginous podsol dust.  It also has a blue taste, but darker, like gunbarrel blue. Fellow synesthætes will understand.  Like the GMS, it has a fabulous feel that works the mouth brilliantly: all intense and elegant and gradually tapering and when it's too late you realize she’s been sitting with you and your breakfast and your paper and got up and driven straight back out, leaving her l’Heure Bleue-soused scarf draped across the back of the chair. Breathe it in.


3 comments:

Adamski said...

Philip, can't find them on the web/Google or white pages. Do you have any contact details for them? Cheers Adam

Philip White said...

Just put it up then, Cobber. Above the reviews.

Peter Mitchell said...

In case you wanted to include it, their website address is www.cradle-of-hills.com.au.
Thanks, Pete