|Ben, Sarah, Kath and Paul Drogemuller at Paracombe winery|
Top Points In Melbourne Show
Neat 20th Anniversary Present
For Paracombe's Drogemullers
by PHILIP WHITE
Twenty years ago, give or take a few minutes, a new wine region called the Adelaide Hills decided to stage its first regional wine festival. I recall being in a crowded and noisy room somewhere in Hahndorf, sitting at a desk lined with glasses, when a huge paw thrust through the mob, proffering another red.
“What do you think of that?” its owner asked.
I sniffed it, and looked at the very big man away off on the other end of that arm.
“Have you got ironstone?” I asked, recognizing the tell tale whiff of things ferruginous in that dense, glowering Shiraz.
“Well I’ll be buggered,” the fellow said. “How do you know that?”
It turned out to be Paul Drogemuller, of Paracombe Wines. Within a few weeks I was in his tractor shed, kicking barrels. We were instant friends. Turned out he’d lost a lot of property, including his collection of old motorbikes, in the Ash Wednesday bushfires and had then run a farm supplies store until one way or another he’d decided to jump into the wine business and plant a vineyard.
He wisely chose an upland basin immediately north of the Torrens Gorge atop the plateau at Paracombe. It faced the south and east, so it drew the gentle morning sun rather than the afternoon scorcher. This reinforced its cool nature, and ensured fruit of good natural acidity. While the place exuded a serene calm, it nevertheless seemed wild and high and remote: a very long way from the suburbs only minutes off, at the foot of Anstey’s Hill.
But from Droggie’s shed you could look across the Gorge to the new vineyards at Lenswood, where great names like Knappstein, Weaver and Henschke were planting very widely-touted vineyards, or replacing others that had been cindered in those disastrous fires.
That day we walked the tidy vineyard, kicking lumps of ironstone and sandstone aside, and in there in his shed amongst the tractors and dust tasted dark old barrels of beautifully perfumed, intense reds: the aforementioned Shiraz, and you little beauty: a stunning Cabernet franc, the most prettily aromatic variety of Bordeaux. This was an even scarcer rarity in those days.
And then this big man shyly pulled out a bottle of sparkling Chardonnay and Pinot noir, mumbled something about his love of fine fizz, disgorged it with a pop and a shoosh of froth, and poured a glass.
It was a refined, elegant and delicious dry sparkler, easily in the league of the posh stuff from the Piccadilly Valley, where an effusive degree of public relations fluff and bluster had been devoted to the promotion of the new fizz from Petaluma’s Bridgewater Mill.
We drank that bold certificate of assertion with Paul’s vivacious wife Kath, pregnant again after having a bonnie son, Ben. These were honest, open-hearted country people who had boldly, but with an uncommon intelligence chosen this very special spot to commence a way of life they have relentlessly stuck to.
There were always neighbours about the farm, assisting with this and that; lending a bulldozer here, a tractor there, some muscle whenever the big man’s wasn’t quite enough. People seemed to queue up to help. I soon learned about the couple’s German heritage, and only became aware of Paracombe’s proximity to Lobethal, the Vale of Love, when I heard somebody joke about Paul having to “go all the way over there across the River to get a wife.”
However you look at it, that was a journey well made.
Gradually a modern winery appeared. As the kids grew, the family would spend weekends mixing concrete to pour reinforced walls on the big slab neighbors had helped establish. Each weekend they’d raise the wall made the week before, and pour another. Paul assembled bits and pieces of winemaking kit, and gradually a handsome and substantial winery complex grew, overlooking the Gorge on one side, and that beautifully tidy basin of vines on the other.
It was delightful to watch the wines emerge. Those reds were soon joined by others: refined, austere Cabernet sauvignon; a gently-oaked Chardonnay; a Riesling, from a neighbour’s vineyard at Holland Creek, as crisp and fresh as a mountain brook, and perhaps most significantly, a bright, zippy Sauvignon blanc. The Marlborough explosion of this new variety had barely seen its fuse lit in those early ’nineties, and the Paracombe version immediately took its place foremost amongst them, and has since been a favourite in Adelaide. To me it always seemed lighter than most of the Kiwi flood, a more frivolous and casual wine on the one hand, but dead serious in its precise elegance and refinement: it’s part slide rule and part party.
While Paul and his mates and kin built the winery and the suite of very fine Paracombe wines, Kath would strap her babies in the car and do the rounds of Adelaide’s wine stores and restaurants, quickly developing a reputation for being the last lady in Australia to whom one owed a debt. When you had Kath Drogemuller standing by your cash register, waiting for a cheque, you got that bloody pen out lickety-split.
As the coat of infant drawings on the Drogemuller kitchen fridge gradually took more teenaged form, Kath worked up a distinctive, stylish label featuring that single berry sitting on a slice of sandstone, its parameter so stained with iron from the ground around it that it looks to the unwitting so much like a slice of crusty bread you could eat it.
Then Paul, having failed to convince its owner to sell him a nearby vineyard of Shiraz that was already ancient when John Davouren used it for his St Henri Clarets in the ’fifties, managed instead to buy each individual vine, which he dug up and moved to his own vineyard, one-by-one. Those old strugglers sit around the homestead now, in dramatic contrast to the perfectly neat rows of the new vineyard, which is as cute and orderly as a manicured tea plantation. The uninitiated might suggest that in comparison, those oldies look a bit like the tattered rows of Napoleon’s troops staggering home from St Petersberg, the weight of defeat heavy upon them, but uh-huh, that old legion’s smug and happy, and makes the Paracombe super-red, the right royal Somerville.
One of my major poetic heroes, the great Charles Bukowski famously wrote “the days run away like wild horses over the hills,” which is exactly what happened between those bonnie, part naïve times, and the big dinner the Drogemullers put on a week back to celebrate their twentieth annual wine release.
It was one of those nights when you feel the warm security of a family of substance; a tribe whose decades of quiet, determined, uncomplaining travail and endeavour have finally stacked up to make one of our most admired, yet understated wine businesses.
As Advertiser wine writer Tony Love quietly asserted, it felt like a family wedding, with speech after congratulatory speech from folks who’d been in on it since the beginning. Even the accountant stood up and told bad jokes about “birds”. Anne Oliver conjured delicious tucker in the well-appointed kitchen Paul had built atop the winery, and we sat there like royalty in the dining room, celebrating a very special family’s brilliant success.
I shall review the newest suite of Paracombe wines over the next weeks. In the meantime, you’d better jump in and order your 2009 Ruben red. This $21 blend of Merlot, Cabernet sauvignon, Cabernet franc, Malbec and Shiraz presented the Drogemullers with a jim-dandy anniversary present last Thursday: out of the 3,170 wines in the Royal Melbourne Wine Show, it won the highest points of them all.
|Droggie and the author. Paul is indeed a large fellow, with a heart to match.|