“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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31 March 2016

MIDNIGHT AT THE EX

I watched Wotan's day fall into Thor's day tonight in The Exeter. It was a smooth movement and there was a great deal of post-festival cool. That's a lovely relief.



 Highland Park ... these two photos by Chris Sykes; all other photos©Philip White


26 March 2016

THE STUPIDITY OF MASS TASTINGS

photo from Vice

See that photo the Vice crew took at  last year's Vape Jam, the UK's first vaping expo? 

That's what the aromatic exhalations are like at a wine expo or wine show.

It's just that most people can't see the clouds of chaos.

Add to those exhalations the smells arising from spit buckets and packaging; the stink of cleaning agents and industrial perfumes in the walls, ceilings and floors; whatever crap there is cankered up in the air-conditioning system; the powerful aromas of all the humans, their toothpaste, skin, hair and clothes, and the crowd-controlling pheromones they exude, and you've obviously got a mess of sensory fractals that nobody could possibly decipher.

Unfortunately, such aromatic chaos is visible only to some rare synæsthetes, who are tortured by it.

All these folks who boast of possessing highly sensitive, finely-tuned organoleptic skills are bullshitting if they claim these monster winegasms are good to judge the finer points of any wine product.

Or indeed to make a fine new product stick in the appreciative memory of the taster or customer.

Which is why I give such shows a very wide berth.

I know my dear friend and mentor Max Schubert would often say "if you can't make a red wine that smells good in a room full of Gauloise smoke you might as well get out of the business," but winemakers had to be smokers to be employed in the Penfolds of his young days, and there's little subtlety in the mighty Grange.

In fact, when Australia was pioneering the use of cheap, new, smoky, sappy American oak, Quercus alba, in hogsheads for premium red wine after World War II, its most influential proponents were Max, Peter Lehmann and John Glaetzer, three chain-smoking Silesians who lived in smoky kitchens and judged the quality of most of their meats by the nature of its smoke-house. It was an expected component of good food.

They could indeed tell the name of the metwurst, chook or bacon's butcher by the nature of its smoke. A smoky background always made them hungry. And thirsty.

But that's just one aspect of the myriad miasmas and possibilities of wine. 


I'm the last one to preach that wine can only be appreciated and understood in aroma-free white laboratory rooms. Indeed the interplay of the aromas of a lovely wine, a lovely dish and a lovely partner can be much more sensual and exciting an experience than any disinfected, sanitised lab could afford, unless you're fucking on the bench. 

This was Dr. Max Lake's mantra.

But open a thousand bottles in a room with a thousand, or even twenty people?

Uh-huh.

Use such a ridiculous scenario to judge the best wines in a region, state or nation?

It's all bullshit.

Such grandiosity might please those addicted to mob rule, but give me the discrete tête-à-tête every time for tantalising.

If you must have a great table with dozens, put it outside, in the middle of the vineyard you're drinking. That's always better. It sticks in the organoleptic memory.

Indoors? My best rule? Maximum number at a table? Enough for each person to get a proper glass of every bottle opened. Which is six, maybe ten folks at a stretch.

I still prefer just the one true beauty. 

Pardon my infidelity, but this cartoon's by the other George (Cruikshank)

THE BUTCHER'S LAMENT

Funerary relief of the butcher Tiberius Julius Vitalis ... the graffito  MARCIO SEMPER EBRIA - "Marco is always drunk" - has been added by someone who hasn't bothered to explain who Marco is ... scholars presume it's a pre-bubble statement some neat tagger has put in Tiberius's mouth ... Is it a favourite whinge? Is he complaining about an employee or a customer? A neighbour? Relative? Lover? 1st century AD, Villa Albani, Rome

24 March 2016

VASSE FELIX CABS: CATCH THE POSHER ONE

photo©Philip White

Vasse Felix is a great big posh joint in Margaret River, famous for making Cabernets afforded only by those with the serious affluenza rife out West back while they were digging her up. 

I committed a wine column crime here last year by choosing to avoid recommending the Vasse Felix hundred and something Heystesbury model. 

Maybe I was too skronky at the time - you get that - but my bells failed to ding proportionate to the spend and I confess to submitting to faint guilts about that, which I forgot 'til this more affordable baby arrived.

"Filius Cabernet Sauvignon is a more approachable interpretation ... " winemaker Virginia Willcock writes, "but not without losing the sophistication of good savoury tones to a vibrant fruit line and solid Cabernet structure with fine tannins leaving your palate dry but full of perfume."


Which tickled my curiosity but not as much as the new Filius stage name. It means 'son of' and was a nickname a Latin teacher once applied to me which as a kid I found amusing as my father forbad me from studying Latin on account of him thinking it was a Roman Catholic language. At least I learned one Latin word.

Anyway this Vasse Felix Filius Margaret River Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 ($28; 14% alcohol; screw cap) seems dense and moody and deep and dark and if you suck hard - nose not mouth - you'll find a tickle of stuff like Bergamot mint and vague violet and meaty blueberry. These pretties get more cheeky as the wine airs. Sometimes I swear it even breathes a tiny zephyr of wintergreen.

Then I tip some in there and yes, my miasma does have a new perfume about it. But between the gulp and the exhalation the wine is quite solid: more rugby union than league. The tannins are velvety, not lithe. A bit thick. I'd quite like it with an old fashioned, bitey pepper steak, or the "twin pepper" hot pot pork you'll find in T-Chow, which has black pepper and capsicum a-plenty. A stack of big field mushrooms in similar sauces would do just as well.

I know you can get it for a fair bit less than this in Hungry Dan's, but even at 30% off I would have preferred it had they shouted it one extra brand new barrel. Surely the Holmes à Court family, the owners, could afford a couple more new French oaks for a big blend of $28 a bottle dry red? 87% old barrels might suit the Rhône varieties, but I prefer just a touch more sophisticating fresh wood in my Bordeaux types. Carefully chosen barrels can hike the IQ of Cabernet. Still, that's personal and I know there are many among you who prefer to drink fruit rather than carpentry.

Then I'll admit that part of this opinion is due to my expectations of Cabernet sauvignon from Margaret River, which professes to make the best in Australia. This wine is still more typically  Bordeaux-like Cabernet than most of those from Barossa or McLaren Vale, whatever their price.

Global warming is very quickly narrowing that gap, by the way. Bordeaux's getting hotter.

As for masculine? Son of? It doesn't remind me of any blokes I know. I don't follow rugby. 

Vasse Felix Margaret River Cabernet Sauvignon 2013 ($45; 14.5% alcohol; screw cap) is more lithe and sinuous from the start, partly because of its fruit selection, but as much to do, I suspect, with it having a higher percentage of new and younger used barrels. Its appetising whiffs of bergamot and wintergreen are also more concentrated and tantalising. It even has some savory, by which I mean Satureja hortensis, the savoury herb that reminds me a little of tarragon.

This is obviously a finer breed of Cabernet. It's racier and more sinewy in a delightful light-footed way. It prickles and tickles the nose and sets those salivaries dribbling well before you drink any. Swallow some, and you simply want more. This drink makes me thirsty more than hungry.

And having slurped quite a lot of in a very low-mannered way, I can happily say this one really does give my exhalation some delightful perfume. Its tannins are less droll, less thick and stodgy, its lovely appetising acid on better, brighter display.

This agile wine - can we still use that word with impunity? - makes me think of paddock chook stewed with tarragon or savory and lemon and served with silver beet almost caramelised in the pan with pine nuts and fetta. Which makes me realise the reason I wanted steak and pepper with the Filius was to stomp on it. This lovely thing needs to be danced with.

Tango.

In fact, it makes me need to dance more urgently than last year's offering of Heytesbury did.

Maybe as the wild West decays the residuals believe $28 is cheap while a Heystesbury on the table makes it look like you can still afford tyres for the big Merc.

I'll look for the $45 drinkers. They probably can't afford a car, but they'll be the gourmands.

2016 VINTAGE DONE BY EASTER


Unveiling Yangarra's Ironheart Shiraz, ready for the pickers ... photo©Philip White

Climate change rocks Oz vintage 
but best vine gardeners manage great flavour anyway [this time]
by PHILIP WHITE 

Casa Blanca stands on a vast slab of solid ironstone in the Ironheart Vineyard. It is, indeed, built of ironstone. It's a true cottage in the sense of it being a small dwelling containing a cot, safe and snug. But I can tell when vintage is coming to its end by the temperature of that old rock beneath the pineboard floor: when it's cold enough underfoot for me to begin thinking about firewood and casting sideways glimpses at the axe-grinder, I know the vine roots will soon be shivering themselves into a long winter's hibernation.

There's a whole hillside of solid slab ironstone like this surrounding Casa Blanca. It was originally sand and gravel washed down from the weathering South Mount Lofty Ranges around 50 million years back. They were several kilometres higher than they now are. As iron-rich water flowed through and over this loose alluvium for many millennia, it ferruginised and turned to stone as it oxidised ... below is a gibber of loose sand in which you can see the gradual conversion to iron with the intrusion of this water combined with exposure to oxygen ... photos©Philip White


The wee beasties of the field don't like the chill. They're not stupid. My stoic hero, Marcus Aurelius Antoninus wrote of the country mouse and the city mouse, and "the consternation and trembling of the latter." The bumpkin rodents round here know none of that big metropolitan trepidation: once it's cold, and worse, wet, they simply move inside with Unca Philip and my Jesus they make a din, rattling and rustling and making nests in rare books and old boots.

There's always a stretch of autumn when we still see the odd sunny, warmish day. On these, if I open the doors, the whole damn lot of them dash back out for a frolic on the range, but soon these days are fewer, the traps will come out of their bag, and my magpies will begin to hang about their table, waiting for my offerings of those tiny fresh carcases.

The other major change is the pattern of the birds. The itinerant grape-eaters enjoy a short orgy of delight after harvest, cleaning up the ratty bunches the pickers chose to leave once the nets came off. Then they begin to thin out, leaving the cooling sky empty for those measured souls who stick about all year.

In other words, vintage is nearly done. If the wineries weren't brimming, there'd be little of this worry about getting the last of it off before the crucifixion. There'll be some ultra-ripe jam slopping about the bins after the resurrection.

Just as there was in the hot areas months back, when that early sizzle brought vintage 2016 on before 2015 had expired.

2016 was a vintage with too much weather; not enough climate. The realisation that those freak bands of weather, with record heat and record wet coming through like waves, actually build up to make climate is the scariest thing facing most Australian vintners. It's more threatening, for example, than the slightly more realistic dollar which marginal exporters in particular hate. There'll be no point in worrying about the degree of the Aussie dollar's parity with its bullying Yankee neighbour when whole vignobles finally discover, or admit, that they can no longer produce such high quality fruit.

It's not so many years ago that Easter was usually the time to celebrate the beginning of vintage.

I bumped into former Hardy's chief winemaker Peter Dawson in the village yesterday. He said that even the Tasmanian harvest is finishing six weeks early.

Cool Tasmania being the last bastion of those vignerons wise enough to plan for the possibility of the hotter mainland moving to the point when it's simply too hot for premium winegrowing.

When I find myself uttering lines like that bastard I feel the politicians who denied this possibility and keep pumping taxpayers' money into coal and fracking and other gross vandalism should not just be voted out on their arses, but locked up in bloody prison.

Time to sharpen the pitchforks and pikes as well as the axes. There'll be more tractor action like our demonstrating brethren on the threatened Liverpool Plains have been forced to mount in anger.

Farmers protesting Shenhua's  giant open pit coal mine proposal on the Liverpool Plains ... photo by Gareth Gardner for the Northern Daily Leader

One confronting pattern I see evolving with this heightening of climatic extremes is the broadening quality gap between fruit from beloved, well-placed, well-tended and understood vine gardens and that from the mindless industrial grapeyards with their mechanical petrochem spray regimes. There's a bloody great quality hole developing there in the middle range, where most of the $15 to $20 bottles grow.

Below that realm, in the sickening lakes where the bladder packs swim, is a gloopy murk to which I dare not plunge. In fact, reports from the irrigated hinterland suggest many of those who've persisted with viticulture in that sunbaked Mallee are finally beginning to give up. Even big harvesting and pruning contactors along the rivers have complained at their dwindling number of clients. Their vast machinery fleets have begun to expensively lie idle.

Having travelled and chatted, kicked tanks and barrels, and plunged my snifter into musts and mixtures in some favourite wineries along these South Mount Lofty Ranges, I can report some really good wine somehow arising from all that chaos. Wines of exceptional colour and fragrance: perhaps some of the best I've seen in many years.



photo©Philip White

One repeating aspect of the best 2016 fruit is its large degree of pulp: the juice seemed to contain a higher amount of solid, as if that short burst of record heat before Jesus' birthday conspired with the wet January and then more record heat to see the vines put on more lignin, the stiffening scaffolding that holds all plants together. This makes the musts thicker and more viscous, providing the beginnings of what may become a fuller, more unctuous texture in that eventual glass.

This pulp, with its preserving tannins and aromatic terpenes, can be beneficial early in the wine's life, adding character, bouquet and flavour, but it can also assist the wine live much longer than the fruit of more ordinary vintages. I'm game to suggest there will be 2016s which will be lauded long after my return to the great silence, dammit.

It took the burgeoning USA cannabis industry to explain the importance of terpenes and their importance to human health. All the terpenes on this 'flavour wheel' occur in wines. It's a much more practical, scientific and essential tool than the hundreds of stupid flavour wheels the wine industry has devised and promoted. Thanks to Leafly for this.

As for this Easter orgy and the end of lent? While I still await evidence that he actually existed, it's worth considering the sadism of (a) the heavenly father who sent Jesus here, or (b) those latter scribes who invented him, for insisting that when he thirsted in his death agonies, all they'd give the most famous winemaker in history was vinegar through a reed.

For some reason, there's a big crossover of folks who believe this yarn and also deny climate change.

Give them vinegar. There'll be good supplies from 2016.

19 March 2016