“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)





08 November 2018


McLaren Vale turns right to Bordeaux: after all that, it's not only Rhônesome

Forget all this stuff about the Vales being like the south of France. Two local hotshots are going Bordeaux, one via Clare; one via Coonawarra.

Steve Pannell winning his fourth Bushing throne was one thing. 

In his astonishing career, he's won lots of things. Great awards well made. From bargain Nottage Hills to a spectacular Jimmy Watson-winning Eileen Hardy (first of two Jims), Pannell hasn't made much bad wine. 

Winning the Bushing for best wine in the McLaren Vale district with a Clare blend is another thing. 

Like it's not Clare at all of course, other than through that secret sinew that runs from A. P. Birks' Wendouree Cellars in Clare, into Pannell's vinous heart. In my book, Wendouree's the international high temple of that Cabernet Malbec blend, which is actually along the lines of the reds the old timers pinched from Bordeaux. 

Fourth Bushing crown for Stephen Pannell and wife Fiona Lindquist ... photo Milton Wordley

Where the Wendouree version is often tight with Zen rigour behind its delightful fragrance, staying warrior-slim, aloof and austere for decades, the same varieties grown in the constant maritime humidity of the Vales are immediately a bit more hairy. 

Velvet is the better word. From first slurp, the S. C. Pannell McLaren Vale Cabernet Malbec 2016 (14% alcohol; screw cap) is a plush velvet glove more than a shiny steel gauntlet. 

It has plenty of rigour and steely resolve, of course, at least as much poke, but delivers this with a lot more of a smooch and a grin. It's more generous, and its unfolding is more immediate. Its tannins are louder. 

Now, after a whole night's air, it's more forthright in its comforting pudge. It has let wafts of shellacky laquer and Marveer ooze out to match the initial violet and rosewood florals, adding a certain oriental parlour allure to this McLaren Vale version of a distinctive style of red made after an old Bordelaide model in Clare, South Mount Lofty Ranges, Australia. 

If you're quick, you can procure three bottles of this gorgeousness along with the previous Bushing monarch, the S. C. Pannell Touriga Cabernet Mataro 2015, in a six-pack for $300. 

Like Pannell, Tim Geddes (above) is another of those enlightened winemakers who pushes McLaren Vale's capacity to make the types of maritime blends you'd find along the north-west Mediterranean coast of France and Spain, but is just as likely to pull a Bordeaux rabbit from the same damn hat. 

He's just done this with his Geddes Seldom Inn McLaren Vale Petit Verdot 2017 ($25; 14.5% alcohol; screw cap)

Petit verdot ("little green", like the Joni Mitchell song) is a late-ripening red which became very scarce in Bordeaux as the early-ripening mellow Merlot rose to favour. Now the whole joint's so much hotter there's pressure there to reverse the trend. 

Tim has form with this variety: when he worked with Wayne Thomas they won their first Bushing Crown with an absolute cracker in 2004. That was grown on pre-Cambrian Kurrajong rubble on the Willunga piedmont; this new baby's from Darrell Hunt's sandy red stuff on the young calcrete and limestone at Maslin Beach. The profile there is freakishly like Coonawarra in some spots. 

Checking Darryl Hunt's lovely vineyard at Maslin Beach with him, Cowboy and Tim

Nothing green about this red, however. In a freaky way, its form is about halfway between those Wendouree and Pannell wines: it has the lacquer and the rose petals but in a more martial form than the Pannell. 

Some prune, dried fig, cruched blackcurrant leaves and skins coming from a cassis destemmer ... then less of the Pannell wine's fur and a whipsnake more of Wendouree's steely acid rigour. One on the table right away; six in the dungeon for a few years' growth. Frigging remarkable. 

I would love to know of other folks' reaction to these wines. The Geddes is not at all spendy for its class, so that's not trouble. Get some mates and share that six-pack from Pannell before they're all gone. Compare. Drop me a line. It'll take your mind off the vagaries of the Grenache results at this year's Bushing Show. Last year, they wanted everybody to make their Grenache like Pinot. This year, they seem to think it should be like cheap Californian Merlot. Keep your eyes on the horizon and your boots on your feet.

The Geddes family delivers the Petit Vedot in their '29 Chrysler: Tim, Lillian, Amanda and Isaac ... photos by Philip White

07 November 2018


image from DRINKSTER's star advisor on such matters: Plutonium and Gravy (Martin Pfeiffer)@NuclearAnthro

04 November 2018


Leon Bignell, the state parliamentarian for the McLaren Vale, Fleurieu Peninsula and Kangaroo Island region, worked for a while as a journalist at The Advertiser in his previous life. Usually known as Biggles, he collected the Drinkster and Bill Guy and drove us to the Big Smoke to a pub reunion of journalists who worked at The Tiser. 

Lots from the '70s. Probly too mean to die, most of us.

Bill was commonly regarded around Australia as the ace foreign desk editor. He came out of retirement to select six from from hundreds of cadetship applicants each year, and stay as their mentor. 

We both worked briefly on The Herald when Rupert bought that last of Australia's afternoon broadsheets in Melbourne. Man we can chat. We did the history of Australian newspapers from 1965 to now in that hour-long cruise. 

Biggles, who preferred the tabloid and sporting tv reportage life, suggested Bill is one of the last fluent speakers of Broadsheet: every sentence uttered had a few commas, a semi-colon; maybe a dash or two. Perfectly placed. Perfectly researched, with footnotes and a breakout. 

"Which I shall address shortly," Bill would say, finishing first his elegant feature. 

Who dare sub that? I wish we'd recorded that drive.

Late photographic despatch from Biggles: guess where we went for a rest? 

Looks like I'm still there ...


Awoke yesterday to the hum of chatter in the baby bush vine Grenache. The experts were in, plucking excess shoots from these tiny ten-year-old strugglers; giving them a cuddle and a clean: some encouragement in the face of a very dry year.  They are in sparse clay and sand over slab terrazzo ironstone. Every one grows a bunch or two: last vintage they were picked early for the Yangarra rosé. These will be the old vines of the future. Here's a dormant bubby last year, and another doing its best for vintage.

I kid you not about terrazzo: in some places, under just a few centimetres of sandy clay it's like this:

31 October 2018


Doctors cut my heart out: O'Leary Walker saves with Riesling transplant

It must have been a very complex sociological mess in the North Mount Lofty Ranges through the early years of white colonisation. 

Think of the Clare hills. While the Ngadjeri people were ravaged by the disease the newcomers brought, you had Austrian Jesuits building their church retreat, school, and pub at Sevenhill, Mexican muleteers carting Burra copper south, from one wine shanty to another, Irish farmworkers clearing country for forage and stock, posh British landowners building themselves grand homestead estates, and then an influx of Polish settlers who made their home at the head of the Hill River. 

John Ruciak - the last Pole to live in the Polish Valley: John kept fastidious copperplate diaries, recording the weather and the constant daily changes in vineyards and gardens. I photographed him in the early 'eighties, here at his cottage without electricity or reticulated water. He was born in this house, and kept his diaries in the sea trunks his parents used to bring their possessions to Australia.

The British government's Letters Patent attachment to its Act establishing its new privateers' colony officially rendered the original owners to suddenly be British subjects. 

It stated, however, that this country was the property of these ancient civilisations and ruled in their protection, declaring that the whites should do nothing to "affect the rights of any Aboriginal natives of the said province to the actual occupation and enjoyment in their own persons or in the persons of their descendants of any land therein now actually occupied or enjoyed by such natives"

The occupiers ignored this; the Ngadjeri who somehow survived the booze and disease and relentless clearances ended up virtually derelict around Riverton and Willochra. 

The first official cartouche of the colony of South Australia: Britannia discussing her spear with a Kaurna man at Rapid Bay

Once Jeffrey Grosset set up his brave new winery at Auburn, he began purchasing fruit from a 1970 planting of Riesling near the little Roman Catholic chapel the Polish settlers had built on a hillock at the source of the Hill River. This place was colloquially known as Polish Valley. Grosset called his wine Polish Hill Riesling. It was an instant hit. 

In reality, this "river" is more an occasional stream flowing after good rain from the hills near Mintaro, to disperse on what must have been rich peppermint gum forest on the flats to the north and east. This flat alluvial ground has gradually gone saline since clearance, but at the stream's source on the ancient geologies of the hills very fine wine grapes can be grown. 

For some years, the fruit of this old vineyard, managed organically on sandstone and slate, and owned by a couple of visionary heart surgeons, has gone instead to O'Leary Walker Winemakers at Watervale. It's the heart of their outstanding Polish Hill River Riesling. In exceptional years (like two of them - 2013 and now 2017) its best selection makes Drs' Cut, made vaguely after the Alsace style with wild yeast, slow ferment and 6 months on yeast lees. 

O'Leary Walker Winemakers Drs' Cut Polish Hill River Riesling 2017 ($40; 12.5% alcohol; screw cap) is possibly the best Clare Riesling I've encountered. It replaces the '13, which was perhaps the previous best, but that's finally sold out, dammit. 

The wine is immediately smooth, harmonised, rich and highly complex. All manner of florals and fruits, tropical and citrus ooze around the glass with wisps of honey and lime marmalade. It is a bigger, more luxurious bouquet than most Chablisienne Chardonnay, but never seems awkward or corpulent. I don't mean to corral it unfairly - it'll saunter off wherever and whenever it likes, anyway - but that bouquet alone has me suggesting it's a Riesling for hardcore Burgundy fetishists. Think of a rocking firm acid Mersault without overt oak. 

The form of the palate, its weight and texture, is more refined, tight and poised than that bouquet teases you to expect. It's rich and rewarding without being cloying or syrupy. It's utterly calm, polished and silky, with the tiniest dusting of tannin embracing the acids in its langorous taper. 

Its flavours have barely stirred yet - while they're complex, full and polished, they've hardly started. 

While I enjoy the edgy steel and acrid cordite and slate of the 2013, this has all that, but it's more fleshy, more heady, more idyllic wine. It will accompany the oilier bottom-feeding fish - scallops, crustaceans, flathead - brilliantly, offering more harmony than the crunchy contrast of the '13. 

I can't wait til I find the right lightly-smoked wurst to make a proper choucroute, the Alsace version of sauerkraut. Spicy roast spuds, a stack of wine-cooked pickled cabbage, those snags, a touch of crunchy smoked bacon  and a big whack of creamy mustard stirred with cognac ... a bottle of Drs' Cut swelling in the decanter ... cut my mustard, baby ... grrrrr! 

So, typically, we have a truly great and rare wine whose complexity and grandeur can't help but invoke in me contemplations of all those collisions of human history and the lands where they were committed. 

It makes the whole marvel more profound, unlikely and cruel.

30 October 2018


Yalumba The Y Series Barossa Riesling 2018 
($15; 11.5% alcohol, screw cap)

Meadow-fresh and limy at the top; honeydew flesh in the middle; deep leafy greens and petiols in the basement: if this is any measure of Australia's $15 Riesling we have little to worry about. It has better unction than most of the water-and-acid cheapies available further down the discount shelf: it's really pleasantly viscous, a texture that brings comfort and reassurance, and dare I say, makes the glass more of drink than a think. Which is never to say it can't be pondered. Good wine for $15. 

Yalumba The Y Series South Australia Sauvignon Blanc 2018 
($15; 12.5% alcohol; screw cap) 

As far as aromas go, this is pretty much like the Riesling but devoid of everything but the grass. They've worked hard at this wine's texture, too: they've had the pillow-fluffers in. 

Which seems a bit out-of-context: if there was a variety one reached for where one didn't expect a fluffy middle, surely it would be the blonde Savvy? 

Forget think; this is more of a wink than a drink. Savvy-b does not work up the River. This is barely-dressed ethanol. 

Yalumba The Y Series South Australia Pinot Grigio 2018 
($15; 12.5% alcohol; screw cap) 

There's a great deal of grey Pinot: grigio, gris around the traps, most of which serves simply to prove to me that anywhere one wouldn't attempt to grow Pinot noir will be no good for its paler sports. 

Pinot noir, same bunch, with Pinot blanc and one berry that can't decide, but strangely, no intermediate gris/grigio/grey ... Rathfinny Estate, Sussex, UK

Pinot grows best in Burgundy, where winter snow is not unusual. I've not seen much snow in the Mallee lately, but I'm sure Pastor Morrison will do something about that with his direct link to the king of heaven at today's big drought summit. They'll probably heal the River. 

In the meantime, this is a melony, fleshy thing to smell: a bit like warm-area Chardonnay. Like the Savvy, it's all about unction. It's thin on the flavour, but thick in the flesh. 

Yalumba The Y Series South Australia Chardonnay 2018 
($15; 13% alcohol; screw cap) 

While Chardonnay is a Burgundian child, like Pinot, this baby's more of a Chardonnay than the Grigio is, which would seem to make some sense. Warm area Chardonnay: insinuations of canned/poached peach and pear with their satisfying syrup, but little of the racy, bracing natural acidity the grape makes when grown properly cool. 

Not a noticeable splinter of focussing oak, either. 

This is one for the ham and pineapple pizza, or maybe some Colonel Sadness chook. 

You don't get snow in the vast Mallee/desert section of the Murray Darling River Basin, but patchy summer hail is not rare ... photo Steve Nitschke
Yalumba The Y Series South Australia Viognier 2018
($15; 13.5% alcohol; screw cap) 

Viognier? This smells a bit like Chardonnay, with that Chinese bean custard/curdy flesh that sometimes comes through secondary fermentation and lots of stirring in of the dead yeast lees. 

The flavour is better balanced than the Savvy-B or the Pinot-G, and seems to have a little more of the acid I wanted in the Chardonnay. It has none of the disctinctive grainy tannin I expect in good cool region Viognier, but then we wouldn't go surprising the punters with a tad of natural tannin in the tail of their palest tincture, would we? Admittedly, the label does say "silky". 

So, whatter we got with these Y's? First and foremost, $15. And maybe less in the Hungry Dans of this world. 

The Murray at Yalumba's Oxford Landing vineyard ... photo Yalumba

Second, lots of River. These European varieties from cool continental sources simply don't adapt well to the Australian desert, regardless of how much water we afford them. 

Third, not a lot of challenge, which is not what the sub $15 market segment is expected to expect. 

It is no surprise that the one wine that claims a region slightly more focused than "South Australia", that Riesling from the Barossa, is by far the best drink of the suite and the one which most closely resembles the more spendy Old World snow country examples our pioneers dutifully attempted to copy.

photo Milton Wordley