“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)





21 August 2008

There are no short cuts

by PHILIP WHITE - This was published in The Independent Weekly in January 2008

Check the wisdom of the Chinese gastronome, Lu Yü, writing* 1200 years ago: “There are nine ways by which man must tax himself when he has to do with tea.

“He must manufacture it. He must develop a sense of selectivity and discrimination about it. He must provide the proper implements. He must prepare the right kind of fire. He must select a suitable water. He must roast the tea to a turn. He must grind it well. He must brew it to its ultimate perfection. He must, finally, drink it. There are no short cuts.”

Our wine exporters would have done much better in China had they first studied this key to the Chinese thirst.

Tea, its agricultural, cultural lure and lore, its intricate trade pathways, its rites and respectability, were revered in China for millennia before Lu Yü swapped his tea brush for the calligrapher’s.

Halfway through his elegant, particular essay on the selection of natural waters, and the three stages of boiling it, I took a call from an Italian Australian bloke I’d never met, seeking roughly an oil tanker full of stupidly cheap Australian wine to send to China. Lu Yü’s water chapter showed much more intelligence, raw science, and selectivity than this greedy peanut showed the grog he wanted.

Too many Ocker plonkmongers regard China with the disdain our ancestors showed, addicting them to opium to avoid paying cash for our addiction to tea. Got a tank of rotten red? “Sweeten it, fizz it up, put a dragon on it and sell it to the Chinese”.

China is perfectly capable of making its own wine of this quality. It needs no more. Its grape harvest is roughly the same size as Australia’s, and given water, it can expand to greater proportions than ours. Since Mao, many French and Australian winemakers, usually barely known in their homelands, have helped boot the Chinese wine business up as the Chinese develop a thirst for the grape and its product.

Before they adapt their own tasteful tea ethic to wine, and suddenly get millennia ahead of us in the style stakes, it would have been nice if we’d also assisted them in “developing a sense of selectivity and discrimination” about wine.

We must also “provide the proper implements”. Five years back I discovered the great corkscrew and wine glass shortage: there seemed to be one corkscrew in Shanghai, another in Beijing, and the third one was lost. Red was served in thimble-sized ceramics designed for quaffing powerful rice spirits, which they call wine. Nobody knew China exported millions of corkscrews, decanters, and wine glasses.

The exceptions were more likely to ooze your nebbiolo into the appropriate Reidel. This rise of the groovy new capitalist has seen a boom of young Chinese who’ve traveled enough to know about such things, but these are mostly in the biggest cities, and are restricted to modern restaurant enclaves as you see in Shanghai.

I marveled to one rural official about the giant scope of change China was managing, suddenly swapping Mao for capitalism. “Change?” he retorted “Change? Not much change Mr. White. Plenty of change over the last five thousand years. But not lately. Not last century. Mao was a misogynist with a beer gut. He is gone.”

Of course many of these Chinese are formidable tea aficionados, and are just as likely to attend a formal tea house, with its varying degree of ritual, as they are to do deep wine bar. Either way, they’re thirsty only for a product that has been brewed “to its ultimate perfection”. They don’t want cheap sweet red fizz.

Peter Gago, the Grange maker, recently showed me the newest, most expensive Chinese wine: made from varieties we grow, to very high standards indeed; sold for hundreds of dollars in packaging more posh than any Australian export. It’s happening very quickly.

When you visit a great Chinese tea garden, you can’t help realising how quickly such specialists will master the finer aspects of viticulture. Like priceless, unique vineyards, you’ll find a certain type of tea meticulously grown, organically, in fast-draining red dirt over limestone, with a southerly aspect, managed by the one family for … how many years? You’ll more likely get the name of a dynasty than a decade.

Just as we delve the arcane wonders of China tea, so will we soon be drinking fine China wine, and I’m not talking fiery rice spirit. The race between who will supply what to whom is best called by Lu Yü: there are no short cuts, and it’ll be won by the country which can select the most suitable water. Oh, and China has recently procured the Himalaya.

It also seems to own all the money in the United States.

* Classic of Tea - Francis Ross Carpenter translation, Little Brown, 1974

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