“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)





16 August 2008

An environmental triumph

This was fisrt published in The Independent Weekly in November 2007

Where once ran water, only woe, horror and rage now flood down the Murray. Suddenly, furious blockers picket our parliament like only the violent French would. Desperate to recall what it was like to manage a winery in hard times, the transnational grape refineries struggle to juggle their diminishing returns. Big family wineries are forced to pay their suppliers on delivery. Overhead, sprinklers squirt mindlessly.

“The wine industry will never be the same”, Peter Dawson, Hardy’s senior vice-president of operations, murmured at a party at Paxton’s in March.

It’s a lot worse now. Last week Dawson announced his company’s retreat from its refinery on the River in Victoria, to regroup this side of the border at its Berri Estates, where fifty new jobs might be created.

Never pleased with my thirty years of preaching that Murray Valley viticulture could not be sustained as it was, and that smart wineries should be concentrating their efforts on making better wines for more profit with less environmental and social destruction, Dawson finally announced that his company needed to shift its focus to more profitable wines. But he said “higher-priced”, not “higher quality”.

“The wine industry is not globally competitive at lower price points”, he said. “We should be striving to get all of our Australian wine into higher-priced bottled products.”

Hardy’s have always been prickly at my Banrock Station scepticism. While they market their award-winning property as an environmental triumph, one might ask whether it’s a broadacre big-cropping industrial grapeyard where slightly salty River water is pumped onto an ancient dried-out seabed full of much stronger salt. The little bags of sugar that grow are processed and refined to become what I imagine the senior vice-president of operations would call lower-priced softpack products, until they put it all in bottles.

Use some profit to take the sheep off an old station, and reeds and redgums return to the riverbank. An environmental triumph. Let a swamp develop, call it a wetlands. Another triumph. Then empty the wetlands to put more water in the River, when it gets really crook. Another triumph. 100,000 admiring visitors a year walk the trails, admiring the rejuvenated scrub and riverfront, but the reality of the vineyard is never made quite so clear.

Last week also saw the release of another of the endless scientific reports on the River. This finally put a dollar value on the natural filtration effected by one hectare of working wetland – a higher value than one hectare of productive irrigated land. That is a triumph.

The River has always washed itself. But because there’s been so much poison to be filtered and broken down by the reeds and the weeds and sedge, wetlands which are now being deliberately dried out may never recover. While the dirty water kept them alive, the concentrates now drying in their crusty beds may be too harsh for regrowth.

The whisky bottle was beginning its conciliatory wink when, miraculously, a bottle of O’Donohoe’s Find Tom’s Drop Mourvèdre Shiraz arrived. On its label is an 1896 photograph of the O’Donohoe Brothers’ Hillen Grove Condenser. Michael O’Donohoe’s grandfather, Tom, and his six brothers lobbed on the Kalgoorlie goldfields from County Cork. Traditionally, Irishmen knew how to turn cloudy weak ale into clear powerful poteen in a copper pot still. But O’Donohoes built a desalination business by distilling salty bore water. During the day, anyway. Scouring their photograph, I suspect tradition may have returned at night. Nice marketing.

The vineyard responsible for Tom’s Drop is an environmental triumph. Not only do they need less water, but Michael and Jan are probably cleaning river water by running it through their organic vine garden. “The vineyard is part of a polyculture of trees, vines, plants and creatures” their back label explains. “We endeavour to mimic nature, maintain diversity, and focus on the relationship between soils, plants, and animals.” The living soil below their organic mulch has not been disturbed by machinery for 26 years. They won their Level A Organic certificate in 1990. The crop is always below two tonnes per acre.

And where is this? At Berri. So there’s three examples of nice marketing. Which has the truest ring?

One acre of dirt can never produce more than one acre of flavour. You can squirt on plenty of water and spread your acre of flavour over twenty tonnes of sultana, or chardonnay, seasoned with pesticide, fungicide, and herbicide. Or kill the hose and the poisons, get that mulch going, and squeeze your acre of flavour into a tonne or two of living essence like Tom’s Drop. And guess what happens? You get better wine. For which people are prepared to pay more, because they’re not stupid.

my picks

Coates Organically Grown McLaren Vale Shiraz 2005
$30; 14.5% alcohol; diam cork; 93+++ points
Duane Coates’ third release from the organic Strachan vineyard on the Willunga escarpment proves the provenance of these wisely sensitive minds and some very special soil. Made with wild yeast and zilch intervention, filtering or fining, it smells earthy and wholesome, with the truffly, mossy forest floor aromas you’ll find in great Rhone Hermitage, like the 1978. Judicious oak – some Russian - has given it a fine layer of old spice box. It’s lush, but not too syrupy, with the sorts of velvety tannin and staunch natural acidity that can’t help but make you hungry. Uncommonly fine wine. Pork cutlets, lots of crackling. www.coates-wines.com

Lazy Ballerina McLaren Vale Shiraz 2006
$25; 15.5% alcohol; diam cork; 93+++ points
James Hook, vine scientist, wrangles this California Road vineyard, mostly for a local refinery which uses the fruit as a strengthening essence. Nothing industrial about James’ share: fanatical environmentally-conscious detail to growing, minimal watering, and on through all the traditional winemaking you can think of at Redheads Studio. I wonder how much that shagged dancer’s drunk: this sets MY feet tapping. It’s beautiful, wholesome, dense shiraz, and quite rightfully, the one per cent viognier adds only fine tannin, not the sickening peach syrup some boofheads insist on. A year or two of dungeon will see this glory really glow. Cassoulet. http://www.lazyballerina.com/

Mountadam Eden Valley Shiraz Viognier 2006
$25; 13.8% alcohol; screw cap; 93+ points
Con Moschos, formerly one of Croser’s valkyries at Petal, finally moved to a more impressive Valhalla at Mountadam, and has quickly set the cosmos rippling with this vibrant cracker. It breaks all my rules about this blend requiring only a few per cent of viognier: I couldn’t believe my sensories when Mosh smugly informed me this contains ten per cent! Mountadam’s so lofty and cool the slender vio adds only tannin to a lighter, cool climate shiraz. So much so, the wine’s more along the lines of a racy north Italian nebbiolo, whose DNA is almost identical to viognier’s, after all. It’s lovely, appetizing, crunchy wine. Hare, or venison. www.mountadam.com

Yangarra McLaren Vale Grenache 2006
$28; 15% alcohol; screw cap; 94+++ points
Jess Jackson, the patrician USA supermarket chain owner and grenache tragic, owns this amazing vineyard on the big Blewett Springs sands dune at the Kangarilla end of the Willunga Basin. 60 year old bush vines and canny Vales winemaker Peter Fraser add up to one of the best grenaches I know. In the world. These miraculous sands give burnished hints of Parade Gloss and Marveer, lavendar, rhubarb, cloves, anise, chocolate and nutmeg - an overall feeling that’s more your hot-blooded flamenco dancer full of tapas and tempranillo than your usual cherry and raspberry bomb grenache. Knockout! Tapas; Iberian ham; beef haunch. http://www.yangarra.com/

O’Donohoe’s Find Tom’s Drop Organic Mourvèdre Shiraz 2005
$20; 14% alcohol; screw cap; 94+ pointsMichael O’Donohoe’s vineyard’s been certified Level A organic since 1990. The soil below his mulch hasn’t been disturbed for 26 years. Infinitesimal watering, an absolute maximum of two tones of fruit per acre, and an obsession with maintaining a vineyard that’s “a polyculture of trees, vines, plants and creatures” gives us a hearty, characterful, beautifully balanced living red with a bouquet of cosmetics and cream as much as wild live berries. But they’re there: under that heady perfume, there’s a plump Christmas pudding of nuts and fruits. Sinuous, lithe, perfectly tannic: it’s a miracle. And it comes from the Riverland. http://www.tomsdrop.com.au/

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