“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)





22 August 2008


Pinot is like Riesling

by PHILIP WHITE - This was first published in The Independent Weekly in 2006

“I’ve learned about three things about pinot in the last twenty-five years” muttered Stephen George, who often makes my favourite Australian versions of it at Ashton Hills. He didn’t expand. Already halfway into the car, I left without asking. We’ve been discussing pinot noir for decades.

Pinot is a felicitous, difficult, but sometimes heady, sensual, hypnotic and salacious red grape. Stephen’s success in it comes from his curious sensory intelligence and stoic patience, as much as from the high altitude, cool, and peculiar soil of the vineyard. He and his partner, Peta van Rood, acquired this from her pioneering parents, Peter and Sophie, both deceased. Commenced in 1982, it’s away up in the crown of the Piccadilly Valley, near Mount Bonython, and they’ve spent the years trialling many ways of growing many clones of the same variety.

You will usually find pinot addicts where the best duck or pig is served. They guts in exclusive bunches, bellies nudging the table like the rubbing strakes of so many tugboats, perversely muttering and mooing over very big glasses. The hard core will never be seen drinking pinot from anywhere other than Burgundy. If more of them could be as relaxed about their fetish as Stephen and Peta, good pinot would be a much bigger hit.

At Ashton Hills, a bottle might cost you thousands of dollars less than the preposterous legends from Burgundy.

Proper pinot is more like riesling in structure than any red grape. Pinot is about acidity, and grown in the right places, riesling is the king of acidity.

Riesling has fruit aromas of lemon, lime, pear, nashi pear, and to a lesser degree of acidity and spine, banana, pineapple, and sometimes white stone fruits. The best pinots have the same rapier of acidity as great rieslings, and share the same lithe texture, weight and structure, but their fruit aromas are cranberry, raspberry, various sorts of cherry, baby beetroot, pink meats, and whatnot. Pink and light red, not white and yellow.

As great rieslings age, their fruits decay to marmalades of lime, lemon, ginger, and maybe even orange. Pinots, too, become more like conserves of the fruits they began with. Not full-bore, boiled jams, but lighter conserves, where there are still whole berries in the mix. The fruit remains alive. Oak provides cinnamon and nutmeg spicing.

Acids have individual flavours. Tartaric tastes metallic. Ascorbic - vitamin C – is like aluminium. Citric’s all lemons and limes. Oxalic acid’s soursobs and rhubarb. Aspalgic has mild flavour, but smells like the water closet at an asparagus dinner. Malic acid’s slightly less metallic than tartaric or ascorbic. Lactic acid is fatty, creamy, and custardy, like the first drink you get after the Big Nurse smacks you on the bum and hands you back to your new Mother. Comforting, and milky. These occur in wine; mystifying combinations occur in Pinot.

I’m overwhelmed by the power and acidity of the Ashton Hills Riesling 2005 ($19, 13 per cent alcohol, and 93 points). Like the Swedish fencing instructor I never had, she’s lithe, wiry, sensual and lean. I want her to thrash me long after she’s grey.

The entry level Ashton Hills Piccadilly Pinot Noir 2005 ($24; 13.5; 88 points) has coarser tannin than its more expensive kin. That makes it more macho: the furry tannin covers its acid spine. It lacks sensuality, but it’s your best opener.

Move up to the $45, 2005 Estate model (all from the estate vineyard – 14%; 93 points) and you see more cherry and lemon, and a great deal more sensuality with that finer tannin, greater viscosity, and more prominent acidity. Like the riesling, this wine will earn more points as it matures.

And so will the ravishing 2004 Reserve ($56; 14%; 94). It’s gorgeous. Maraschino, raspberry, wild cherry, spicy oak, slender but sensual viscosity, and heaps of natural acid, from newly ripening cherries to lime and lemon, are its hallmarks.

Half way through what I thought was my own radical posturising, Stephen produced a book that also suggested pinot was like riesling. Miffed,I refuse to remember it. “Most of the places that grow good pinot will grow good riesling”, he said, avoiding mention of Burgundy, where the arcane appellation laws forbid riesling plantations. “But it doesn’t always work in reverse.”

More mystification. More thirst.

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