“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)





17 August 2008

Tasting the dirt

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

Now that the vintage Band-aids are coming off, it was a great treat last week to taste a sweeping selection of the Barossa’s 2008 shiraz. All were single-barrel samples, so anything could happen on the blender’s bench between now and the bottle.

I say Band-aids, because never before have I witnessed so many industrial accidents during a vintage. Knuckles, fingertips, toes, feet, noggins - all bore the brunt of humans working utterly ridiculous hours under totally unfair pressure in close proximity to great big things made from steel, many of which move.

But the Band-aids are coming off the wines, too: it’s now much easier to see the true nature of these woody babies. And while this tasting did NOT include much wine picked after the arrival of the worst heat wave on record, it certainly included fifty or so of the best of those picked in the sublime cool before that heat, and they’re very good.

The tasting was also a ground-breaker in that we poured the wines in groups according to their geological sources. I’ve gone on a lot lately about geology, but suddenly, in the local haute couture of wine, geology is the New Black. Even James Halliday was quoting what sounded like precise geological ages, reporting Brian Croser’s wines in The Weekend Australian last Saturday.

There’d been constant opposition to organizing a Barossa tasting on geological bases since I first suggested it in 1983. People thought it would become an appellation which they did not want; others obviously would do anything to avoid discovering that their geology wasn’t everybody’s favourite. My response has always been to suggest that this delineation is not a man-made imposition or regulation, because it is, very simply, already in the ground. It is there. Why not consider it? That’s what we did at Yalumba last week, and I don’t think things will ever be the same.

To those who are reluctant to admit to a direct influence on wine flavour from geology, which includes soils, subsoils, bedrock and whatever, I suggest they mount a similar tasting and look for the taste of salt. Salt is, of course, just one of the many compounds which come from geology, and, through the roots of the plant, very directly influences the flavour of the wine. Each year, more and more of the vineyards along the Barossa’s creek lines produce salty flavours.

This happens, too, in Clare, Padthaway, McLaren Vale, Langhorne Creek and just about everywhere. Australia is, after all, mainly comprised of ancient sea beds. It’s full of salt.

Just as wine is eighty per cent water. And water is, as John Gilbert wisely pointed out last week, “the ultimate solvent”. This becomes sap, which becomes juice. Then, apart from all the glycerols, fragrances, polyalcohols and other alcohols, on top of the thirty or forty organic acids in wine, as well as all the nitrogenous stuff, like the amino acids, apart from all the polyphenols and tannins, the pigments and vitamins, come the mineral salts of chlorides, phosphates and sulphates, locked onto calcium, magnesium, potassium, and sodium – all through the water, the sap – before you begin thinking about the trace elements: fluorine, boron, iodine, silicon, zinc, iron, manganese and what not.

So as we tasted our way through, and across, the Barossa’s natural history, we discovered little glimpses of this pretty flavour and that common to certain sub-regions. This infernally complex wave of new knowledge will snowball as more such tastings produce more intelligence, eventually making it much easier for blenders to produce better wine, and much easier for those single-vineyard producers with truly unique geology to win praise for their distinction.

Call such a technology an appellation if you will, but at least realise that it’s coming up from beneath. It was here first.

And if we’re really about to tackle the very best of France and the Old World, instead of drowning in the sickening downward gurgle of the discount gutter, we shall have to very quickly learn about our geology, just as the French have learned theirs for many centuries, and have regulated their plantings accordingly.

There will be many spats. Former geologist and tea and liquor merchant, David Farmer, is obviously exciting some Barossa winemakers with his theorizing, and he seems keen to prove the map I promoted here last week, W. A. Fairburn’s learned work from PIRSA, is wrong, which brings the Coonawarra boundary dispute to mind, but, you know, oh well. Get published; get it all approved by your peers, and on we’ll go.

The day after this tasting, I was greatly pleasured to taste the 2008 barrels of Greenock Creek Vineyards and Cellars according to the various local geologies, and suggest they are the most profoundly stimulating wines I have seen yet from 2008. Not the slightest hint of Band-aid.

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