“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 September 2008

Through the past, darkly

by PHILIP WHITE - This was published in The Independent Weekly on 5 September 2008

Around 1982, I was pleasured to conduct a preliminary tasting of the fifty or so wines assembled from the Yalumba Museum for that year’s Museum Tasting. Michael Broadbent, the impeccably besuited gentleman wine scribe from London’s port-and-stilton clubland, and Len Evans, his opposite number in more ways than one, were my co-tasters.

Amongst the treasures on display was an old Australian red I quite loved. It was not in perfect condition, but it delighted me. In his round-up of our opinions, delivered instructively from a lecturn to the lucky throng who were about to do the same tasting, Evans shat on me for my appreciation of the wine, suggesting I could not see volatile acidity should I drown in it.

“Young White”, he’d always say. “Not a bad writer, but we’ll have to get him up to the Hunter to teach him a thing or two about wine”. He never missed such an opportunity. Broadbent, by the way, seemed to like the wine as much as I did.

It was a Caldwell red from 1937, a blend of Barossa shiraz and a Hunter component, probably made by the great Maurice O’Shea. Two bottles were for sale at the next day’s auction. The bidding went ballistic, but I prevailed. I had never spent so much on two bottles of wine.

I settled them, and drank them a week later at the Uraidla Aristologist. One bottle was poor, but still quite drinkable, the other in quite good nick for a forty-five year old.

A few weeks later I was in Western Australia with the winemakers of Hardy’s, and Bill Hardy raided the cellar at Houghton to find some old glories to be served, blind, at dinner. One bottle immediately rang my bells. “It’s not the same, but it reminds me of the Caldwell I recently bought at the Barossa vintage auction”, I said.

Bill was incredulous. This was a Western Australian red, from, I think, 1938.

“It’s from the other side of the country, Whitey”, he said. “But it’s made by Charlie Kelly, the same winemaker who blended that Caldwell in Sydney the year before.” Snap.

After working at Caldwell, an old-style negociant and blending house, Charles W. Kelly went to the West to make the wines at Valencia, where Bill worked with him before Kelly’s retirement in 1977. He was the grandson of Dr. A. C. Kelly, one of the first owners of Tintara, and author of the 1867 E. S. Wigg publication, Winegrowing in Australia, one of the colony’s first viticulture bibles.

A few weeks ago, I feasted at Norberto’s house of meat in Hutt Street, with Peter Gago, Patrick Conlon and Peter Vaughan. The latter, a fearsome wine collector, brought two rare bottles; Gago, of course, had dug deep as well.

Vaughan’s first offering was immediately recognised: the 1937 Caldwell, now gnarled and obviously very old, perhaps a little volatile, but certainly not poisonous. What a thrill to put such a slice of history into the gizzards!

“Best looking 71 year old in the country” Patrick gurgled. “Sweet and full of vinegar, but lush, live and lovely”, my notes enthuse.

Vaughan’s next offering was in near perfect condition. It was Maurice O’Shea’s Mount Pleasant Light Dry Red from the legendary Stephen hermitage vineyard, from 1952, my birth vintage. This was exquisite wine, in no worse condition than, say a five-year-old Bass Phillip, and certainly in better nick than many of the hyper-expensive Clarendon Hills offerings much beloved of Robert Parker Jr..

“Utterly wondrous!” I scribbled.... “Olives, bread, caramel, fudge, mealy tannin....96 points....looks much better than me!”.

Gago then poured Max Schubert’s crowning glory, the 1962 Bin 60A blend of Coonawarra shiraz and Kalimna cabernet. I’d had this wine many times with Max, and had feared that since his death, any fresh bottles with good corks had all gone. But this one, virtually straight from the cellar it had occupied since the day of its bottling, was alarmingly fresh and saucy in a “so whatter you lookin at?” manner.

The fascinating thing about it, however, was its preponderance of raw American oak. In the days when I drank such wonders with Max, nearly all of our top reds were covered in sappy, coconutty American oak, so the 60A never appeared outstanding for its wood. Compared to many, in fact, it always seemed perfectly balanced. But now, since we’ve moved on to much more suitable, finer-grained oaks from the cooler forests of France, the poor old thing was more of an audacious, out-of-fashion artefact, if indeed delicious and still cheeky. 96 points, two of them for emotion.

So never believe the winemaker who tells you “it’s pretty woody now with that spicy American, but it’ll assimilate with time”. American oak has no more chance of assimilating than the lumps of amber sap that have bobbed around the Baltic for millions of years.

Romney Park Barossa Shiraz 2006

$48; 14.5% alcohol; Diam cork; 94++ points

From the deep red dirt over the clay, bluestone and schist of the Barossa piedmont near Bethany, this rare, priceless wine is worth stocking up, since some boofhead who had no right to them put a mechanical harvester over the old bush vines this year, and simply headed off with the grapes. We know who he is. This is classic piedmont fruit: all deep and mysterious, with dried prune, stewed blackberry, mulberry and blueberry; a twist of carob bean; a lick of aniseed balls; a shot of mint; beetroot … and even while its finish is bone dry and schisty rather than slenderly tannic, it’s still elegant. Rostbif. 0439 398 366

Grosset Polish Hill Clare Riesling 2008

$44; 13% alcohol; screw cap; 93++ points

Deceptively reluctant to emerge at first – don’t chill it; cool it - this wine eventually exudes a pleasing, teasing whiff of nashi pear and a certain creaminess, like ly-chee. It gradually builds up a wet flagstone base note, giving it an almost Austrian authority, like some Salomon. Similarly, the palate’s creamy and lush, with a longer, more comforting finish than that slaty bouquet promised. Then you disturb a severe wall of lemon-and-lime acidity and sombre stone, and begin to realise this is a wine for very long-term cellaring indeed. It’s a beauty. Choucroute with parsnips and smoky speck. www.grosset.com

Petaluma Clare Valley Riesling 2008

$30; 12.5% alcohol; screw cap; 93++ points

Brrrrr. Here’s another ravishing example of the outstanding rieslings made in Clare before the heatwave turned everything to Aeroplane Jelly. I know, I know you’ve heard the descriptor before, but there are no other words for it: this smells like flagstone soaked in lime juice. It’s a scrumptious, unctuous, confounding wine: huge in force and presence, but still impeccably elegant and reserved. It has fresh healthy fruit spongily wrapped around a chassis of rapier acidity, with phenolics and tannins that resemble the Hanlin’s Hill rock, with maybe just a little tease of strawberry pith. One of Petal’s best. Salmon confit.

Morillon Port Phillip Estate Tete du Cuvée Mornington Peninsula Pinot Noir 2006

$??; 13.5% alcohol; Diam cork; $93++ points

I spose if you’re copying a wine style from France you might also copy their ling. This coulda bin called sumpin different. But it doesn’t jam in my craw, the ling. Nor does the wine. I like the fact that it’s not a juicy fruity pinot, filling the Port Phil’s top bot, nor is it a big tannic bugger, pretending it contains shiraz but not really. This is perfectly balanced, perfectly formed young pinot, understated in almost every way. But add all that understatement together, and you’ve got a simple, humble, plainly crafted antipodean wine that should have the haunches of all Burgundy ashiverin. Nice knock. Spare ribs. www.portphillip.net

Romney Park Adelaide Hills Merlot 2005

$25; 14.5% alcohol Diam cork; 93++ points

Real merlot’s freaky - it likes to keep its roots wet. So this vineyard’s as happy as a swine in the mire, on the banks of the Onkaparinga at Balhannah. It’s delightful, highly stylish wine, intense but sublimely elegant, with that heady, dark smell of swamp myrtle, with its waxy leaves. Blackberry vines, too, with ripe fruit. Unless you’re used to Petrus or La Pin, forget everything you’ve heard about merlot: this strapping, highly appetising bargain IS NOT MELLOW. With enough fine tannin to ensure at least a decade’s dungeon, it’s utterly scrumptious now. Juicy cutlets and reduced spinach. Call 0439 398 366

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