“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)





20 September 2008

Zin is in, in a primitivo way

by PHILIP WHITE - from The Indepedendent Weekly 22 August 2008

Kevin and Helen O’Brien, of Kangarilla Road, hosted a brave tasting at The Lion last week. It’s always risky, presenting your wines on the blind, against direct rivals, but doing it with confounding and difficult varieties like zinfandel and primitivo is a real gamble. These ancients are so deep in tradition, contradiction and mystery, that they make that elusive will-o-the-wisp, pinot noir, look easy.

When I was Sex Pistol-whipped punk with ripple soles and no respect, I was amused by this new zin thing from California. But it took more than a “ZIN IS IN” badge and a set of papal purple lips to unlock the secrets of such an ancient freak. California told us that zinfandel was a Spanish mission grape which had morphed or mutated or whatever in the stiff chill of the High Sierra, and was therefore unique to California.

It was a surprise to soon discover Cambrai, in McLaren Vale, made zin. It was in Western Australia, too, which seemed as far away as California thirty quick years ago.

Winemakers were scared of zin: it regularly grows grapes of widely-ranging ripeness. When cabernet grows dead reliably, like weeds, well, why would you worry with something so hard to grow, difficult to pick, weird to vinify, and nearly impossible to sell. When I eventually found some zin in Margaret River, I was astonished to discover bunches with great fat sweet berries as big as table grapes, nestled there beside normal sized ones and others like bitter little lentils.

This presents real problems when deciding when to pick: some of the bunch has almost obscene sugar, the rest is tight with bitter acid. So it’s possible to get wines which seem like a blend of jam and lemon juice.

At Cape Mentelle, David Hohnen gradually beat his zin into something resembling submission, and I recall recommending one sixteen or seventeen per cent brute that tasted like “King Kong in Manolo Blahnik stilettos”. That pleased the Mentelle PR lady no end: that style was their goal.

Eventually Chris Ringland went off to Puglia, Italy’s heel, and made very successful La Corte primitivo, which by then was thought to be zinfandel, and was indeed the most prolifically-grown grape in Calabria. This, and other cult items, like the A-Mano, made by American Mark Shannon in Italy’s south, began to appear on lists like the off-the-wall fruitcake of the Exeter.

Fruitcake’s the word for primitivo, too. You can get wine which tastes as complex and fruity as fruitcake, but soused in acid and alcohol that could be kirsch and lemon juice. Otherwise, the wines tend to be too big, strong, fat and dumb, like the strange beasts we were offered from the Adelaide Hills during recent years: prematurely aging, leathery, sweet-and-dry reds.

Helen O’Brien’s research now shows that primitivo has thousands of years of history, while zinfandel doesn’t quite stretch back two centuries. We do know now that both, if indeed they are much different, descended from the ultra-rare crljenak kasteljanski of Croatia. The thirsty seafarers of the Mediterranean had it growing all over Italy’s sole way back in antiquity; but, true to form, the Italian agricultural bureaucracy never mentioned primitivo until forty years after zinfandel was first documented in the USA, around 1870.

Of the sextet of primitivo presented at The Lion, my highest points went to the Layer Cake 2006 (13.4%; $20; 92+) made in Puglia by Jayson Woodbridge. Its lower alcohol gave it vibrant ozone and blueberry tones; its tannins crunchy and rough. On the other hand, the ancient Italian house, Feudi di San Gregorio/Tenuata Ognissole’s Primitivo di Manduria 2006 (14.4%; $22; 92+) seemed very tidy and well-formed, with delicious ripe raspberry, like grenache, and zingy, sherbety acid. The Kangarilla Road Fleurieu Primitivo 2006 ($22; 16%; 88++ points) seemed not quite ready, with its incredible iron/cassis/framboise explosion of fruit suddenly leaving me with persistent, challenging tannin that made me yearn for large amounts of hearty Italian tucker.

My average score for the six zinfandels was a full ten points short of the primitivos. The Seghesio Home Ranch Sonoma 2006 ($32; 15.5%, 88) from an 1895 planting, was the best Californian, with just enough deep cherry to counterplay its abrasive, hunger-provoking tannin. Locally, the Kabminye Barossa 2006 ($38; 16.3%; 88+) seemed similar - in its vibrant ozone freshness - to the Layer Cake, despite the large alcohol difference, and its weird counterpoint of cassis and prune syrup with lemon juice and hot alcohol.

Then the Kangarilla Road Black St Peter’s 2006 ($34; 15.5%; 88+), from those 1975 plantings of Cambrai, which the O’Brien’s bought eleven years ago, was classic schizozin: an entertaining see-saw of fruit liqueur, licorice and lemons, finishing, of course, with that omnipresent, staunch tannin.

Visit O’Brien’s cellar soon, and talk all this stuff over. Or you can e-mail them with queries: kangarillaroad@bigpond.com. Time to commit some zin.

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