“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)





11 January 2009



Don't Follow Us, Texas -- We're Not Sure Yet
(Don't Repeat The Aussie Cab Kaboom, Nor Your Own Petrochem Bean/Corn Blowout)


In Tokyo in 2002, I was introduced to a local wine writer whose reputation, I was assured, was equal to that of Robert Parker Jr..

I was ushered to a tiny Italian-style Japanese restaurant to meet this bloke, a little annoyed because he had not been published in English, which made it difficult to understand this likening to the Parkerilla.

I'd prefer to know my man.

I’m sure he was similarly annoyed that I hadn’t been published in Japanese. I wonder what they told him I was like.

Funny thing, though, in China in that same week, even in the outback, the officials had been briefed of my record with astonishing accuracy, regardless of my dearth of Mandarin or Cantonese publishing.

Anyway, we’re in this little joint and the Parkerilla man eventually arrives with a test for me: he’d brought a bottle wrapped in aluminium foil. Just what every travelling wino needs ... a little test.

Eventually I was handed a big Riedel containing the mystery wine. Both rows of eyes, two sides of the table, were upon me, in that strange no-eye-contact sort of way perfected by the most terribly polite Japanese.

No need to taste it.

“Aha!” I said after a sniff. “If you were sufficiently fortunate to have access to such great vineyards as Morey-St-Denis, why would you have an Australian winemaker in to spoil the wine with too much new oak?”

“Ah but Mr. White”, the critic said, “don’t you think that with a few years maturation, this oak will assimilate into the body of the wine?’

I fingered my amber necklace, and said “See this sap? This is from the Oligocene. It has been washing around the Baltic Sea for twenty-five million years. I think the same of the oak in this pinot: it will never homogenise.”

This was a bad thing to say, because I’d not only picked the winery, but criticised it, which was rude, but then, worse, I had criticised my own countrymen, which shows no sense of honour at all.

Not to mention the introduction of the little matter of an epoch of history which far predated anything even vaguely Japon.

And then I’d told the Robert Parker of Tokyo too much about oak.

As if to reassure me that Australia was not such a bad place, and that its winemakers were not all lumberjacks, and that I must be feeling awful now that I was beginning to realise the depth of my ignorant insults, my new Japanese colleague then lurched into a long speech about Coonawarra, and how it was indeed one of the world’s great vignobles. Before this adulatory missive got too obsequious, I made another huge mistake.

“If you blokes ever think of invading us again”, I advised, “you might as well come in through Coonawarra, because as far as I’m concerned, you can have it.”

I then had some explaining to do. Most young Japanese have no idea that their dads and grand-dads brutally, determinedly, repeatedly, bombed the hell out of Darwin and our quiet northern towns, nor that Japanese mini subs invaded Sydney Harbour.

But my derogation of Coonawarra was even more difficult to explain.

This was at a time when Coonawarra had yet to emerge from twenty years of gross mismanagement. As its great vineyards were crashed from owner to owner through corporate silverback marauding in the boardrooms of Sydney, Paris, London and Melbourne, these absentee landlords and robber barons typically demanded ridiculous increases in productivity and treacherous cuts to vineyard budgets.

Such monstrosities as eternal overhead irrigation by water winches and mechanical, minimal pruning were mindlessly imposed on a place which could well be amongst Australia’s best cabernet producers.

Coonawarra had unfortunately become a vast bleak metaphor for all that was wrong with the bold new agricultural regime which was virtually run by the petrochemical suppliers: the manufacturers of fertilisers, fungicides, insecticides and herbicides.

Not to mention the local suppliers of perma-pine posts, nor the manufacturers of trellis wire.

I had been very lucky to grow up under the watchful eyes of such mentors as David Wynn, who had almost single-handedly resurrected Coonawarra as a vignoble when he bought John Riddoch’s old Coonawarra winery and the remnants of his vineyards from what what then called Chateau Comaum for £A22,000 in 1951.

The land was valued for the income one could expect from running sheep and cattle upon it. Most of the fruit had long been sent to distillation.

Typically, David immediately inserted an aggro young turk of a winemaker: Ian Hickinbotham, just out of Roseworthy, with a headful of radical ideas he was simply bustin’ to try. Like minimal sulphur.

Til then, wines were sulphured so brutally early in the piece that malo-lactic ferment could not possibly proceed. Hickinbotham was the first bloke on Earth to deliberately induce malo-lactic ferment and record its process. He’d listened to his elders talk about the ferments of 1945, when the wet summer, green fruit, and high malic acidity brought on a savage secondary; now he had the reins of a serious winery, he held the sulphur, then carefully monitored his malos, “an action percieved as neglect at the time, if known by superiors”.

I have been lucky to have drunk these cabernet-based wines on several occasions with David Wynn in the ’80s and ’90s, and both were reasonably sound, given the wiles of the dreaded Portuguese bark people habitually bash into the tops of their bottles.

But my favourite from the ’50s is the ’54 Wynns, made by Norm Walker the year after Hick left, when the rejuvenation work in the buggered old vineyard was beginning to kick in. Hick went with his spunky wife Jude to manage the Rising Sun pub in Penola. This ’54 was still drinking beautifully ten years ago ... there can’t be many bottles left, and my dear mentor David long ago returned to the Great Silence.

Norm, trained by his dad Hurtle, in turn trained by the Burgundian genius Edmund Mazure, was also a maker of premium fizz, so I’ve been very lucky to have had the ’54 shiraz in both flat and fizzy versions.

The latter model was last drunk at a grand shiraz luncheon I hosted in the Barossa Ranges to honour the visit of another dear mate and mentor, Gerard Jaboulet, of Paul Jaboulet on the Rhone, in 1989. Present were all my shiraz heroes: Wynn, Lehmann Sr. et Jr., Brady of Wendouree, O’Callaghan, Henschke, Waugh, Melton, Scholz, et al. Cheong Liew rattled them pots’n’pans with his usual dependable genius, in spite of the crap wood stove; Chris Ringland had never been heard of.

(It’s important to recognise that only that short time back, very very few Australian winemakers had ever been to France, home of the wines they had all been trained to copy, whether they knew this or not. None of their teachers had been there, either. With their new export grants, they’d all troop off to England to watch the cricket, and give shit to the poms. But they wouldn’t attend Vinexpo in Bordeaux. Nobody knew any French. Too scary. No savvy. Too bad! )

But back to that amazing lunch. Dear Gerard, long dead now, arrived, chain-smoking in a cardigan, with one dozen of his best vintages of La Chappelle “and one case of my worst. Merde!”

Nobody's seen an Australian winemaker do that.

The 1957 Wynns is another heroic Coonawarra cabernet-based blend.

After that we move to what is still Australia’s most revered wine, Max Schubert’s astonishing 1962 Penfold’s Bin 60A, which was a blend of Coonawarra old vine shiraz with cabernet from the famous Kalimna vineyard in the Moppa in the north Barossa. As far as I know, this includes the oldest producing cabernet vines – Block 42 is all mid-1880s plantings -- in this world.

And amongst the best.

Interestingly, in those days, Max thought Coonawarra shiraz was superior to its cabernet, the latter being far too unreliable.

But there’s no doubting that 60A. I drank it occasionally with Max through the ’eighties and into the 'nineties, from bottles that had never previously left his cellar. In those days, 60A was as close as Australia had got to Bordeaux in structure, and don’t snigger about the shiraz component. When we learned our reds in the early 1800s, Australians were quick to see the serious volumes of shiraz that went into the better Bordeaux crus. (See Cabernet: Pinch The Whole Damn Recipe! From the November archive.)

I last had 60A two years ago with Peter Gago. It was the best bottle – of that wine -- I’d shared for ten years. So it’s all up to the friggin’ Portuguese. That last one was bloody perfection.

So we had another one, just to check.

Not too bad, thanks.

Next? Mildara’s amazing Peppermint Patty of 1963, was, and occasionally still is a stunning freak, given the fact that it’s all cabernet. If indeed it is.

After that, Coonawarra gives a long dearth of true brilliance through to Doug Bowen’s Quercus alba-driven beauties of the early ’eighties. As you might have read, I am now almost utterly allergic to American oak. But these wines of Douggie repeatedly won my best reds of Australia classes in The National Times in the 1980s.

Although during all this, those stoic ancient regime Coonawarrans, the Redmans, were consistently making very reluctant, slightly volatile reds of little variation in quality. When the young Philip White first approached the scarily pompous Owen Redman – he was the boss of the Freemasons – at a tasting in Sydney in the early ’eighties, and asked which was the best Redman vintage, he looked down and said “The oldest one in your cellar”.

That was sage advice. There is little better than a magnum of old Redmans to taste the Coonawarra ancien regime.

Then came the mighty kaboom of John Wade’s, the Wynn’s Coonawarra Estate John Riddoch Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon 1982. This, I think, is still the best Coonawarra cabernet. Good fresh puncheons is a large part of the mystery. Johnny Wade’s mystical determination is another.

Between malts, Hollick, Balnaves, them uvver Riddochs, Majella, and other very famous brands, have fought intensely to stay at the front of the cabernet races, often to huge critical acclaim. Generally, I’m not convinced. Even if you must wait fifteen years for the wines to be approachable – think petit Latour – I expect at least an indication of what Max called “soul ... a wine must have warmth”, he’d say, over and over and over.

I only wish I’d been big enough to taste the 60A upon its release, when I might have learnt precisely what Max then meant by “warmth” in Coonawarra, but in the ’sixties, I was still preaching on the streets, saving souls with my Dad, who was a king-hell temperance man.

No warmth on the street for a man with a King James Bible in his feverish young hand and an eye that couldn’t help ranging over the poddies.

So there’s my history. I have not liked much most of the cabernet sauvignon from Coonawarra since. I mean, okay, it’s a good drink, but it’s not Petrus. It’s not Ausone; Cheval Blanc nor the ’61 La Grange, which I used to buy for bugger all in 1980-82. And of course there's no reason on Earth why it should be. Coonawarra is not Bordeaux. But if you set out to emulate something, surely you should copy a bit more of the recipe: Australia has too few parfumiers in its cellars: there's not enough creative blending going down.

Then there's the hearty, earthy, soulful wines of Zema. This Italian family bought really old unirrigated bush vines beside Wynn’s in 1982, and have simply plugged away ever since, making “family wine” in the best of the old Calabrian spirit. Many of the blueblooded blue-blazered, blue-and-white-striped shirt men who felt they were the serious heart of Coonawarra were, how can I say, behind-the-hand, astounded at the audacity of the Zemas for their presumption. Now they can learn from their success with both cabernet and shiraz. And the other Bordeaux varieties.

The other standout through the last twenty years has been the quirky, determined organic wine of Highbank. Opposite Bowen, beside Leconfield, this little vineyard always produces exquisite drinks, if slow to bloom in your bottle. But that's cabernet. The tragically, but deservedly rare 1994 Highbank Merlot is still one of the greatest Australian versions of this misunderstood grape. They use skerricks of cabernet franc, too. And if you're planning a visit, the Highbank B&Bs are as simple, cosy and close as you can get to true terra rossa.

So if I could add anything to the Coonawarra vineyard, it'd be merlot, malbec, cabernet franc, petit verdot, carmenere, and as many different flavours of shiraz as I could muster.

Bugger neat cab. It's a base wine for magnificent blends.

Now, I’ve written all this in response to the blogster Doc Russ Kane, and his piece suggesting that a huge slab of Texas could easily do a Coonawarra. His scholarly piece is at vintagetexas.

My response is Coonawarra Dreamtime.

The Doc's right, of course: Texas can emulate south eastern Australia’s whole wine lake, from Coonawarra to Karadoc. It’s mostly ferruginous dirt over calcereous formations of one sort or another.

And sure, it’s probably perfect for cabernet. Texas can offer simulations of Australia's terra rossa, from the cool of Coona to the insufferable heat of the Mallee, where we've just gone totally cactus.

But let’s stop. What’s cabernet? It’s only a part of the ingredients of an ancient recipe the New World copied from the Bordelaise a coupla centuries ago. Due to it having the thickest skin, cabernet was soon recognised as the easiest to grow by early Ockers, so we dropped all the other ingredients of the recipe at our vast risk.

In recent years, Coonawarra, like the rest of the Murray Basin sedimentary vignoble, has simply served to pump Australia’s tanks with too much ordinary plonk, at the expense of our subterranean water supplies in Coonawarra’s case; the poor buggered River in the latter.

If Texas has a long cool look at the two billion litres of unsold wine currently going off in Australian tanks, and has a long slow chew of the statistics of the world’s current oversupply, then it might be in a position to replace the booms of yore with something that can really actually do something constructive to that great lone star state.

But hey, Texas, don't copy us.

The Japs will come in through Hawaii, straight to your best California cabernet patch.

They'll need to water their troops.

But then they'll suddenly be looking for blends in balance, not straight varietals made for ... well, what reason?


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