“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)


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21 January 2009

INFECTING REDS WITH ROT? WHAT ROT!


STEPHEN HICKINBOTHAM: THE AUSTRALIAN, KIWI, AND INDIAN WINE INDUSTRIES WOULD BE VERY DIFFERENT IF HE WAS STILL WITH US

Where Are Today's Young Wine Radicals?
This Dude Used Botrytis On His Reds!

by PHILIP WHITE


In the early 1980s, there was a dramatic change of guard in the Australian wine industry.


Feisty young blue bloods like Brian Croser were suddenly everywhere, in everybody’s face, changing the way everything worked.


Professing that only they knew how to do it.


Adam Wynn was back from duxing Bordeaux university, taking the reins of Mountadam, Australia’s first big high country chardonnay and pinot vineyard.


And in Victoria, the fearless, questioning intellect of Stephen Hickinbotham was kicking all the old inbred Australian shibboleths in the head.


Hickie’s grandfather, Hick, had founded the Roseworthy winemaking college; his father Ian was a formidable wine scientist and wine maker – the first bloke on earth to deliberately, scientifically, induce and manage malo-lactic fermentations when he worked for Adam Wynn’s father David at Coonawarra in 1952 and 53.


Ian once told me he deliberately named his first son Stephen because it was the “only name we could find with pH in the middle”.


Stephen was oenologist at his family’s winery and vineyard on the slopes of a volcano cone at Anakie, near Geelong, Victoria. An inventor, passionate theorist, and rigorous intellectual, he studied at Bordeaux University, where he also made wine for the Rothschilds. He worked for a while in a government wine research laboratory in Alsace, then at Bollinger and Mumm, and did vintages at Rutherglen, Barossa, Mildura, the Hunter Valley and Great Western. He made the first great modern reds from Tasmania, flying grapes from Meadowbank to Anakie, made some of the earliest Adelaide Hills wines at his uncle Allan's vineyard at Clarendon, and was an anchorman par excellence in the many tastings I conducted at Winestate, Wine And Spirit Buying Guide, and The National Times.


Hickie advised the Indian government on viticulture and winemaking, and was probably the first to realise the potential of sauvignon blanc in Marlborough, New Zealand, as it was he who teased David Hohnen into developing Cloudy Bay.


Not a bad innings for a 1955 vintage lad.


Put very simply, he turned my brain on.


When Stephen was killed, with his partner Jenny O’Regan,and five other good friends from Melbourne, in a plane crash at Cairns in 1986, he took an encyclop√¶dic headful of ideas and knowledge with him.


The Australian wine industry would be very different today had he survived.


I narrowly missed catching that plane.


In those early ’eighties, it suddenly became highly fashionable to make botrytis-affected wines after the styles of Sauternes, Barsac and Germany. Many of these early experiments were dreadful.


The Alsatian wizard, Michel Dietrich, arrived in Clare in 1982, brought in by Francois Henri to manage Remy Martin’s new acquisition, Quelltaler, the grand old headquarters of Buring and Sobels almost a century earlier.


He was immediately bemused to discover two of the local hotshot winemakers, Tim Knappstein and Tim Adams, had begun deliberately infesting riesling grapes with laboratory-grown botrytis in specially constructed and humidified cellars where the grapes were laid on racks and sprayed with spores.


Michel had literally caught a plane in a blizzard in Alsace, disembarked in Adelaide in a 42 degree heatwave, hired a car and driven to Clare. He raised the French tricolour over his new charge, as if to purge it of any traces of Germany, took one look at the vineyards along the creekline at Watervale and announced that this was a good place for botrytis.


The locals were incredulous.


Michel let those grapes hang in that humid little microclimate and made a ravishing and revolutionary botrytis-infected semillon.


The locals accused him of cultivating the spores on V8 vegetable juice, as they had done, then stealing into the vineyard at night to spray it on the vines!


Hickie was already making great controversial stickies at Anakie.


Adam Wynn also made exquisite botrytised rieslings from one of highest blocks on Mountadam.


I was there once, after vintage, trying to take photographs in the frigid, swirling, highland mist. I heard a sound that made me think "bear!".


I'll never know why I thought it may have been a bear, because there are no bears in Australia, and the only bears I've seen have been imprisoned in solitary confinement in Guantanamo things they politely call zoos.


Sure enough, through the mist, there was a large dark figure, about the size of a bear, beneath the vines.


Silly enough to approach, I got closer.


It was David Wynn, wearing an oilskin Drizabone duster, on his hands and knees, studying the ground.


I said "Hullo David".


"Oh hullo Philip", he said, staring back at the sodden ground.


"This is awful", he said. "Terrible. Look at this terrible waste!"


The riesling that Adam had left hanging had got botrytis in its stalks, and the bunches were falling to the ground.


Adam picked, and picked up, that rizza into a wheelbarrow, and made a stunning sticky.


The four of us: Hickie, Michel, Adam and me, had many weekend summits where we rewrote the future, blending bottled wines from all over Australia's exciting new vignobles, just to see.


We spent a lot of time making the perfect pink. The base was usually Hickie's amazing dry botrytised rieslings from Anakie, with Michell's wood-aged Clare semillon, with red bits from Hickie's Meadowbank, Tassie cabernet, Adam's pinot, and some 1979 Petaluma Coonawarra shiraz.


We just had to have some Brian in there.


To encourage some public discussion about these heady botrytis developments, I ran a series of interviews in Wine And Spirit Buying Guide in 1984.


While most contributors knew only of botrytis on white grapes, Hickie immediately threw petrol on the discussion by claiming he deliberately used botrytis on his ravishing reds.


In fact, he said, he never made red wine without botrytis.


The wine business was, once again, incredulous.


“I think it was about 1896 when Louis Pasteur published his amazing study Les Maladies du Vin”, Hickie told me in 1984.


“It was a monumental work, but it was flawed. After studying many bad table wines, Pasteur determined that their malaise was due to these tiny single-celled organisms called bacteria. What he did wrong was to extrapolate on this finding, and he declared that all bacteria were bad. He invented pasteurisation as a means of destroying bacteria in wine.


“Now, if Pasteur’s well-intentioned advice was heeded by all the French vignerons, we’d have no great French wines today. Pasteur neglected to study great wines, and he never came to realise that if they were properly controlled, the same bacteria would, or could, have some highly desirable effects, like conducting the malolactic fermentation which is common to so many great French wines.


“The role that noble rot can play in making red wines has been obscured for several reasons. Certain ill effects found in red wines have been attributed to noble rot because the original grapes were noble rot infected. The great, healthy wines have never really been studied, and because researchers often have so little practical winemaking experience, the role botrytis can play in red wine making has been ignored. That’s pretty simple.


“Carefully controlled noble rot can contribute great complexity to red wines. Many of Bordeaux’s greatest red wines were from grapes infected by botrytis – ask Roy Moorfield about the ’61 Montrose we had.


"Anyone who says it can’t be done is wrong. In winemaking, there are a lot of nuances between the black and the white, and too many people aren’t sensitive to them.”


My experience of Hickie’s love affair with botrytis began in 1982, when he was blending the first Cab Mac, a carbonique maceration red he’d made using his revolutionary sealed pallet bags, for which patents were pending.


The cabernet sauvignon he’d selected from the Goulburn Valley, Victoria, was botrytis infected. He said he’d deliberately botrytised the fruit to pass some complexity and body to the wine.


When I reported this, the broadacre response from other winemakers was a guffaw followed by a loud “Bullshit!”


The main reason for this response centered on the widespread belief that in red fruit, botrytis gave rise to laccase, an oxidase enzyme which turns red wine milky when exposed to oxygen.


I asked Dr. Terry Lee, the NSW food scientist who’d just taken over the boss role at the Australian Wine Research Institute, about his experience with botrytis infected reds.


“We got involved with botrytis when some of the reds in Coonawarra became infected last year”, he said of the 1983 vintage, which was all fire then flood.


“If you get a bit of unwanted botrytis in reds they can go brown as soon as they’re exposed to air or oxygen.


“Chris Summers did most of the work.


“It wasn’t exactly noble rot, though, it was a real zoo growing on those grapes. We had to look for ways and means of preventing deterioration in the wines once they were exposed to air. We were mainly concerned with the bad effects of the wrong kinds of botrytis mixed with a lot of other moulds.


“Stephen Hickinbotham’s had a lot of experience in Bordeaux. I’m sure there’s quite a lot of botrytis in Bordeaux reds. The whole Bordeaux area has a significant level of botrytis: the conditions are right for it. He’s most probably right.


“There are a few components produced when botrytis gets in the grape berry. You get increased glycerol levels. You also get the production of an acid called gluconic acid. The presence of this acid is a fairly good indicator of botrytis infection.


“I think you’ve got to appreciate that Stephen’s trying to get a small botrytis infection as a complexing agent on his reds –- he’s certainly not trying to make sweet reds!”


Eventually Hickie made a couple of small batches of cabernet sauvignon that was deliberately infected with botrytis. He imported the test enzyme from Bordeaux to have the Wine Research Institute check these for gluconic acid, using the same techniques the Bordelaise use when testing sauternes for botrytis.


I arranged a tasting of these wines in Adelaide, and invited several fellows who had said quite distinctly and unequivocally that you couldn’t make red wine from botrytised fruit.


If you knew the big cheeses of those days, you'd be able to name the detractors and disbelievers. They're still here.


Once the wines were poured, and the and the wine sat there in the glasses, glowering red and jolly, totally devoid of anything vaguely resembling milkiness or cloudiness, the noses came down and the discussions began, but there was still a genuine air of disbelief.


The only fellow who didn’t detract from the Hickinbotham achievement was the most senior of the winemakers present, Max Schubert, who happened to be the fellow who created Grange Hermitage.


Max said the wines were good and interesting, and said they reminded him of the days when he used flor yeast on red juice to make “nice complex mother wines”, the bases for his famous blends.


“Nobody really believed I did that either”, Max chuckled.


“I had to get used to keeping my mouth shut.”


Back to Dr. Terry Lee.


“There’s not really such a big mystery about handling botrytis in reds”, he said.


“You can handle it with heat treatment”.


Presto! While Hickie never actually admitted he pasteurised his wines, it’s worth remembering that his father, Ian, had left Coonawarra to work in the Barossa, where he converted the foundering old grape-growers’ co-op to the phenomenally successful Kaiser Stuhl.


Part of this success was his adoption of pasteurisation of sparkling wines under pressure, stabilising them to a degree otherwise unknown in those years.


“I read a letter in an American magazine” Ian wrote in Australian Plonky, his autobiography.


“It was an important Professor Marsh, who was pondering why sparkling winemakers didn’t pasteurise in the bottle as did the spumante makers of Italy.


“Pasteurising was, and still is almost a dirty word in our wine industry and was dismissed because of the association with the cheap wines of Europe.


“However, the thrust of the argument was that, because of the gas content in sparkling wines, the temperature needed to achieve pasteurisation was quite low. I decided to trial the technique.”


Using the Kupke-Trinne team of Roseworthy College, Ian built a machine that pasteurised the Kaiser Stuhl Sparkling Rhinegold at only 63 degrees centigrade, “therefore not damaging the quality”, he wrote.


“In fact, in our experiments we had found that the heat treatment helped ‘round’ the taste, meaning the wine was more drinkable immediately.”


(Winemakers can now hire an Agmaster pasteurising machine that fits on a trailer, and processes very slowly, -- 2,000 to 4,000 litres per hour -- so the required temperature can be minimised, avoiding thermal damage to the wine.)


The resultant popularity of that Kaiser Stuhl Sparkling Rhinegold wine made necessary a full-time sparkling expert to manage the manufactory, and develop other products, like the first real kiddylikker alco-pop, Pineapple Pearl, which was packaged in a little pineapple-shaped bottle with a panoply of green plastic which resembled the foliage at the top of the pineapple, and twisted off to open the bottle.


The appointment? An eager young German from Avery’s of Bristol, one Wolfgang Blass.


Kaiser Stuhl sales went from £160,000 in 1955 to £740,000 in 1962.


Wolfie still has a row of Pineapple Pearl bottles along the top of his bar, sitting there like browning hand grenades.


Which is simply to say that Stephen Hickinbotham had a very learned advisor in matters concerning the pasteurisation of wine.


I miss Stephen -- with a pH -- dreadfully. But if you’re lucky enough to try his reds now, given a merciful cork, you’ll find them breathtakingly beautiful.


That’s getting close to eternal life.

And, just for the record, I should say that dear Max heat treated his flor-infected mother wines.

He learned to keep schtum about that, too.


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