“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)





03 March 2009



Brian Barry Pours His Watson Winner

Our Greatest Palate Still Sniffs Em Out


When winemaking friends marvel at the mad slurp and crash that mark my repetitive passage from squalid depression to brittle ecstasy, I tell ’em the columnist has at least one deadline per week, whilst the winemaker has just one per year.

Not that I seek sympathy. The wiles of vintage aside, the wine business has been a fairly reliable clock, bringing a skeleton of longer-term rhythm to my irregular life. So far.

Winemakers have added various repetitive milestones to their cycle. They go to the Royal Adelaide Wine Show, for example, at the same time each year. Then there’s the London Wine Trade Fair, regular as clockwork, coincident with cricket. And bottling, and the bloody bank, and the interminable PR/sales tours.

Many, whose properties are now on the block, will never know that cycle again.

My fear of deadlines – which are inevitably met, if bent - feeds my addiction to any irregularity I can get, so I avoid most of these groundhog winebiz fixtures.

But there are some which are annual treasures beyond belief. Like the day, just before vintage, when I lunch with Brian Barry OA, to celebrate his birthday. Apart from this horror vintage being almost over before the birthday, his 82nd went pretty much like the others: me marvelling at his amazing history of service; both of us marvelling at the old glories he pours on the day; a little private chortling at the antics of the odd pretender, and more at the miracle of our survival.

Brian was born in 1927. He was dux of Roseworthy in 1948, and chairman of judges at the Royal Adelaide from 1974-79. He blessed many other shows with his amazing sensories. He was the Chairman at the inaugural National Wine Show in Canberra in 1976, and presided there for many influential years.

He has the best palate I’ve encountered in Australia: intensely intellectual and analytical, but priceless in its ability to name the sensual delights good wine unveils.

Brian quit wine shows a decade back. At his 73rd birthday lunch, he said “It’s extremely disappointing now. Faulty wines get awards, and very high quality ones are overlooked. The classes have become so huge, and time is so restricted, that the judges can’t possibly do all the wines justice”.

His 1999 Jud’s Hill Clare Riesling had just come in equal first (94++ points) in my 1999 Top 100 tasting. “That wine’s truly beautiful”, said Ernie Loosen when I poured one for him in The Exeter. “It would look beautiful anywhere in the world.”

But the Adelaide Wine Show judges gave it only 15.2/20, indicating a faulty wine unworthy of bronze. At the same show, Joe Grilli entered his colombard in another class prescribed for riesling and carried off one of the two gold medals awarded to that class!

“For twenty years or so, we entered our colombards in the colombard class at Adelaide”, Joe said at the time, “and it was never awarded. The judges seemed to feel that no colombard could ever win gold, because they regarded it as such a second-class variety”.

So they awarded a colombard gold, thinking it was a good riesling, and begrudged a seriously good riesling any medal at all, because they thought it was faulty.

This year, Brian poured a Jud’s Hill Clare Riesling 2001, which unravelled one’s socks before stringing them on the lightglobe. Which it had failed to do when I first tasted it, almost immediately after bottling, in that year’s Top 100. But in the next year, I awarded it 93+++, and Brian re-entered the show circuit with it.

Back then, on the occasion of his 75th birthday, I suggested we should direct ourselves forthwith to The Exeter Thirst Emporium for the odd celebratory ingestion.

“Thanks, but I’ve already had a few”, he confessed without contrition. “They reckoned I oughta head up to Sydney for the Wine Show lunch, and I’ve just come back with four trophies. Not a bad birthday present!”

We attended The Exeter anyway.

And now, he poured that eight year old birthday present again. It absolutely sang: bright, crunchy and fresh, reeking of roses and citrus, with formidable acidity and length and that tantalising, unlikely mixture of sassy tease and austere Germanic authority. It’ll live another twenty beneath that trusty screw cap.

And so, too, will the rieslings he’s released since.

But while riesling’s the king of all grapes, Brian has earned great success with sorts much more lowly.

In 1972 he was winemaker, with offsider Orgy Williams, at the Berri co-op on the Murray. Orgy was at lunch, too. They made a 50-50 shiraz cabernet using the radical cold settling method Brian had been working on. By leaving the chilled juice to sit quietly, he permitted the delicate water-soluble aromatics – the florals: violets and lavendar etc. – to dissolve into the wine before the alcohol-soluble aromatics - the coarser tars, lignins, licorices and whatnot – took over during ferment.

“Mick Auld rang and said he’d got some good Barossa-cured German oak” Brian said, as if that were yesterday. “You’d have to be bloody stupid to say no ... oooh boy, you could put your nose in the bung and it was bloody beautiful!”

“The co-op bosses wanted me to start showing our wines at Melbourne so I resigned from judging there and the other judges gave my Berri wine the Jimmy Watson Trophy! We were selling it for 89 cents! It won many, many awards!

It was already on the market when we won”, he reminded us, offering a stark contrast to the way the trophy these days goes generally to barrel samples. “Because of the nature of the fruit, it was possible to release it very early. It was an experimental cold-ferment wine: the same technique the winners often use these days. The runner-up was ours, too: a straight cabernet made the same way.

“And here it is”, he said, pouring that old winner.

That’s the only time the auld Watson mug’s visited the River, which is little wonder when you consider the industrial crap they tend to make these days in the tortured desert of our biggest valley. And there we were, drinking the last bottle in captivity from that trophy-winning batch, thirty-seven years later. Tired, but dignified ’neath its soused cork, it rose for a final fragile bow after thirty minutes’ air, gave us one fleeting glimpse of its pretty primary fruit, and departed.

It would have been breathtaking under a screw cap.

If you have any Brian Barry locked up anywhere, liberate one now. The ’03 riesling’s undressing as we speak.

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