“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



Michael Fragos Emerges From Dunsford Half-shell
Chapel Hill Learns The High Kick

It’s years since Pam Dunsford retired from winemaking, barrel-mongering, show-judging, and arguing with boys, and left her managing role at Chapel Hill, so I was overdue to visit the new crew and winemaker Michael Fragos. I’d been there recently for one spectacular dinner, cooked by that mighty elvish genius, Cheong Liew, to celebrate the Fleurieu Biennale, but I needed to kick some barrels.

No. Stop. I should use that dinner to explain the resort. Chapel Hill has a luxurious set of residential suites dug into one of its stony hills. They’re grafted onto an immaculate stainless steel industrial kitchen, complete with a little indoor grandstand where guests can sit to observe and learn. It’s called the Chapel Hill Gourmet Retreat, and groups book it to be trained in the gastronomic arts, under the sage tutelage of Pip Forrester, the venerable McLaren Vale chef who for years ran the stylish Salopian Inn which Kerry and Zannie Flannagan restored in the early ’eighties.

Other chefs might be invited to partake, too. But putting aside the special retreat periods, the place never operates as a restaurant, other than when the proprietors decide to take some friends to dinner and hire a chef for the evening.

We shared a table with two couples we’d never met that night, and I shall never work out what the hell they were doing there. Every time another exquisite dish glided to the linen, one woman would screw her face into a dishrag and grizzle “Yecccch! Look at that. I dunno howyoozudeedit!” She never tasted one single dish. Not one. Many she’d preemptively decried by reading their descriptions on the menu, if reading is a word applicable to such a withering lack of its evidence. Between major adjustments of her warpaint, the other slewed a little sideways in her chair to distance herself from her whingeing friend, and made it look as if she could tolerate the food, but soon rushed off to bed with a migraine. Leaving the husbands, whose dribble insinuated their collective intent on taking my partner off to their beds, as if their wives were not already there.

As if I wasn’t sitting beside her.

The beds are very beautiful, mind you.


If you took that scenario as the very basement of the night’s scale of perfection, the food was at the other extreme. And the Chapel Hill wines came in just behind the food. Which is where almost every other good wine in the world would be lined up. Not many winemakers can keep up with Cheong.

Which is not to say the wines have a problem. Pam’s regime was pretty much old school – she was no radical experimenter. Her wines were very highly regarded, but that soon becomes “used to be very highly regarded”. And after a few years’ free rein, I thought, it must be time Michael’s getting some arse kicked in the winery department.

Which he most certainly is.

He presented an 2008 verdelho from Mt Compass and Kangarilla, part of it picked earlier to supply the neat crunchy acidity that variety can produce. At $16, it’s a sauvignon blanc alternative in a way, with all those verbena/lemon pith/lemon slice flavours.

Pam had promoted her unoaked chardonnay as if she’d invented chablis, and while she was proud of its cellaring potential, it never managed to transport me to Chablis. Michael’s 2008, from McLaren Vale, Kangarilla, Adelaide Hills and Coonawarra, had a pleasant balance of leesy wax with its neat acidity, but it didn’t take me to Chablis either. Not for $16. It’s a tidy drink for the price, but not a patch on the bench sample of his wooded 08 which came from a north-facing, windswept Onkaparinga Gorge vineyard near the winery, and from down the hill in McLaren Vale. Hazelnuts and honeycomb were all over its tight fruit; it didn’t need malo.

The sangiovese rosé, Il Vescovo 2008 seemed a little more accomplished than the whites, while maintaining their mercifully modest alcohol levels. Its strawberries and hessian, its puckery, appetising acidity, and its saucy delusion of sweetness had me hanging out for smoked trout or salmon with a little sour cream, a slice of Spanish onion, with a caper, on a toast.

There’s a full-blooded dry red sangiovese, too: Il Vescovo 2006. This had just the faintest whiff of the feathers I smell in my favourite sangers. I am a feather perve. But it’s mainly a chubby black sambucca sort of drink, although totally dry, but with as much juicy-juice as a super-kolossal olive to carry all that aniseed.

Another step upwards to Bacchanalia came in the form of the 2007 $30 bush vine grenache, from 85 year old vines beside the Bethany Church near Wirra Wirra, with extra fruit from the 45 years old Johnston Block behind the McLaren Vale Hospital. It’s dramatic wine: as black as sin and soot, and smelling like a hot tractor in the rain, but with rolls of chubby flesh and comfort cuddling the drinker into assuredness before that tight tannic tail turns into a bullwhip.

The McLaren Vale cabernet 2007 ($30) was more austere and intense, and may even have earned a use of the word elegance if it wasn’t so piously masculine. Stacked at the front with the leafy methoxypyrazines of cabernet – deadly nightshade/hemp/tomato leaf – and drawn out with their grainy tannins in its finish, it simply demands five more years of sinbin.

And the shiraz, which, this being Australia, must come next? It took me straight to Vacqueyras, actually. Up that stony bright hillside in the sun, where I always feel like I should hire a donkey and a painter’s sheet and ride into town with a thirst like Jesus Christ’s. At a trim $30, the wine had none of the jam that curses Barossa shiraz, and a lot of McLaren Vale’s. It’s rather a hunger-promotion device, a savoury, edgy, teasy sort of a brute who’s slightly less masculine than the cabernet but is still most certainly a boy. Or a yoof, really. A yoof wiv grease on one hand and a prune-flavoured frail on the uvver. Waiting for Jesus to come up the hill, outdrink him, and redeem him. And the frail. So they could be married.

Which is where the Vicar should be – up the hill, I mean, Chapel Hill – although we nearly got there before him, me as Jesus, Michael, the yoof, and said yoof’s stroppy frail on my rented donkey.

The Vicar’s the biggest tease in the folio, really, named as it is after the leaders of the straight old Bible-pokin’ Bible Christians who built the Chapel Hill Bible Christian Church there in the first days of the colony. It was the windows of that chapel I once sketched for Pam, suggesting that should be the label. Which it quickly became, without so much as a thankyou mate. Happens all the time. Anyway, at $60, The Vicar’s all shiraz from the vineyards at the rim of the contrasting hell that I call The Wok after the Black Saturday heatwave. The Wok is the bottom of the Willunga Basin: the black cracking crap dirt where once was almonds, between Willunga, Sellicks, Port Willy and Aldinga, where dumb, dull, industrial grapeyards now seem to ceremoniously hari-kiri each summer. It fried this year, and last year, and it’ll fry again. It should be all almonds, olives and native veg. It should house a string of beautiful swamps. It should not have a vineyard in it. These should start uphill, above the line where the alluvial piedmontese gravels and loams overlie the clays. This line seems to follow the creek below Paul Petagna’s vineyard, just down the hill from The Victory. If you were standing on the doorstep of the chapel at Chapel Hill, you could gaze south across to these landforms at other side of The Wok, the opposite end of the Willunga Basin, thirty kilometres away. The safe, top edge of The Wok curves from Petagna’s past Cascabel around to Willunga village in the east, to great mysterous miracles like Roger Pike’s Marius Vineyard, smack on the faultline, and at the western Gulfwards edge fades into the terra rossa and calcrete of Dudley Brown’s Inkwell Vineyard. So the bottom of The Vales is down there at the bottom of The Wok. Hell. But uphill, around its edge, live some of the best vineyards in the state. Those higher ones at the other end are the vineyards The Vicar comes from before taking his posh surrey across to this northern side and up the safe hard hill to his Chapel, to be made in the image of God. Which is a long, fine, silk-and-dust dry red the like of which only Australia can grow. Because this wine grew. As Michael said, “It was not made”.

He showed me barrels of 2008 tempranillo and sangiovese, and a freaky old vine grenache, then kindly drove me home along the edge of the Onkaparinga Gorge to my place. A fortnight later, on Australia Day, while Leonard Cohen was playing in the field


opposite The Salopian Inn, some berk lit a fire in that Gorge between Chapel Hill and here, and from there the heat went so far up I still can’t really remember anything else.

Although I doubt very much that the Bible Christians would have named anything, let alone anybody, The Vicar. I reckon they would have called addressed their preacher as Pastor, not Vicar. Vicar was far too Anglican.

And Chapel Hill? It’s slowly but very steadily and confidently changing direction. If the new open fermenters and some practical, unsophisticated winemaking equipment are installed and roofed, Michael will be much better able to play his crisp, structured solos. I know. I’ve heard them before.

When that happens, this joint will fully ascend the altar of pulchritudinous luxury. So far, it’s still got a bit too much chapel and vicar.

Cheong Liew At The Chapel Hill Winery Gourmet Retreat


Kumomoto Style Oysters
Chapel Hill il Vescovo Albariño 2008

Ceviche of Garfish Salad
Calamari Kimchi
Chapel Hill Fleurieu Verdelho 2008

Venison Croquette with Vinegared Green Capsicum,
Fried Yabbie Tail, Fisherman’s Rice
Chepl Hill McLaren Vale Chardonnay 2008

Salt Crusted Whole Mulloway with Roasted Vegetables,
McLaren Vale Bush Vine Grenache 2006

Biodynamic Angus Beef with Spring Vegetables
McLaren Vale Cabernet Sauvignon 2006

Pork Hock with Wood Fungus
Chapel Hill Reserve Shiraz 1990
Chapel Hill The Vicar Shiraz Cabernet 1998
Chapel Hill The Vicar Shiraz 2006

Epoissè Coupe Perriere and Rossini Blue
Semi-dried Figs and Walnuts, Sultana Clusters in Brandy
Chapel Hill The Devil Tawny

1 comment:

Do Bianchi said...

damn, we tried to get Leonard Cohen tickets in Austin but they sold out — literally — in a half hour... great blog, Drinkster... Tracie B and I are enjoying it thoroughly... Chapeau!