“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)





29 April 2009


"Now We Can Select And Take The Cream
- If We Don't Have It, We Go And Find It"

by PHILIP WHITE - This story first appeared in The Independent Weekly

It’s been a big week up the top of Magill Road. Penfolds approaches meltdown on the release of a new Grange.

Peter Gago and his team of quiet achievers are releasing a range of super-premium wines which gives the entire Australian business a brand new, armour-plated pointy end. There’ve been posh launch dinners all week, and from Friday 1st May, the new wines will be available for sale at Magill Estate.

“Of course it’s not all my work”, Gago said at our pre-release tasting. He reintroduced veteran Grange maker John Bird. “John’s been here for fifty years”, he said. “Steve Lienert’s on his twentieth year. Andrew Baldwin’s been here for twenty four years. Kym Schroeter’s up to twenty-three years of service, and we’ve had Tom Riley on the team for two years.”

The Penfolds Grange 2004 – reviewed in full on DRANKSTER – is a confident return to the styles of wine Max Schubert somehow forged in an atmosphere of stifling secrecy, funding hardship, determined trial and error, and compromise. Max had returned from his epiphany in France in 1950, bursting with plans to emulate the great cellaring reds of Bordeaux with an Australian cabernet-based blend, aged in new French oak barrels. But the conservative Penfolds afforded him a budget that forced him to settle for a shiraz-based wine aged in cheaper American oak, in which Schubert deliberately induced a little volatile acidity to add “motherly warmth”.


After Schubert, Grange became a polished, sanitised, blended-to-perfection post-modern beauty – perhaps a little too much so. But in the new release, from the great 2004 vintage, the only part of Schubert’s recipe to be abandoned is the compromise. All his quirky passion is back in the bottle. It should set the traditionalists giggling with awe as they stack their cellars.

It’s ironic that while Fosters is selling vast acreages of vineyard, or mothballing them, the Penfolds team claims the great authority immediately evident in their new releases is at last vineyard-based.

“We spend so much time in the vineyards now”, Gago said. “Now we can select, and take the cream. If we don’t have it, we’ll go and find it”.

“Yeah”, Bird chipped in, “we never spent anything like this much time in the vineyards. It used to be ‘oh that’s a good batch – let’s keep it separate’. But there wasn’t much of that: the makes were a lot smaller. Now, we go and get it. We used to classify after the vintage. Now we do it before.”

Visitors lucky enough to visit the Magill cellars at vintage will see this at work, with Bird keeping a hawk eye on each tiny batch. It’s not only vineyard selection, but a painstaking examination of the incoming fruit, sometimes down to bunch-by-bunch scrutiny. You don’t see lizards, mice, snakes, stalks, canes, leaves, hydraulic oil or bird’s nests going into a Magill hopper. They make it good. They make it better. They make it best. Then they charge a world-class premium.

We will soon see whether the rest of the industry – and the rest of Fosters - has the nous to follow the exemplary practice entrenched afresh at the top of Magill Road.

22 April 2009



Great Aussie Plonky At Fault With Fault Obsessives
Letting The Wrong Crap Out And The Wrong Crap In


The Ian Hickinbotham speech I quoted last week grew legs. Hick addressed the Sydney International Wine Competition, talking about bacterial diseases in wine, and human tolerance to them. He wondered whether the export approval tasters employed by the Australian Wine and Brandy Corporation were “actually stultifying individualism in our winemakers” by occasionally refusing export approvals to wines unfamiliar to them. His insinuation was that they imagined too many wines had bacterial spoilage.

Hick’s point was that the forensic scrutiny with which judges seek faults eliminates many interesting wines with organoleptic characters which they mistake as faults. He said that there are no bacteria in modern finished wines, implying that everybody should relax a little, and that maybe we don’t need these approval tastings at all. Huon Hooke reported this in the Sydney Morning Herald.

Steve Guy, who manages the export tastings, quickly reassured his troops that Hick was out of touch: things have changed; systems improved. But beautiful wines – Grange, Castagna, Torbreck etc. - have been refused approval in past years. These judgings have been like our wine shows: powerful levellers that can lop the eccentric, brave, and strange, and reinforce the industrial status quo which writers and drinkers all over the Old World are rejecting. They’ve approved thousands of dead flat boring crap plonks plastered with dot paintings and weird beasties, then denied the likes of Castagna et al an export approval because they thought they could smell something funny in one of his biodymanic beauties.

Having had one wine refused approval by two tasting panels, Julian Castagna told the authorities he would take the wine to London, call a press conference with television and all the wine critics who'd been suggesting Australian wines were all too boring and show them the quaklity of wines that we were not permitted to export. He suddenly got his approval.

Hick also took a typically obtuse swipe at writers who recommend wines which smell of lychees. “This disease is a consequence of bacteria attacking grape sugar during some stage of fermentation”, he said.

Lychee is an aroma, and flavour, I often find in gerwurztraminer. I like it there. Gewurz can also have lovely musk aromas, and rosewater, or turkish delight. Very few Australians have mastered this grape: this country is too hot for something that comes from the colder reaches of Alpine Europe.

Gewurztraminer succeeds in parts of New Zealand and Tasmania, but you need a hillbilly winemaker. Wild yeast, old oak, disdainful treatment is what it loves. No hard hats or safety glasses required.

In the early ’eighties, I learned to love the Reserve and Vendage Tardive gewurztraminer of Hugel, and my Alsace mate, Michel Dietrich, taught me how to drink this variety with his father’s Dietrich of Kaiserberg wines, with choucroute, the Alsace sauerkraut. You serve a great steaming plate of pickled cabbage with dollops of hot mustard and grilled smoked sausages of pork or game packed with chili and black pepper and you drink gallons of flinty, musky gewurztraminer.

Now, if gewurztraminer is not the ideal grape for this baked slab of country, I cannot imagine why on Earth anybody’d gamble for success with traminer, the original alpine white from which the slightly pink gewurztraminer mutated.

So why are Australian winemakers who have never worked in Alpine Europe suddenly growing, making, and marketing, traminer? They don’t attempt gewurztraminer. So why its awkward grandfather? And why are they calling it albariño?

Because they were sold a dud, that's why.

In the desperate search for new flavours, somebody in Australia decided that the punters would just love alboriño, the acidic thick-skinned white from Galacia and northern Portugal, where it’s called alvarinho. The CSIRO, in response to persistent demands, imported some, put it through the serpentine wiles of the government's quarantine process, and grew a scrillion cuttings, which they sold. These have been planted along the dead River, and everywhere from Orange to Clare, the Barossa, and McLaren Vale.

I expected it would take our winemakers a few vintages to work out what to do with the new baby. They seemed oilier, somehow thicker than expected. “They’ll work it out” I told myself thoughtfully. You can check my reviews by searching for alboriño on DRANKSTER. But it suddenly appears that the stuff they bought is savignin blanc B, a Tyrolean grape that also grows in Jura.

Even forgetting the freezing alpine nature of these places, which we do not emulate anywhere, it would be fair to say that the “yellow wines” which are where most European savignin ends up, are not too much in the way of your standard Australian industrial export-approved sort of a thing, if you get my drift. Try the Jura Vin Jaune recipe: six years in old untopped barrels, where a yeast like flor grows on the meniscus, slowing oxidation, to make a sort of unfortified sherry.

Savignin blanc B is traminer. Their DNA matches, like zinfandel and primitivo. Same diff. We may well see some respected albariños suddenly becoming savignin blanc B, much to the embarrassment of those critics who raved fulsomely about their quality and promise. To do their savignin blanc B justice, all Australian regions might have to sprout a snow-peaked mountain like the one on the Seaview bottle. Pity the whitecoats hadn’t done a little import checking and sniffed the cuttings for lychee.

But the lawyers will make up for them. This’ll take years.


"I should tell you that the lychee smell of 'disease' is not that of Gewuerztraminer. It is possible you have never seen it, but it is most likely to occur in Chardonnay (where it does not 'over-lap' the pleasant lychee smell associated with that fragrant variety).

"Interestingly, Gewuerztraminer still only constitutes 0.5% of German vineyards (in spite of its name). People tire of it!"


Is Oz Too Obsessed With Germs?
Great Aussie Plonky Gets Volatile

Controversial Keynote Speech Delivered by Ian Hickinbotham RD Oe OAM at the Sydney International Wine Competition's Awards & Trophies Presentation Banquet 2009

Pasteur's pronouncement regarding wine was — and I say it slowly with Anglicised 'pronunciation' — if bacteria are present, 'le mal existait'. As the first Australian oenologist to 'allow' bacteria to grow in wine (to do the malo-lactic fermentation and at a time when an oenologist was sacked for not adding sulphur dioxide to prevent any secondary fermentation), perhaps I have a duty.


There is a trade story from the days when Penfolds Grange was Grange Hermitage. Seems the Australian Wine Board's powerful tasting panel rejected the great wine for export on the grounds that the wine was volatile! To the credit of Penfolds and indeed, the wine industry itself (if true) the story was kept 'in house'.

'Volatility' is an all-embracing word: it means 'too much vinegar in a wine' — in various forms — and is invariably the consequence of bacterial activity.

There are commendable movements to revert to more natural ways and the word 'biodynamic' is much bandied, while last year at this august event, wine writer, Max Allen, expounded the biodynamic viticulture movement, mentioning the mystical cow's horn filled with manure, to be emptied onto the vineyard when the moon is in the right phase! Significantly, these attempts at embracing the old ways concern the 'growing' phase. My subject concerns the 'winemaking' phase — a natural extension, surely!

There are about 8 recognised diseases of wine, but you may never see any of them due to Australian oenology probably — not possibly — probably being the best in the world! I actually ponder if our wines are too clean now! English critics (who really lead the world) have been saying this another way, by asserting that our wines are bland, that they all taste the same and consequently have no reflection of 'place': they lack 'terroir'.

In 50 vintages, I saw 'graisse' in a wine once and it was indeed an experience — and spectacular. The wine was viscous: when poured from one glass into another, 'plopping' was quite audible! (In viscosity, it was more viscous than olive oil.) The event was the subject of recent correspondence to 'Wine International' magazine: we had missed adding sulphur dioxide to the new wine. French technical literature gave us the definition 'graisse', which can be loosely translated into our word 'fat'.

True, the content of sulphur dioxide in wine is a tenth of the amount added to some foods, especially commercial smorgasbord type salads, but even Japanese would not buy black apricots! Importantly, it is commendable that when I started as an apprentice, 400 parts per million was a normal dosage to Riesling wines, but a quarter of that addition would be considered quite excessive by current oenologists.

Another disease I saw in the 1950s afflicted a million litres of dry red made from Shiraz and Grenache that was undrinkable because of intense bitterness of taste, a consequence of unbridled activity by some bacteria!

Again, the remedy turned on judicious use of sulphur dioxide and clarification. The bitterness had resulted from bacteria attacking the natural glycerine of the wine: the French define the disease as amertume. (It is not generally known that glycerine is about the 4th natural component of table wines, after water, alcohol and acid.) Significantly, that wine became the second Australian dry red to win an international Gold medal!


Still another disease (and one you may well have seen without knowing) is 'tourne', which was described by Louis Pasteur himself. As the name implies, it turns dry red brown in colour with loss in desirable fruitiness when only months old. The disease is caused by bacteria attacking the natural tartaric acid in dry red wine, but such wine is at least drinkable!

Also drinkable, and actually appreciated by some (including some wine writers) are white wines that develop the distinctive smell of lychee fruit. This disease is a consequence of bacteria attacking grape sugar during some stage of fermentation.

Current winemakers have their own scourge in the form of Brettanomyces, commonly known as "brett". This wayward yeast affects dry red wine and 'metallic taste' seems to be the common descriptor. Prevention centres on increased use of sulphur dioxide, while oenologists are almost blamed for being all too sedulous, thereby bringing the scourge upon themselves!

Ancient civilisations drank increasingly acescent wines during the year, just because they could not keep their wine away from air and the ever-present bacteria progressively turned all of their table wines to vinegar. Vintage festivals are a reminder: they were the wonderful celebration of the new wine, which really meant – no more having to drink near vinegar: indeed at eleven months the ancients were drinking almost straight vinegar. Tourists in Europe today are still heartened to see the telltale bush affixed to the winemaker's door to inform the traveller that the new wine is ready.

It was only some 300 years ago (not long in the 10,000 year saga) that the English made better bottles, that lead to the use of cork, which neatly compensated for the small differences in bottle mouth dimensions and protected wine from air somewhat.

When I trained as an oenologist in 1950, an inordinate amount of time was spent teaching us to recognise acescence. Indeed we were actually trained to decrease our thresholds of perception, with wines containing decreasing volatile acidity! Importantly, it was instilled into us that if a wine displayed traces of volatile acidity, then it would assuredly get worse. Volatile acidity would inevitably increase with aging. So the official tasting panel of the Australian Wine Board (now the Australian Wine and Brandy Corporation) rejected wines with trace amounts of volatile acidity. Today, that assertion is no longer valid, because for at least 20 years, oenologists can remove every bacterium that could increase the volatile acidity in wines!

Remembering that Grange has a relatively high volatile acidity — deliberately — and the official tasting panel is charged with approving every wine intended for export, the panel comprises tasters who live near Adelaide. Further, given that the task is voluntary and panellists are called at short notice (often so the wine can be loaded onto a departing ship), panellists are generally retired wine industry executives — who — importantly, were trained in detection of miniscule amounts of volatile acidity in wines. Add to that normal human competitiveness — who can detect the lowest threshold amount of Volatile Acidity — and we have panels that are hell-bent on detecting volatile acidity — and rejecting them for export. Contrary to the out-dated entrenched opinion, though such a modern wines may contain traces of volatile acidity — its amount will not increase: there are no bacteria in such modern bottled wines!

So we do not need the official tasting panel of the Australian Wine and Brandy Corporation? Perhaps they are actually stultifying individualism in our winemakers.

Our two sons went to Bordeaux and Burgundy universities. Stephen told me that at Bordeaux University they actually teach that bacteria and moulds on grapes contribute something to the final wine!

Renowned English critic, Michael Broadbent, wrote in 'Decanter' Magazine in 2006:

“All were aware that Robert Parker had given the 1990 100 points. The fault is brettanomyces. Like volatile acidity it is often present, can even enhance the smell and taste. But over a certain level of noticeability, it is a fault. The day I was drafting this article I telephoned Farr Vintners, ‘when did you last sell 1990 Montrose?’ ‘We sold a case this morning: £2,200 in bond’.”

Finally, let's consider the famous pronouncement of the French professor long ago:

"If we did not interfere in the winemaking process, we would be drinking vinegar — not wine — as vinegar is the end product of Nature's glorious scheme"!



Having Pinched His Recipe For Fresh Amarone Frizzante Rosé,
The Italians Give Jesus Vinegar!

by PHILIP WHITE - a version of this appeared in The Independent Weekly

Easter is the weekend reserved for the commemoration of some dirty deeds done a long time ago to the world’s most famous fine wine maker, Jesus Christ.

It’s important to remember that when this self-confessed “winebibber, a friend of publicans and sinners” called for a drink during the horrors of crucifixion, the Italians gave him vinegar. And, by the way, it’s likely he was crucified on a saltire, shaped like the X towards the end of that terrible crucifixion word; like the tail of the early Christian fish gaffito.

Jesus did woodwork before oenology. Thirty years in the carpenter’s shop, and he didn’t think of the barrel. Must be a lesson there. It was way over the other end of the Romans’ Empire that the Celts taught them the art of the cooper. They’d invented the smooth carvel hull and didn’t take long to work out that if the technology kept water out, it would probably keep wine in.

When he did the miracle vintage at the Qana wedding, my belief is that Jesus made an amarone. Every village had a cool store of grain, honey, and dried fruits – a grange – in which the water pots were stored. Add raisins, currants and sultanas, maybe even a fig or two, and bring the jugs out into the sun. Hot wild ferment: bingo! Fresh rosé. Frizzante!

Whether he learnt this from the Italian invaders or they learnt it from the locals beats me, but I suspect the latter is the case.

Before the First World War, Samuel Wynn – then Weintraub: wine merchant – made kosher wine in the Polish ghetto from dried grapes he’d travel to purchase in Odessa, on the Black Sea. Upon arrival in Melbourne, he was delighted to discover an abundance of fresh grapes, and set about building the Wynn empire.

It was an emigration clerk, by the way, who couldn’t spell Weintraub. He asked what it meant, and said “then we’ll call you Sam Wine”, and mispelled that, too.

Ian Hickinbotham, who conducted the first deliberate, controlled malo-lactic ferment in Australia, and probably the world - he’s shy about the second bit - when he worked for Sam’s son David at Coonawarra in 1952, has sent me a copy of a speech he’d just made at the Sydney International Wine Competition.
“Ancient civilisations”, he said, “drank increasingly acescent (vinegary) wines during the year, just because they couldn’t keep their wines away from air, and the ever-present bacteria progressively turned all of their table wines to vinegar ... indeed at eleven months the ancients were drinking almost straight vinegar.”

This no doubt encouraged the ancient habit of adding water, even seawater, to wine. If Jesus had made an amarone without so much water, the guests would probably have added it anyway. Strong wine was a no-no.

“Woman, what Have I to do with thee?” he says to his Mum, who’s waiting in the road for him and his gang.

She obviously knows his skill, and he’s grumpy, but he does the job. Having just walked all the way up from Galilee, the lads would have preferred to get stuck into the refreshments immediately. Weddings went for days.

Back to Hick and the vinegar.

“Vintage festivals are a reminder”, he says. “They were the wonderful celebration of the new wine, which really meant no more having to drink near-vinegar.”

Like the Barossa Vintage Festival, which cannot commence til the end of Lent, when everyone rather quickly makes up for their period of abstinence.

10 April 2009

07 April 2009



Very Bad Things Happen In Mouths
And Other Bits Further Down
Shock Reports Prove Life Leads To Death!
by PHILIP WHITE - a version of this yarn appeared in The Independent Weekly on 03 APR 09

Now that Prof Michael McCulloch, chair of the Australian Dental Association's therapeutics committee and associate professor of oral medicine at Melbourne University, reckons that the alcohol in mouthwashes "increases the permeability of the mucosa" to carcinogens like nicotine, I made a quick decision.

No more mouthwash.

And to think I gargled only to correct the evidence of the sins of smoke and drink.

Turns out acetaldehyde might be the culprit. "We see people with oral cancer who have no other risk factors than the use of alcohol-containing mouthwash, so what we've done in this study is review all the evidence that's out there” Prof McCullogh said.

"We believe there should be warnings. If it was a facial cream that had the effect of reducing acne but had a four-to-five-fold increased risk of skin cancer, no one would be recommending it."

The Dental Journal of Australia reported that many favourite mouthwashes have more alcohol than wine or beer. Really. Swilling the stuff around the mouth with deliberation seems to be the problem. Which is what professional tasters of alcohol do all the time.

"If you have a glass of wine, you tend to swallow it”, McCullogh continued. “With mouthwash you have a higher level of alcohol and spend longer swishing it around your mouth. The alcohol present in your mouth is turned into acetaldehyde."

Thing is, the mucous in our mouths is a prophylactic, and rinsing it away with strong drink is dumb. Oral cancer mutilates badly and kills half of those affected within five years of diagnosis.

So, surprisingly, what you should do with your drinks – especially strong drinks – is swallow them.

But when I get on the cobweb to check these sorts of things out, whatter I get?

I get the sort of codswallop I reported in last week’s Independent Weekly. As follows:

Jeez. It’s starting to sound like too much booze is bad for you. Scientists spend billions trying to prove this. Others strive to prove the opposite. If the blogosphere’s to be believed, last week’s posts show the wowsers are winning by a pint, but the damn cobweb’s jammed with contradictory shite.

A Kaiser Permanente study revealed polite tipplers – one glass a day - are fifty-six percent less likely to develop Barrett's Oesophagus, where acid reflux removes the protective mucous, leading to cancer. But exactly how wine might achieve this beneficial effect is unclear, Dr. Al Kubo reported in Gastroenterology.

Wine will give you migraine. Oh Really. So can cheese, chocolate, oranges and preservatives. But like the tea and coffee business, the cocoa lobby’s fighting back at those who promote wine’s healthy offerings, suddenly claiming cocoa’s a “superfood”, like the voodoo healers spirulina, goji berries, and acai berries. One lab claims cocoa has 200% of the antioxidant content of red wine, three times the antioxidants of green tea, and reduces the effects of cancer, diabetes and heart disease, by lowering both systolic and diastolic blood pressure. Tumbler of chocmint liqueuer, anybody?

Wine will give you depression. Yep. Another genius claims that too much wine makes you fat - something to do with its “empty” calories - while the University of Porto claims that animals given red wine put on less weight than others who did the same amount of exercise over an eight-week period. Something to do with red wine reducing fat storage by hiking oestrogen.

Tufts University studied thousands of people between the ages of 29 and 86 to report that those who chug-a-lug just a glass or two a day, especially in post menopausal women, had better bone density than teetotallers. Blokes who have more that two a day have lower bone density, but women didn’t have the same response. They too think it’s because some drinking habits boost oestrogen.

A British study claims that a small glass of wine, liquor or beer a day increases the risk of breast, rectum, liver, mouth and throat cancer in women by 6 percent by the time they’re 75. Two drinks a day and you double it. The Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle reckons lasses with a propensity to schlück more than fourteen alcoholic drinks per week are 24 percent more likely to develop breast cancer. Another study suggests alcohol-related breast cancer was stronger among women who had used postmenopausal hormones.

Somebody else says it’s red wine that increases the incidence of breast cancer; but because of the good stuff in grape skins, to which red wine has more prolonged contact, the antioxidant component in reds keeps you alive. Similarly, the bitterness of hops in beer can be of benefit.

But new research at one Centre for Addiction and Mental Health and other reports from Germany suggest the acetaldehydes in alcohol are a cancer trigger. This might be why most people are revulsed by the stuff if it’s in wine. You get rid of it with sulphur dioxide, to which some are allergic. Good argument for responsible, clean winemaking, thinks me. Other boffins claim one third of Japanese, Chinese, and Korean drinkers get facial flushing, nausea, and an increased heart rate from small amounts of alcohol, mainly because of an inherited lack of aldehyde dehydrogenase 2.

The Queensland Institute of Medical Research and L'Oréal Recherche, Paris, jointly claim that modest amounts of oily fish and wine may decrease the occurence of actinic keratoses, premalignant actinic tumors of the skin, and work like an internal sun block.

Southampton University claims that long-term daily drinkers are at greater risk of developing serious liver disease than weekly binge drinkers. Researchers in Scotland say heavy-drinking pregnant Scots will hike the number of babies with foetal alcohol syndrome, which promises a life of mental retardation, behavioural issues, heart and brain damage, and the elfin facial defect.

The American Heart Association and the American Cancer Society say two drinks a day for men and one a day for women is good, but claim that if you’re not a drinker, you shouldn’t start, because the risks outweigh the benefits. Another report says it’s better to eat red grapes or drink grape juice. The University of Western Australia says that women who daily consume a small button mushroom cut their chance of breast cancer by two thirds!

“Stick to water and stay away from alcohol like whiskey, beer, wine and coffee” says another expert, obviously not from Adelaide. “They tend to stick to your teeth and cause plague.” Plague eh. I thought you got that from rats.

So I’ll leave that with you while I fatten myself up on slimming biscuits and Vegemite, to heal this hangover I got from far too much organic wine.

And then I’ll clean my perfidious miasma with a good long gruggle of Listerine.

04 April 2009


Whitey Learns A Thing Or Two
Krug And Yabbies At Stephanie’s

by PHILIP WHITE – A version of this was published in The Advertiser 14 MAR 1990

There is a walled village called Mesnil-sur-Oger in the Champagne district of France. Like many a mediæval village, it has a lovely jumbled clutter of houses and alleys, a monastery, an exceptionally good baker and an unabashedly agricultural pace. Except, during vintage, there is nothing that ever needs doing so urgently as to be done before one can select a desirable leaf of tobacco, studiously roll it into a ball, and tamp it down in one’s pipe, carefully applying gentle, even pressure to ensure a cool, slow fire in the bole. Only after this, and a few measured sucks to ensure the whole operation is successful, can one go, slowly, to work. As you would expect of a mediæval village, Valium is not on the agenda.

There is another highly unusual aspect of this village: something about Champagne priorities. It is, in its entirety, built outside its wall. While the beautiful stone houses and barns are exposed to the raider, be he Hun, Viking or Goth, safe inside the wall, in the centre of town, lies the legendary Clos du Mesnil. One of the world’s most remarkable vineyards, this tiny 1.8ha patch of chardonnay produces that true diamond of drinks, the pristine, glittering Krug Champagne Clos du Mesnil Brut Blanc de Blancs. The 1982 vintage is about to be released. I am having a difficult time trying to shake its memory off. Spoiled for life, I think you could call it.

The Krug family has been making various types of exceptionally fine champagne since 1843. Of all the great champagne houses, none is quite so understated, consistent and revered. It is not your trendy rock star label, but a subtle, elegant, wondrous creation that is never taken lightly. If you must relate it to anything other than diamonds, the best I can suggest is Dame Margot Fonteyn.

The wine’s sheer spellbinding, dancing quality ensures that even the most unsuspecting recipient of a glass of Krug becomes a convert, a Krugist, the moment the stuff slides off the back of the tongue. It’s a magical, rare, heaven-on-Earth drink. Once Krugged, always Krugged.

Remi Krug, one of the two aristocratic brothers who run the business, has quite a lot more pace than you find in the narrow lanes of Mesnil, but the same powerful confidence as those somnambulent, pipe-smoking peasants. He is alarmingly candid in his praise for his family’s product.

“It is for people who put taste above status symbol and who don’t drink it to impress with a label”, he told me during lunch last week. “You drink Krug because you are in love with it. Because you like the taste. Because it is your pleasure. It’s your heartbeat; it’s your culture. You reward yourself. You know you deserve Krug. It’s a very personal thing. You’re not trying to wear someone else’s appearance as your own. You’re not dreaming to be James Bond. You are yourself, and you treat yourself with Krug. You drink Krug because you know.”

In an impeccable sidestep to avoid uttering the words Dom Perignon, he surged on.

“I have a friend, a crazy Krugist, who drinks Krug but offers the other champagne when he’s on business. He keeps the Krug for himself. It’s like somebody said to me the other day, ‘You know Remi, it’s not enough to be rich to drink Krug. You must also have taste’.”

Apart from the Clos du Mesnil, there are various sublime Krug products. The Grande Cuvée is a multi-vintage blend of up to sixty different parcels of champagne from six to ten different vintages. The wine is “composed” by Remi, with his quieter brother Henri, “not by science, but by its quality.

“There is no chemistry at Krug, Remi said. “There some oenology behind my brother’s taste to control certain things, but not to decide. What decides the making of Krug is taste – my brother and my father and myself – we taste together, and we compose the cuvees only by taste. Oenology is a number of analyses to control. If these analyses turn out to be great and good in certain ways they go into filing immediately. But there is no chemistry at all. There is nothing to adjust. We adjust things by yes or no, we keep or we reject. By blending we compose.”

Now this may sound like a considerable degree of rich man’s self-indulgence to us chug-a-luggers of drinks much more pedestrian, but the famous Krug family palate has been tested by the wine hacks of Australia and passed with dazzling colours. Offered an unmarked glass with an impish blend of Krug and another champagne at dinner in Melbourne, Henri, without any warning of its contents, sniffed long and hard and announced “Yes. There is some of my wine in here, and some of someone else’s. It’s not so good, eh, this blend?” He thought again and named the intruding house. Of course he needs no chemistry.

While the Grand Cuvée is a blend of wines from the family’s enormous stocks of aging “reserve” champagne, collected from various vineyards and vintages, good years also see the release of a Krug Vintage, a blend of the best wines from just one year. Remi explained the difference: “My grandfather used to say, with a twinkle in his eye, that the Cuvée was the dearest to him because it was his own creation. With Krug Vintage, he said he had to share the compliments with God.”

Krug also makes an extremely rare champagne rosé, which is a devilishly successful bed wine, and occasionally releases some mature champagne from the family’s private stocks to show the world that Krug, unlike most of the lesser sparkling wines, continues to improve for many decades in the bottle, developing an intensely nutty, complex aroma while retaining it astonishingly fresh, uplifting flavour. These wines are too expensive to mention. You must believe me. They are much more expensive, say, than the Grande Cuvée (about $129 a bottle), or the Krug Vintage (about $150). They are even more expensive than soon-to-be-released Clos du Mesnil 1982, which tips the scales at a modest $390 a bottle.

This new wine is everything a pure chardonnay champagne should ever be: pristine, almost crystalline with its staunch acidity, but nevertheless showing incredible delicacy and finesse. It has none of the almost strawberry fullness of the 1981 release, but rather a delicious, lissom stiletto of pure chardonnay flavour that goes singing through one’s soul so simply, just once but forever.

As we sat there savouring this new wonder of the world over a big bowl of yabbies at Stephanie’s, I inquired how much of the wine was made. “Oh, Clos du Mesnil averages about 12,000 cases a year”, Krug breezed. I remarked this figure seemed very high for such a tiny vineyard. “Oh, no, no, no,” he explained. “With Clos du Mesnil there is just one bottle per case.”

CLOS DU MESNIL - click image for link
I suggested that no amount of writer’s skill, or Krug’s eccentric technique of fermenting the wine in thirty and forty year old oak, could ever truly convince a reader such wines are so much better than others as to warrant more expenditure than many folks’ weekly wage. “It’s bloody hard to convince the punters”, I explained. As always, M. Krug responded with great vigor.

“Well the first thing is you must never compare Krug to somebody else’s champagne”, he chirped. “You don’t compare Krug. You only ever compare it to the Krug you had yesterday or months ago. You compare it to your memory of Krug.”

The fellow is infuriating in his insistent failure to name any other brand but his own. But pressed harder, he did eventually manage a comparison, which, combined with a bellyful of yabbies blended with about 500 knickers’ worth of one of the best drinks a chap could ever hope to have, seduced your correspondent completely.

“It’s like music”, Krug pondered aloud. “There is real music, like Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald. And then there is airport music. Unfortunately, too much champagne is airport music. When I met my wife, she drank the airport music, and she always said it gave her a headache and she would not marry me. So I gave her some Krug, and when she had it she said ‘Ah, this is good, I don’t have a headache’, and so she could marry me. Of course when I discovered she did not have a headache, I could marry her. And so for many years we have Krugged along together.”

Half their Kruggin’ luck, I say.