“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)





22 April 2009


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"!

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