“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)





31 August 2009


Big Ocker Reds Too Strong For You? Forgotten Your Drinking Heritage? C'mon You Bastards, Drink Like Your Kids!

Since the kiddylikker issue seems to have slipped off the village screen, again, and winter has properly arrived, your correspondent has been playing with a few ancient cocktails which make your average Red Bull and vodka look like communion wine.

Part of the interest comes from the current international obsession with bagging big alcoholic Australian reds. Putting the gastronomic quality of the wine aside, it seems that there’s suddenly developing a moral limit to the amount of alcohol which one should permit in wine.

There are, of course, many drinks which are highly popular, and which are three or four times stronger than wine, whose alcohol levels are never discussed unless they’re too low. Like whisky. And its north American cousin, whiskey. The abovementioned vodka. Gin. Rum. Get the drift? Galliano. Cointreau. Tia Maria. These have not been honestly discussed, relative to the sanctimonious piety shewn the kiddylikker debate.

It’s always amusing to find, say, the sort of wine bore who would attend more than three free wine tastings in a Saturday, tugging on about high alcohol wines being a thing of the past, then getting stuck into the Kahlua like there was no tomorrow. What’s the difference? One is made from grapes. One is a concoction of many flavourings and chemicals, and alcohol.

While this column is not about wine, experience proves that some wines of, say sixteen per cent alcohol, are in better balance than others, just like wines in any other alcohol bracket. High natural acidity, and very carefully grown fruit from happy balanced vines, will render a much more approachable drink than one produced by the artisan, the artificer, and the artful garagiste who simply copies the famous original, but gets it wrong with higher yields, lower acidity, and little more than black alcoholic syrup in the glass. Sometimes, surely, a Kahlua would be the better buy in the flavour stakes as much as the boom for your buck index. These are the wines which the world is wisely refusing, just as Britain did after the Second World War, when strong “ferruginous” Australia wines were welcome for a while, while the Poms put their condition back on after a decade of ration tickets, but then suddenly went out of fashion, while all England suddenly lurched back to the lighter, finer wines of France.

Repetition of such cycles should be expected.

I found myself interrupted by a brace of lovely lasses the other day, one of whom pointed to the drink in my hand and said “I’ll have one of those”. Suddenly, I had to admit what I was drinking. I’ve been buying long pepper – Piper longum – from the organic spice trader who does the Willunga market Saturdays and runs a stall outside The Exeter in Rundle Street on Sundays. This is more piquant than normal black peppercorns, as if it also contained a little chilli. I grind it with my mortar and pestle, small enough to put in a normal pepper grinder, then sprinkle it liberally over a glass of Bombay gin on big ice. A dribble of vintage port completes the assemblage: the racy Old Mill Estate Touriga Nacional model, or the new Kalleske Fortified Vintage Shiraz will do nicely. The result is a tincture which seems capable of both awakening and retiring the drinker, leaving him or her lost in a piquant dream that’s somewhere highly ethereal between Burgundy and Portugal, and not a bad place to be, thanks very much. If you replace the gin with a good vodka, which will provide none of the acrid juniper piquancy of say, Bombay, your cocktail is even more strangely reminiscent of the pinot the devil drinks. Kiddylikker AO, see.

My colleague on the other paper, John McGrath, should be acknowledged for the creation of one of the greatest modern cocktails, if the seventies could still be regarded as modern. There was a little cider press near Summertown called Cobbleys, which produced a sweetish cider in a champagne bottle with a Blue Moose on its label. The cider was bright blue, thanks, no doubt to a little cyanide-based colouring, probably from apricot kernels. This went swimmingly in a big balloon glass with big ice and a shot of Cointreau. The brave could attempt the same effect, without the blue, with their favourite cider today, provided, of course, you’re of the right age. It is, after all, pretty much your basic Victorian punch, when strength was required as much as masking agents to hide the flavour of the day’s rough spirits.

When last I heard of Cobbleys as a cider company, it was owned by Robert Champion de Crespigny, then MD of Normandy-Poseidon gold mining company, fourth largest in the world, and Perry Gunner, MD of Pernod-Ricard Australia. Pernod-Ricard? Now there's a mob who understands the power of strength! The apples are gone now, not to housing, as the Champion-Gunner axis no doubt dreamt, but to vines, courtesy of John Greenshields, who sold his beloved Koppamurra bush vines to Brian Croser, mate of Champion-Gunner, who promptly changed their names to Tapanappa, which is bullshit geologically, geology being BJ's current and ancient obsession. Ask Andrew Jefford.

Critically, significantly, even wisely, the recent kiddylikker debate failed to address another mighty confection which was introduced to me by the same great writer, and which, as far as I know, remains mysteriously legal. This is the Nelson’s Blood: a shot of dark rum in the bottom of a pint of stout. Punch? You bet! One of these would have Mother Theresa snotting the abbott.



Blogosphere Fractals: Buggering The Bumptious?
Wine Writing: Written Right Off?
Newspaper Columns: Dogfood Wrapper?


“A good wine with a pleasant nose and balanced palate, a wine which could be drunk now and also put away with advantage for cellaring”, wrote Dr. Bryce Rankine of the Mitchelton cabernet sauvignon 1979 in the early ’eighties. Goodbye that's all he wrote. This was the nature of wine reviewing thirty short years ago.

While that was the total 1983 appraisal for Winestate by the leading academic at the great Roseworthy winemaking college, one could argue that it was a respected provincial academic’s opinion of an ordinary provincial red in a country a long long way from the rock’n’roll of the winebiz. So let’s head to the honeypot of those days: London, and check the wine writing of, say, the great Michael Broadbent, examining a wine of considerable provenance, the 1970 Chateau Mouton – Baron Philippe Rothschild, Pauillac, Bordeaux.


“Fairly quick developer,” Broadbent wrote, “very flavoury.”

And that was it. That’s from his Great Vintage Wine Book, Mitchell Beazley, 1980. I tasted with him and the bumptious Len Evans one year about then at the legendary Yalumba Museum Tasting, and was confounded by his inability to discuss or describe any of the great old wines the Hill Smiths had generously dragged out.

WHITE, 1980

Now those weren’t typical reviews of the day, but such bland writing in the name of gastronomic appraisal was common. Since then, the gastroporn glossies have struggled to keep the form alive, whilst some of the more adventurous newspapers and wine mags went right out the other way for a while, and actually got adventurous.

But the curtains are coming down now on formal newspaper wine columns, if their shrinking size indicates anything. All over the English-speaking world, at least. While I don’t think the wine industry fully appreciates this, it has even less chance of understanding what’s suddenly happening in the digital ether.

The internet is jammed with wine blogs that offer the opposite of the above examples. Thousands of them. People simply start one and put their thoughts on it. These vary from rather risky reports from, say, a review of a licensed premises in Yemen, to the minutae of the entire drinking lives of some poor lost souls. Turn on a searcher, for, say “blogs - Australian wine”, and you can get hundreds per day. Search “chardonnay”, and you’ll be sick.

Unfortunately, most of the stuff on the blogosphere is patent claptrap. It’s opinion, sure, but it’s not the place to trawl thinly for facts. Facts are pretty scarce. But the opinion’s really on a roll.


It was the blogosphere which led to a certain unwinding of the influence of Robert Parker Jr., for example, as suddenly there were endless venues for people to disagree with him. The big newspapers know this in the USA: within the span of a couple of weeks of each other, it seemed every major US daily from one coast to the other recently ran pieces about how America was sick of big thick jammy wines beloved of the Parkerilla. These papers weren’t following each other. They were following the blogs, the first democratic forum for people who like wine. Throw a contrary trend into the ether, like no more big thick jammy wines, and the odds are that it’ll catch fire internationally within a week.

Over many years with my nose to the winestone, I have accumulated a small, decentwallful of wine books. It is here that I trawl for history and memory. And while I keep it well culled, I’m always on the lookout for handy new volumes crammed with facts.

Along comes A Taste Of The World Of Wine. Revered academic Drs Patrick Iland and Peter Dry, of the University of Adelaide, have written this with Peter Gago, the Penfolds chief winemaker, and Andrew Caillard MW, the wine auctioneer who co-founded Langtons Fine Wine Auctions, which was recently sold to Woolworths for a motza. Iland is also the publisher.

While this looks and feels like an academic textbook - it’s not meant to be pretty – it is much more than a cold schoolroom tome. It’s essential. On my shelf, it’s already nudged in beside John Gladstone’s Viticulture and Environment (Winetitles), which could do with an update but is the key to Australia’s vineyards.

A Taste Of The World Of Wine starts when the vine was cut into two species after the Eurasian and American plates separated in the Pleistocene glaciations. It finishes, two hundred polished pages later, with an uncommonly intelligent treatise on the matching of food and wine. Between the two, these four masters of their realms take you on a tour of the vineyards, the countries, the varieties and the methods which I cannot find better addressed in any other single volume. Its chapters on ferments, on oak, and packaging have you dying of thirst just in time for the taste section. Then it whisks you back for an intensive session in the vineyard, and repeats the basics, but in much finer detail.

I’m sure this worthy local work is already finding its place in the hallowed halls of academe, but honestly, I think that a lot of people won’t need to spend years at the University – or on the internet - if they simply buy themselves a copy and get studying.

A Taste Of The World Of Wine, AU$59.95, www.piwpwinebooks.com.au, Dymocks, Imprints, Angas & Robinson, contains no cigarette advertising. It would probably look better if it did.



Phillip (sic) Jones Brings Bass Phillip (sic) To Fill Up Philip The Pinot Sicko ... One L Of A Night In The X

Phillip Jones came to The Exeter for a few slow quiet ones last week. An engineer who fell in love with pinot noir is a scarce beast. An engineer who so frequently masters the mystical and confounding nature of such an ethereal drinking genie is an absolute rarity. For Jones is a passionate and erudite man, and makes his wines with the flesh of his hands and feet rather than employing anything as harsh and brash as a pump.

I first suspected this man had studied and practised engineering purely to eventually focus all his engineering skills upon one critical job: the disconnection of his brains from his heart, as he seems to run most of his life with the latter organ. Which is, as any cardio surgeon will tell you, a lot more visceral and gentle on the life-juice than your average open-throat mono pump made of steel. And which is never to say Jones is not an highly captivating and rewarding conversationalist. After an evening wallowing in his estimable company, one could only wonder what in the hell his engineering was like. You don’t get sensual engineers.

Away back in the ’seventies, when Jones began his errant vineyard dreaming, there was bugger all of this weird Burgundian variety about. Murray Tyrrell had a patch in the Hunter; having tired of the frustrating monoculture and frosts of Coonawarra, David Wynn was planting it at Mountadam on the High Eden Ridge. The most common one was the Hardy’s Keppoch, a vast-volume cheapy made from a huge monoclonal vineyard near Padthaway. And that clone was in fact a sparkling wine model, so the chances of it being a great red pinot were remote. That wasn’t what Jones had in mind.

Although he started out growing Bordeaux varieties, he sought somewhere as cold and damp and humid as Burgundy, south-east of Melbourne. He passed the outbreak of Jaguar XJ12s of the Yarra Valley, and even the Ferrari and Porsche appellation of Mornington Peninsula. This obsession was no hobby. He went to Leongatha, away down near Victoria’s southernmost point, Wilson’s Promontory, at the bottom corner of wet old Gippsland.

Leongatha’s wetter than Burgundy. Mainly dairy and onion country, it gets over 1000 millimetres a year. It rains roughly every second day from April through October. The average daily maximum temperature peaks at 26 in January and February, but through June and August it’s all twelves and thirteens. The critical mean’s 18.2.

So much water is not much of a problem: the extremely deep loose soils south of the mountain ash country of the Strzelecki Ranges just soaks it up. “It’s so absorbent there are hardly any rivers”, Jones tells his glass disbelievingly. “But jeez the rain brings the moulds. I can’t spray 500 in the ripening season.” He refers here to the biodynamic preparation which encourages white fungal tendrils to sprout in the soil, where they perform a healthy enlivening function, and somehow assist the vine roots to better extract every hint of mineral. “Unfortunately, 500 also encourages moulds in the foliage when it’s so wet,” he said. “There’s so much cloud that light management is more critical: I fine tune it with 501. It’s all about canopy and light management.” 501 is the silica-based biodynamic preparation which works as a light diffuser.

Jones now takes his fruit from four sites spread over 24 kilometres of country. “Every site is different,” he said. “Like the ferric soils require a different approach and give different flavours to the ferrous.”

Because he wanted low yields – hard to get in such prosperous country – he planted his vines very, very close: 9000 vines per hectare. Most of Australia’s vineyards sit on about 2000. He thins everything: leaves, tendrils and bunches, to limit his yields to 250-350 grams of grapes per vine. Then his winemaking is more like a lyrical slither than anything industrial. And his wines? Sloppy, stupefying, seductive dances all. Make that dancers.

Constant high humidity, as in Burgundy at vintage, does something to the tannins of grapes, which are highly concentrated around the skin’s pores, which constantly transpire water. A single variety grown to a certain ripeness in a dry place will generally be harder of tannin than the humid model, perhaps due to the background humidity limiting the amount of transpiration. Jones’s Bass Phillip pinots show this to the extreme. “In older vineyards, the humidity really brings out the provocative aromatics,” he said. They also seem softer, plumper, and wetter. Freakishly Burgundian. Yet below each peculiar beauty, there is the tickling piquancy of the soil and the rock from whence it came.

Away down at the bottom of Australia, Bacchus and Pan do the tango, held up by the Norman Lindsay lasses, the Rubens mob having occupied every couch. Soused in Guerlain’s Jicky, of course.

Bass Phillip Estate 21 Gippsland Pinot Noir 2006
$53.75; 12.8% alcohol; cork; 93+++ points
This, the twenty-first vintage, came from a difficult year, in which Phillip Jones says he “blended everything” to make this wondrous confrontation. It smells like maraschino cherries soused in lemon juice, with a whole barrage of other stuff coming in soon after: the potato sack earth, the gingery oak, the plump dancing girls. In fact, my notes are specific about the lass here in question: it’s Vanessa Redgrave’s Isadora: dancing like a giraffe, then too keen to leap into the deadly Bugatti, the silk scarf immediately dragging the neck t’wards the beautifully spoked wheel. Give it six years, breath in, accelerate. (All my other Bass Phillip notes were stolen in the Great Bag Heist of 09)


02 August 2009


Murray-Darling Finishes In Dumb Muddy Lunge At Mouth
And Rann Complete Australia's Greatest Act Of Vandalism

This is the "Goolwa Regulator", the Australian government's incredibly stupid attempt to heal the thousands of kilometres of scabby cancer that once was the mighty Murray-Darling River system.

Labor starlet Penny Wong, pictured, the Federal Minister For Climate And Water, thinks this is the best that can be done just now. The "Regulator" is designed to stop the ocean salt flowing back into the Murray River estuary, which is dying, because fresh water no longer flows down into it.

It connects Hindmarsh Island, or Kumerangk, to Clayton, to make a recreational pond for boaters at Goolwa. Two freshwater streams will flow into this pond, which is now protected from the salt of the ocean by the Goolwa Barrage, and from the salt of the Murray by this very stupid levee.

Inland irrigators use all the fresh water on stuff like wine that nobody on Earth wants to drink, as best manifest by the current irreversible collapse of Australia's cheap plonk industry. Half of Australia's wine is sold in bladder packs at about the cost of bottled water. Or cheaper. Half of the other half is equal in quality to this goonbag juice, but sells for a little more in bottles.

Chardonnay wine is now available in bulk at 40 cents per litre.

Irrigation and winery washing included, it takes up to 1200 litres of water to make one litre of plonk.

South Australian Premier Mike Rann, pictured, another Labor genius who prides himself on his regulatory skills, has helped Wong avoid taking any decisive action on the River, which is obviously finished.

Mike's been very busy with his mistress, Laura Norder.

Sickest aspect of this "Regulator" is that it's being put on top of very deep estuarine mud, and will eventually sink, irretrievably. Look closely at Charles Matheson's photograph, above, and you'll notice the mud being forced up on either side as the levee sinks.

Apart from its innate racism in the recent butchering of the estuary, the home of the Ngarrindjerri nation, and total ineptitude in understanding the other original inhabitants of this country, the "Regulator", as far as I can see, is the best indicator of the intellectual decrepitude of white Australia.

She'll no longer be right, mate.

But she'll be white.

To read the history of this location, and the background of the commercial luxury marina which is being extended at the taxpayers' expense to provide the fill for the "Regulator", read Margaret Symons' forensic work on black and white Australia, The Meeting Of The Waters - The Hindmarsh Island Affair (Hodder, 2003).

The photographs are of one location on the Finnis, one of the two meagre freshwater streams which are now expected to keep the new freshwater Goolwa Pond and marina full. The top photograph was taken in 2006, the bottom one in 2008. Both were taken and supplied by Leo Davis.