“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)





14 November 2009



The Look Of Smell
Sexy Sexton Stuffs
The Desert Weed


They say the difference between drunks and alcoholics is alcoholics go to meetings. The chardonnay addicts have obviously had a meeting. But bugger their meeting: here I sit drinking chardonnay, gazing at an Arthur Streeton painting.

So what’s chardonnay got to do with Sir Arthur Streeton? Well, it has to do with the look of smell.

I can tell the chardonnay addicts – and I mean those addicted to growing and making the stuff - have had a meeting because everywhere I hear the breathless news that chardonnay is coming back. My e-mail is full of this naive hope. I find this advice rather telling, if not threatening. I even heard it, for Bacchus’ sake, at the McLaren Vale wine show. (McLaren Vale grows about 6000 tonnes of ordinary chardonnay a year, which is a drop in the total 444,000 tonnes Australian bucket.)

I’ve heard it all before. Len Evans, that old rogue who ran the wine show system for thirty years, preached incessantly that ‘chardonnay will become the vanilla of the Australian wine industry’. They took this variety from the snow and chalk of Champagne and Burgundy and planted it all over the desert and prayed that it would turn into vanilla. They told us it HAD turned into vanilla. And then they put caramelised oak chips and whatnot into it so it tasted more like vanilla. But it’s a thirsty weed in our desert: never even
getting vaguely close to vanilla essence; much less the true and perfect vanilla bean.


Industry leaders Dick Smart, Adrian Read and Ian Kidd even planted chardonnay at Bourke. Or got some other poor bugger to plant it, as a millennium PR stunt: the first wine on Earth to be picked in the new millennium. Read: ‘Kidding’, Smartypants.

One of the reasons our wine business is on the nose is that all the punters in the world will not, cannot, drink all the terrible chardonnay that Australia grows. If, like with albarino, they suddenly discovered it was really savignin or traminer or something they’d been passing off in ignorance, and they could rename it and relaunch it, even then it wouldn’t be drunk. Not for a profit.

There are about ten true estates in Australia making good chardonnay. Cullen, Lubiana, Leeuwin, Ashton Hills, Marchand and Burch, Tarrawarra, Romney Park, Montalto, Mountadam, Tallarook ... all reliable chardonnay makers.

Fosters and Constellation can do it well with bought fruit, but they make lakes of the worst stuff, too. And as the chardonnay gets worse, fatter or thinner, so does the dodgy intellect of those who persist with it at the swill end of the market.

Who do they think we are?

Which leads me to the 24 year old Arthur Streeton, in the Blue Mountains in 1891, painting the colour of the air above the Lapstone Tunnel, an excavation the navvies were making for the new trainline. There was an explosion, and a man lost his life. So Streeton painted the faintest wisp of blue smoke over his perfectly-measured air, there in the dry eucalypt bush with the sweat and the horses and the broken hearts and stone and gunpowder. This could be Australia’s most aromatic painting.

I am tasting five successive vintages of Giant Steps Yarra Valley Sexton Vineyard Chardonnay, made by that Merlin, Steve Flamsteed, and Dave McIntosh. These are distinctive and beautiful wines to sniff, because they do not resemble vanilla. They have a range of fruity esters that spread from the smell of Kingston Black cider apples, through stewed to fresh crunchy pear, maybe quince paste, then lemon juice and ginger, to the very edge of oxalis, like the whiff of rhubarb pie, or the taste of a soursob stalk, and on almost to methoxypyrazine, the smell of a tomato leaf, or sauvignon blanc.
They are lean, naturally acidic sentinels of great longevity, almost carved from stone. And each one, to varying degrees, also has the acrid, nostril-twitching aroma of Arthur Streeton’s ‘Fire’s On’, (Lapstone Tunnel) 1891, which you can disappear into at the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

These wines are grown without poison sprays, and made with the yeasts of the air. They need no shovelled acid; only a drinker patient enough to realise their beauty is not always overt, like the old peach syrup/Dolly Parton chardonnays of Rosemount’s Roxburgh, a vineyard which has just been bought by BHP-Billiton, who can smell coal.

The Giant Steps chardonnays do have a little of the chubby fatty acids that often mark the best Burgundian versions, but these simply make these staunch wines more wholesome. The 2008 version has about as much butter as the thinnest layer of flake pastry, as if all the abovementioned fruits were on a lightly-cooked tart.

Despite them regularly winning major shiny at the Royal Melbourne, these pristine, honest wines, from an honest, lovingly-tended garden, are not the sort of chardonnays those refinery managers decided to persist with at their meeting. I’ve already drunk glumly to that.

FOOTNOTE: After publishing this, the author discovered there had indeed been a meeting to stir the troops to get chardonnay back on the shelves in place of the dreaded Kiwi savvy-B. Fosters called the meeting. The wine show judges promptly obeyed!

No comments: