“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)





04 November 2009



Rhone Man Tastes Vales Stones
500 Million Years Missing
Some Hammy Ironstone Survives

by PHILIP WHITE ... a version of this first appeared in THE INDEPENDENT WEEKLY

John Livingstone-Learmonth is a student of the Rhone. He has crossed its countryside, kicked its dirt, contemplating its geology, and studied its wines for thirty-five years. He knows three generations of growers, and has watched their attitudes and vineyard husbandry change. Or not change. He is the living library of Rhone whites, cellaring, and knowing implicitly decades of viognier, roussane and marsanne. He was in Condrieu, the home of viognier, when its total plantings had dwindled to around twelve hectares. He has written scholarly books about this; now he is attempting to encourage those Rhonely types to learn more about their geology.

“Take Saint Joseph, in the Rhone”, he said, over a breakfast tasting. “It is transversed by streams which come down from the range to the west. When I taste those wines, and study their prices through history, these vary in parallel to my opinions of their quality, depending on the various alluviums they have washed downstream ... the geology of these sources are vital sources of flavour. The old growers accepted all this for centuries, without knowing why; without appreciation of precisely why and how geology influences the flavour and structure of their wines.”

“We need an international guest at our wine show” Vales PR flak Elizabeth Tasker had said, half apologetically, “to give it weight in the publicity ... we need a point of difference to elevate our image.” Which is why John was here. But we were discussing something bigger than PR.

Way beneath the Willunga Basin lie the rocks of the Neoproterozoic, stuff that was there around a billion years ago. Before multi-cellular life really took off. A billion years before humans invented God. Atop those lie layer upon layer of deposits left by repeated intrusions and retreats of the ocean, which has all occurred during the ice ages of the last sixty million years. Only in that time have we drifted away from Gondwanaland, the great Antarctic continent. That may seem a long time back, until you think of the preceding billion years or so.

When Earth’s water concentrates, frozen, at the poles, the sea falls. Eighteen thousand years ago the beach was away off on the edge of the continental shelf, at least one hundred kilometres from where it now stands. Ten thousand years ago, you could walk to Kangaroo Island. There were aboriginal people living where the Bass Straight now flows.

I attempted to explain the differences between the geology of McLaren Vale and that of the Rhone, the target and source of John’s life’s fascination, when a weird reality hit me with newfound clarity. Apart from their newer stuff, which was laid down or exposed in the same last sixty millions that saw the top layers of the Willunga Basin form, the basement Rhone is from the Jurassic, the age of dinosaurs and coniferous forests, from 135 million to 180 million years ago.

I found myself having to explain that those layers of history do not exist in McLaren Vale. They are quite simply gone. Away. I can show you sites in the Vales where you have a layer of Neoproterozoic rock topped with layers of stuff that are sixty million years old, from the Eocene. Five hundred million years of geology have vanished. The stuff that once filled that gap is the geology on which the Rhone Valley grew. So we had an exciting point of difference: the bit missing from the Vales is the bit in which France happened.

Regular readers will know of my obsession with licking rocks and dirt to taste their flavour. In spite of some nonsense circulating about some boozy US geologists claiming the opposite, grapes are little bags of sugary water, which are directly influenced by these flavours of the Earth.

Soil, the obsession of Australian winemakers, is the dandruff of the Earth to the geologist. Drive through any cutting on any of the roadways in our Hills or the Vales, and look at the soil: it’s usually only a metre deep, if that. The key roots of vines drive quickly through that dandruff, and derive flavours from the skull bone beneath. John Livingston-Learmonth understands this more than any wine writer I have met. I passed him a small lump of ironstone from the Yangarra sands. It tasted like a slice of smoky Iberian ham.


A team of master geologists, W. A. “Bill” Fairburn, Jeff Olliver, and Wolfgang Preiss, all colleagues of mine from the old days of the Mines Department in the ’seventies, has almost finished work on the official PIRSA geology map of McLaren Vale, due for publication soon. I have assisted in this publication, having first dreamed of it with some of these clever men in the SA Geological Survey all those years ago.

This map will fairly quickly unlock many of the mysteries of the flavours of the region, replace most of the winemakers’ preoccupation with dandruff, instantly begin to influence grape prices, and therefore land prices, and will play a major role in future town planning and development issues. I trust that Premier Rann’s Thirty Year Plan for greater Adelaide will be sufficiently flexible to absorb these realities, which have been there a helluva lot longer than he has.

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