“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)





16 June 2010



Winemakers And Ibis Return
Good Fruit Rots In Big Glut

Smart Dudes Move Straight On

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

In McLaren Vale, the winter has moved in with some authority. A frost or two; around zero centigrade each night; not much rain yet, but it sorta looks all right as far as winter goes in the world’s best Mediterranean climate. It’s so damn moderate it’s almost too polite.

The smaller birds that were scared off while harvest progressed have returned, and the ibis are back on the flats, drilling thousands of little holes in the sod. Gentle neat aerating holes that no heavy tractor and plough can match, with their great squishing, compacting mass.

I love those stately, prehistoric ibis. They put some ancient Egypt alongside the kangaroos and horses.

I don’t recall a vintage in which the vineyard leaf has hung on for so long after the harvest. This is another sign of a contented, balanced vignoble: happy, confident plants. After vintage there was a great desperate scurry of winemakers off to Britain for various competitions and promotional trade events; as they return they’re surprised, and remark about the leaf still hanging. This confirms their suspicions that the vintage they’ve just had was very good indeed.

This, of course, cannot be claimed by everybody. If you want a reliable touch of depression, follow the drive I took the other day with Roger Pike. We zig-zagged from The Victory on Sellicks Hill right along the piedmont of the Front Hills to Willunga. In other words, we covered half the length of the entire Willunga Embayment’s eastern boundary: some of the most promising vineyard land in the whole of McLaren Vale. There are vineyards all the way; very few of them have been picked. In some, brave owners have commenced pruning the dead bunches along with the canes; others will be left unpicked and unpruned, as there’s not enough money, and little chance of a buyer next year. Half the place is for sale.

Roger, photographed above by Kate Elmes, always sells out of his Marius Wines: they're more ravishing than ravaging. Right now, he's deep into pruning his little vineyard, which grew a stunning crop of black, sinuous assuaging fluid this year. He lives in his vines: it was 09, when the heatwave buggered everything, that he with-held his crop, and made no wine. It wasn’t good enough.

Pity more winemakers don’t have the honesty and balls, and respect of their customers, to do the same.

This year, he’s made three beautiful Marius wines, because the vintage was good.

It’s a tragic comment on the state of things that elsewhere, last year’s inferior wines are clogging up the veins of the business, occupying barrels and tanks, while the grapes of a truly grand year are hanging rotting and useless in the vineyard. This racket is full of people with absolutely no gastronomic intelligence. They are mere sugar miners and ethanol pushers.

Keith Richards says three per cent of rock music is good. I think the wine business, too, is 97 per cent abject crap.

There’s another insidious thing that knocks the corners of one’s mouth down, and it, too, has to do with contrasting philosophies about farming. Where I live, on Yangarra, the big vineyard is in transition to organic management. Yet for the last week, the chill winter air was a-throb with the aggro pulse of a helicopter spraying broad leaf herbicide on vineyards somewhere further back up the escarpment.
I’m not suggesting this spray infected Yangarra, but you can smell this stuff as it spills down the creeklines and gullies, to infest neighbouring properties whether they want poison spray or not.

Rather than hire a helicopter and a truck full of petrochem, the crew here has just completed fencing the vineyards so they can use cattle and sheep to eat the weeds through the winter, leaving their exceptionally tidy spread of fertilizing pellets on the neatly-trimmed sward.

As many larger agribusinesses – it’s not restricted to wine – gradually convert to a safer, cleaner, farming regime, this matter of spray drift will become the cause of much irritation and litigation. I’ve seen it happen on a terrible scale in different places, at different times: I was at Rosemount in the Upper Hunter one dry summer, when a farmer of something other than grapes let go a huge application of something that smelled atrocious and killed large swathes of vineyard when the breeze wafted it along.


I also recall the first organic vineyard in Coonawarra, Highbank, proudly standing, clean and
happy amidst a glower of aggro petrochem-addicted neighbours who blamed every stray spore of mildew or botrytis on the organic vigneron who refused to spray the same poison. Eventually the neighbours solved this by employing aerial spraying techniques, so the plane happened to fly a bit too far across the boundary before it turned its squirters off, thus purging the nasty clean intruder. That took a lot of sorting out, too.

At one point the vineyard workers at Southcorp threatened to cease handling petrochem sprays because of their danger to health. “But you must spray”, they were told, “or there’ll be no crop.” They politely pointed out that the Highbank Vineyard always produced a beautiful crop without any poison, so there was an example supporting their case. That took some sorting out, too.

But the helicopter’s throb is not always a bad sound to everybody. At Petrus, the great Merlot vineyard in Pomerol, Bordeaux, the owner has been known to wrap the vineyard ground in plastic to protect and conserve the soil’s natural moisture, taping the stuff up around the trunk of each vine. Merlot likes wet feet, along with dry leaves and bunches. So he sits above the vineyard in his hovering chopper at night, ensuring the leaves and bunches stay dry, and frost and disease-free until harvest.

Here is a good case in point. The sound of his beautiful, incredible machine is very satisfying to him. The vineyard workers, who live in cottages around its parameter, probably have a different point of view.

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