“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)





17 February 2011



Best Nose In The Aussie Business
Brian Barry Opens Some Classics
Vintage Can Begin With Impunity


Regular readers may recall that in most years, vintage doesn’t happen until Brian Barry’s had his birthday. He’s had eighty-four of them now – birthdays, that is – and after working sixty four or five vintages seems content to let his son Judson attend to the annual matters of vinification.

I am on the record, suggesting over and over through the last decades, that Brian Barry’s nose is the most sensitive and refined sensory organ in the Australian wine industry. Max Lake was good; Brian is unsurpassed.

This year’s celebration was a quiet affair at The Kensington, which is one of the most coolly civilised pubs on the plain.

The great nose was in fine fettle, and Brian had brought two important wines which had caught my attention upon their release. The great man punctuated the ooohs and aaahs these mighty tinctures triggered with typically dry reflections on notable moments in his long, remarkable life.

When you’re with Brian, history gets shorter. It pulls closer to now.

Like when he reflects on his time working with Hurtle Walker at Samuel Wynn’s Romalo Cellars at Magill.

Hurtle was trained by Edmund Mazure (right), a Burgundian winemaker who’d worked at Clos Vougeot and then in Spain before hitting the high seas for a taste of adventure which led him to to New Ireland, where his open boat was shipwrecked. He made it to New Britain, where he became a trader but nearly died of fever. He got south to Sydney Town, where, whilst awaiting a home-bound vessel, noticed a newspaper advertisement placed by Sir Samuel Davenport (below right) of Adelaide. Davenport sought a winemaker; Mazure got the job. Within a few years he’d made Australia’s first commercial sparkling red at Magill, after the style then made in Burgundy, and the legendary St George’s Kanmantoo Claret which won the top gold at the 1889 Paris international exposition held to coincide with the opening of the Eiffel Tower.

Mazure trained Hurtle Walker; Hurtle’s son was the formidable Norm, who worked on the first commercial wines to undergo deliberately-induced and managed malo-lactic fermentation with Ian Hickinbotham and David Wynn at Coonawarra in the early ’fifties; Norm’s son is the fizzmaster Nick Walker, partner in O’Leary-Walker of Clare.

And there’s Brian in the middle of it.

“Ah, the French,” he sighed. “I worked there with Maurice Ou, from Montpelier. He was a good winemaker. He always did what the boss suggested. And he had a very beautiful wife …”

Speaking of chaps with an eye – or a nose – for extremely beautiful women, Brian recalled narrowly avoiding being run over by Max Schubert, a man who drove furiously.

“Whoosh!” he said, “I was on my to work at Magill and there I was standing in a cloud of dust. I asked who that was, and they said it was Max. He was always late for work. He was away up there then, a big man, but I got to know him as the years went by. He was a great bloke.”

Brian then went on to work for the Hamilton family, at their winery at Glenelg, where vines were first planted around 1840.

“I worked a lot on distillation at Hamiltons … Making all sorts. Gin. I even made whisky. I won them the first gold medal they ever got for a whisky”, he says. “But I couldn’t care less about whisky.”

He poured his Jud’s Hill Clare Riesling 2005. The table fell very quiet. The aroma provoked a fountain of ideas, reflections of real lemon tart, brioche, sabayon, beurre blanc … and then the flavour: smooth, creamy, slick, fresh, coolly authoritative and firm … winding out into a long grainy finish. A magnificent triumph of gastronomy.

“Best grape on Earth, Riesling,” he said.

There were other whites, including a magnum of 04 Jud’s Hill Riesling, sadly spoiled by its cork. Then he produced another magnum.

“You were the first to realize this wine’s potential,” he said, “so we’d better have this one.”

It was the Jud’s Hill Clare Merlot 1998. Merlot seems an unlikely grape to grow in Clare. There have been some magnificent failures with it, like when Vic Patrick, of Mildara-Blass, ripped out the original Buring & Sobels Semillon, perhaps the best old vineyard of this grape in Australia, to plant the trendy new popstar Merlot around Quelltaler.

Merlot is a freak of a grape: it likes slightly wet feet. Not still, stagnant water, but a clean gentle movement, deep down about its roots. Perhaps the best of the new wavers is the Romney Park, which Hahndorf winemaker Rod Short makes from a vineyard on the banks of the Onkaparinga, and sells for a price so low it diminishes that lovely wine’s stature. Another beauty is from the cool damp alluvium of the King Valley in north-eastern Victoria, where Trevor Knaggs (below) makes his ravishing King River Estate on the banks of that alpine stream.

But while the deep chalky calcrete of Quelltaler was hardly ideal, the clayey patch Brian chose for Merlot at the sodden foot of his Jud’s Hill was just perfect.

“Best Australian Merlot nose I’ve had”, muttered Brian’s nephew, Peter, M-D of Jim Barry wines since the death of his father. Peter now owns the Jud’s Hill vineyard, but he’s pulled that Merlot out. The vineyard never yielded much tonnage, and the subterranean water that came down the hill to feed those roots dried out when upstream vignerons built dams.

Brian and Jud bottled eight magnums from that vintage. There are four left, which makes them priceless treasures: Jud plans to eventually release them for sale. Upon its release in 750 ml bottles, the wine cleaned up the Merlot class two years running in my Top 100.

Contrary to popular misconception, Merlot is not meant to be mellow. It can be silky, provided its tannins are, in turn, velvety, and it can be deceptively creamy, harmonious and full, provided it is still complex with its classical aromas of moss, ferny earth, and the sorts of wholesome whiffs you’d expect from those happy, moist roots. This one was all these things, with the umami aromas of shiitake, enoki and oyster mushrooms. It displayed just the right hint of reduced, caramelising spinach, and the prettiest whiff of eucalypty mint. And yet, with all those evocative components, it remains sublimely elegant, smooth and regal. Put very simply, Pomerol with a whiff of Australia.

After a rocky decade financially, Brian and Judson show a new confidence. They’ve worked their way out of a major debt, and have bold plans for a new future. Judson is developing a palate which reflects his father’s teaching and genetics, and Brian shows no sign of losing interest in anything.

I’m sure the 2012 birthday lunch will be even more exciting. Now, on with vintage!


Frank said...

I've met Brian a few times over the years and he's a gent as well as a great palate. He's always positive and it's always a bit uplifting to chat to him. Plus his wines are spot on.

westie said...

Mazure looks like your brother Stephen! That's freaky!

Ian Hickman said...

Congrats Brian, keep on keeping on. I opened a bottle of the 2002 Jud's Hill Riesling tonight, and even with the dodgy prospect of a badly banged up capsule it's a ripper. I reckon your drink 'til 2015 prediction Whitey is a shitload more accurate than Hallidays's 'til 2006.