“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)





27 March 2011


Smokin' With The King
Hottest Shit On Earth
Get A Cool Bhut Up You

by PHILIP WHITE - written for INDAILY on 17 MAR 11

Don’t mention the vintage, don’t mention the vintage.

Okay, we’ll talk about chilli. It’s been a horrid season for chilli in south-east Asia. Weird weather has cut the crop by half in some regions, sending prices soaring, and threatening age-old cuisines for the first time in living memory.

But at McLaren Vale, the chilli season has been just dandy.

The garden of my beloved is heavy with chillies of every hue and heat, right up to the evil Bhut Jolokia, which has thrown a profuse crop.

Also known as the Ghost Chilli or the Cobra, the Bhut comes from north-east India. Not as hot as the Naga Viper or the Dorset Naga, it nevertheless weighs in at 401.5 times the heat of Tabasco, and depending on its source, varies from 330,000 to over a million Scoville points, the widely-accepted heat rating scale. The average Jalapeño measures around 5,000.

Most readers will find my fascination with these nether regions of tolerable heat, where the atmosphere gets very thin indeed, an outright perversity. But in the name of gastronomy, I confess to a premature donation of my bottle-scarred body to science, as I strive to learn which wines best suit chillies so hot they set my endorphins running to the buzz point at which the government must surely consider prohibition.

Put simply, it’s just too much fun to be legal.

The dumbest thing you can drink with extreme chilli is one of the most popular “pairings”: Sauvignon blanc. That awkward cleansing blend of catpiss and battery acid on the lawn seems only to remove any prophylactic lining the mouth may have had, and actually demolishes the pleasure of chilli: it becomes too abrasive and invasive of the complex aural organs.

Capsaicin, 8-methyl-N-vanillyl-6-nonenamide, (CH3)2CHCH=CH(CH2)4CONHCH2C6H3-4-(OH)-3-(OCH3), is the major compound responsible for the heat of chillies. In high concentrations it’s what the wallopers spray on you when you’re really really naughty.

My organic chemistry is not sufficiently advanced to appreciate the finer points of the chilli plant ingeniously adjoining “a branched-chain fatty acid to vanillylamine” to make capsaicin, but I can grasp the fact that it’s a “hydrophobic (it forms oily globules in water), colorless, odorless, crystalline to waxy compound”.

That vanillylamine also begins to explain why the pungent and delicious flesh of the Bhut reminds me of the unfairly-maligned Durian and Jackfruit plants, whose vanillas seem so heady as to remind some lilylivers of vomit.

Anyway, drinking water to ease chilli’s oily heat is about as silly as drinking Sauvignon blanc.

Oils dilute oils. And fats. Ergo the wonder of the pork curry, which blends the heat of chilli beautifully with the delicious animal fats we seem addicted to. Similarly, the oils of fish or prawns, the fat of chicken. As a relieving drink, the fats in milk and yoghurt are the quick extinguisher trick, but finding wines with similar capacities is not as tricky as you’d think.

Well, not quite. They’re out there. They’re just not made much in Australia, which is dumb, considering our cuisine. I don’t know how much chilli Australia eats, but I’m sure there’s a guide in our consumption of ginger – my mates at Buderim Ginger say we are easily the greatest per capita consumers of ginger on Earth.

In malo-lactic fermentation, bacteria, not yeast, converts the harsh, metallic-tasting malic acid of grapes to lactic acid, the fattier acid of milk. So accepting that you need wines with the most glycerol, the oiliest texture, or the most fat, the first step is to wines which have undergone this secondary, non-alcoholic fermentation.

So, creamy Chardonnay with “full malo” is a start; most reds are another likely candidate. However a complexity emerges here. Most wines that are assisted through malolactic fermentation are oaked, and whether by sawdust, shavings, chips, planks or even barrels, Bacchus forbid, the tannins of the wine are more harsh, ripping the lining of the mouth apart with a viciousness approaching the efficiency of Sauvignon blanc. Wines with added tannins, which are unfortunately prolific, are even worse with chilli.

So if you need red with your heat, you’re probably better off with something terrible from a bladder pack in place of your Grange. The old silver pillow alleyjuice is less likely to suffer the expense of much lumberjacking of any sort.

Otherwise, the red Gamay wines of Beaujolais are tickety-boo, being chubby and wholesome, low in oak tannin, and generally devoid of added tannin. Hardly anyone in this whole Australian wine industry has grasped this, other than enlightened souls like the Barons of Barossa’s Winemaker Of The Year 2010, Wayne Dustchke, who has revived the late Stephen Hickinbotham’s Cab Mac with great panache. This was a wine technique adapted from the Beaujolais carbonic maceration, and designed to compete with the floods of Beaujolais that choked Australia shelves in the early eighties.

Lively, fresh, healthy reds for consumption the year of their vintage would seem to make deep sense in a market jammed full like ours: the winemakers can start making their money just weeks after vintage, instead of waiting for years of barrel and bottle maturation.

Our weather alone makes a powerful argument that we should concentrate on perfecting some low-tannin reds that flourish in an ice bucket and make perfect gastronomic logic with chilli.

I didn’t chill it, but the very low tannin Lake Breeze Old Vine Grenache I recommended here earlier this week would fill the bill, and that’s a mature conventionally-made dry red.

To increase the natural glycerols in his Cab Mac, Hickinbotham even encouraged some botrytris on his red grapes – botrytis converts some of the sugar in the berry straight to glycerol. He solved the problem of laccase, a milky compound botrytis triggers in reds, with a steady low-temperature Pasteurisation.

So. In lieu of these rather obvious red styles evolving outside the cellars of such enlightened souls as Hick and Dutschke, we’ll have to head back to white wines.

Botrytised wines are really good with chilli, but such sweetness as you’ll find in Sauternes or Barsac, or Aussie Semillon, Riesling, or Viognier with botrytis, makes them too thick a drink to be your refresher when addressing a hot Thai soup or blazing curry.

The slightly slimy texture of the best Mornington Peninsula grey Pinots (Pinots gris, or Grigio), play a very happy duet with chilli. Anything made by Sandro Mosel (Port Phillip) or Kath Quealy (Quealy Wine or Balnarring) are fine.

But all this is pointing us into one last corner: fronti. This member of the Muscat family has variously been called Frontignac, Frontignan, Muscat à petits grains, Muscat d’Alsace, Moscato d’Asti, Moscato di Canelli and Moscato Blanco. Barossadeutschers call it Front’n’backs. Orlando made some dazzlers in the ‘sixties and ‘seventies: sweet to quite sweet drinks of good acidity but comforting texture and the complex, slightly spicy, heartening aroma of the Muscat family.

The best of these locally is the Jeanneret Mosquito, an inexpensive, sweetish, very slightly petillant (fizzy) low-alcohol cuteness which loves to swim with chilli, and is light enough to also rehydrate and refresh where water just don’t work.

To mention the V word in conclusion, there are many Hills vineyards, and maritime (McLaren Vale), which could be making money in a month had they grown the old faithful Fronti in place of more expensive extravagances which might not sell, or even ripen, in this horror vintage.

Horrible for for grapes, I mean. As I say, the chilli vintage, in McLaren Vale at least, is just dandy.


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