“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)





11 November 2011



A Trip Into Parfumiers' Heaven
Tricky Sonnet Tension Of Wine
Miracle Tasting In Kelly Country


The Castagna family of Beechworth, in the mountainous Kelly country of northern Victoria, open their winery for tasting just one day each year. Having been smitten from afar by the glory of their exquisite biodynamic works for ten vintages now, I finally got my bad arse up the mountain to their vineyard and winery to taste and sniff everything in the one breezy stretch. Beechworth is a hard place to arrive at if you don’t drive a car, so the masterly Satanika took the tiller, all the way up the Hume, and when we got there, one day turned into many: I reveled in the wonder of it all.

But it started in a deadly bar in Melbourne.

There’s a hyper-cool vodka joint in Brunswick Street Fitzroy called Naked For Satan. It’s where Leon Satanovich set up his sly grog stills between the wars: they’ve all been moved upstairs now, and deck the rooms like ghostly alchemist relics; a sort of bubblin’ and troublin’ William Heath Robinson bootleg nightmare. Somebody found a photo once which some think might be Leon; that's it below. So you stand in this strange copper refinery and examine glass after glass of the specialty flavoured vodkas they make by steeping real fresh fruitaveg – chilli, ginger, watermelon, ly-chee etc. - in Absolut. While I’d prefer Finlandia for the steeping – it’s cleaner - I went on to double my delight in discovering that the vodka da dayskovich was Żubrówka.

This delicious Polish spirit is distilled from rye, and is infused before and during bottling with buffalo grass - Hierochloe odorata – or a tincture made from it. As the label quaintly points out, this is “the grass much beloved by the Polish Bison”. The European bison’s really called the żubr, so the stuff’s called Żubrówka. I imagine they’d probably eat rye, too, but it seems like a fool for his dope the poor old żubr just can’t walk past a blade of Hierochloe odorata.

Similarly, I find it pretty hard to walk past a bottle of Żubrówka - each bottle comes fitted with a blade of the voodoo greenery. I can’t find an Australian buffalo grass that smells as sweetly of vanilla bean, vetiver and perhaps ripe Rocha pear as this Polish model. But the moment I opened the car door at the gate of Castagna Vineyard, in the lee of my Żubrówka hangover, my nostrils caught a wave of it so sweet and thick it took me straight back to Poland. I nearly grew some cloven hooves.

Just as the highly volatile oil of eucalyptus blows through the air to settle on the blume of grape skins, imparting the overt eucalypt aroma often confused with mint and menthol, so does the breath of many herbs and grasses, each carrying their unique aromatic signature. Lavendar is oily, violets, too, and fennel. These all flavour grape skins. But it’s complex: the rank onion weed easily influences grapes hanging above. The human hooter can detect some of these compounds in parts per trillion, so you don’t need much on your grape to severely alter the aroma of your wine.


At 500 metres, the Castagna vineyard offers a straight eyeline to Mt Buffalo a thousand metres above to the south. It is high and breezy, and in spite of the ungiving stone shallow below, the sward is so thick with alpine grasses and herbs that they must unequivocally influence the nature of the finished wine. I sniffed many of the individual grasses, but betwixt thunderstorms I couldn’t find that one single blade that reeks of the Żubrówka bottle. Maybe it’s there, still waiting to be found; maybe when I alighted the car I smelled an aromatic amalgam of all sorts of grasses, dampened by a sunshower and sensorily lit up by the ozone of lightning and the wild nitrogen it activates. Carolann Castagna was busy collecting seeds from her herb garden next day; she throws these about the vineyard to maximize the complexity of the healthy sward there. But let me assure you, that mysterious character plays a very important part of the aromatic and flavour structure of the Castagna wines.

Which is never to say these things dominate. Let’s just say they are a part of the inextricably complex web of influences which all have their input into these delicious wines … from the granite and sandstone below to the stars above, these Castagnas are always some of the most beautiful drinks in Australia.

To keep his rigourous quality standards high, Julian Castagna has decided to release no 2011 wines from the Castagna vineyard. It’s a pity more winemakers who masquerade as premium producers haven’t shown similar honesty about the mess of the second wettest vintage in Australian winemaking history.

At Castagna, former film director Julian is winemaker. His partner, the writer and researcher Carolann, runs the vineyard with their son Adam, who also makes the Adam’s Rib wines, sometimes using fruit bought from vineyards up the road. Alexi, another son, is a cinematographer. All these people, and their spouses and friends, are obsessive gastronomes. You don’t stand between a Castagna and its stove, and you stand well back when the corkscrew’s twirling. Respect.


Castagna Adam’s Rib The White 2008

$35; 14% alcohol; Diam cork; 93+++ points
This wine, made by Adam Castagna, set an attitude that ran right through this tasting on the veranda. First, this style depends upon an accurate reflection of the sweet aroma of the meadow grasses of the property. Secondly, the wines seem built around a tensioning spring which slows the entertaining see-saw of flavours and aromas that comfort and soothe on the one end, and titillate and provoke on the other. To manage both sensations smoothly and harmoniously would seem impossible if not plain unlikely, but like the spring of sense that sets the tension in a sonnet, holding you to it, there’s a perfect tension that addicts you to this glass. The smoothing parts of it – it’s a Chardonnay Viognier blend – are fleshy. In this opulent wine, that sweet vanilla-like meadow grass approaches crème caramel in fleshiness. And there’s the smell of cantaloupe and prosciutto: it’s all comforting, reassuring and calming. Then that beautiful mountain-fresh natural acidity flicks a switch, and the sharp vivacity turns up with whiffs of dust and fresh-split sandstone: an acrid edge that tickles the nose hairs with desert smells of such clarity that I found myself dreaming the soundtrack of The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.

CCastagna Adam’s Rib The White 2009
$35; 14% alcohol; Diam cork; 94+ points
Immediately more tropically fruity, the younger Rib has flesh of pineapple, jackfruit, cantaloupe and prosciutto, even honey. It’s sumptuous and lush. Then, riding on the sweet ripe meadow aroma, comes dust and burlap, and the acrid peel of that cantaloupe. That comfort and titillation see-saw’s there again, perhaps even more blatantly: amongst all those yellow fruits and melons, this still has that bright acid zap, if you can get a gradual zap. It’s tantalizing. Adam says he gave it more skins and a tiny slop of Roussanne from up the road.


Castagna Ingénue Beechworth Viognier 2010

$55; 14% alcohol; Diam cork; 95+++ points
As tight as a kettle drum, this wine of Julian Castagna is as drawn and taut as it is suave and elegant. It’s wired as well as sprung, immediately more acrid and sharp: almost brittle. It prickles the nostrils. I found myself thinking of the smell of Sir Arthur Streeton’s Fire’s On – Lapstone Tunnel 1891 and finally realized that the piquant sandstone country around Castagna is pretty much the country that young Arthur painted as the navvies and powdermonkeys drove a train line through the mountains just the other side of the border and up a bit. Fortunately, they didn’t have to go through the granite also resident at Beechworth. With this wine, the air within my glass smelled the same as the air without. Then, once again, beside the dust and the sunbleached hay, that sweet fleshy grass insinuated itself, this time as cool and cucumbery as Issye Miyake. By Bacchus, it’s a beautiful drink. Those triple-x phenolics dance round in the acid like William Burroughs does when he takes off his skin for his bone dance, and yet there’s still that swoony, comforting, luxurious Żubrówka flesh. Peking duck.

Castagna Allegro Beechworth Syrah Rosé 2010
$30; 14% alcohol; Diam cork; 95++ points
This is like one of those people who radiate such cornflower-blue health that they make you feel sick. It’s riddled with well-being: watermelon, pomegranate, raspberry … and I was just about to switch over through the blood orange and its pith to the bone china tannin when the dry edge was violently installed by a falcon whacking into a juvenile Wattle Bird on the veranda behind me. When I asked why the little bird was trying to get into the bedroom they explained it had just escaped the talons of a hungry demon from the blue, but didn’t tell me because it was all over in a flash. That’s the first time that’s ever happened in my immediate vicinity in the middle of a wine appraisal. You don’t get raptors in vineyards managed under the old petrochem regime. When you use poisons, you get sick insects. Sick insects mean sick birds and snakes, and sick birds and snakes means dead raptors, as they’re the end of the food chain. Nothing sick about that hungry, heaving falcon. Anyway, once I got the feathers outa my carby I realized that this wine has a delicious bitterness which is almost along the lines of a Campari with soda, and while its acid might seem a tad brittle it actually slithers round one’s gustatory stage like a viper. These rosés of Julian’s are always pretty much the best in the country: out of thousands of entries, the 2001 Allegro was outright winner of all classes in my Top 100 in 2002; the only time a rosé ever rose to such heights.


astagna Adam’s Rib The Red 2008
$35; 14% alcohol; Diam cork; 94+++
Nebbiolo and Syrah. Moody, glowering, simmering and surly down below, acrid and almost irritating up top. As it settles, it suddenly seems perfectly assimilated and cool, and all that marello cherry and blueberry seems rich and opulent, and suits perfectly the velvet tannins that fur up its tail. Then the acid announces itself, and sets the whole thing flowing with sinuous, silky syrup that makes me really friggin hungry. These various wings of the wine seem to take turns to hold you, and it, aloft. But I expect great Nebbiolo to also set its tannin loose above its palate, like a cloud; an ethereal, heavenly mattress of fluff. While this wine certainly holds me suspended, it has not quite set its tannin free: it’s still there at the bottom of the mouth, growling like a caged Shiraz. But it’s stunning wine nevertheless, and amongst the best use I’ve seen of the confounding prehistoric Nebbi in this confounding prehistoric land. Adam is a winemaker to watch!

Castagna Adam’s Rib The Red 2009

$35; 13.5% alcohol; Diam cork; 93-4+++ points
Because of its braw infant structure, this wine is too young to point: the wise appraiser should withdraw from limiting its bright potential with numbers. It is more intense and taut than the 08; more austere and unformed. It has rude blueberry in abundance, but where the older wine has marello cherry, this has acrid juniper riding shotgun, and it has aniseed and licorice where the 08 has other fleshy fruits. The palate has staunch Protestant astringency, tannin and acid. I should think my next appraisal should be in about 2020, by which point some of the Nebbiolo’s puppy fat will have gained a grasp of these hard black Shiraz bones.


Castagna Un Segreto Beechworth Sangiovese Syrah 2009

$75; 14% alcohol; Diam cork; 92-3+++ points
Extreme elegance; extreme concentrate. Slender, intense and snaky; harsh with swarf and blackwood. Syrupy with essence of coffee and chicory; dry and tannic like black tea leaves. Blueberry and blackcurrant gels in dark chocolate; the whiprod acidity of the fencing foil. Once again, it’s all attack and feint, parry and plunge, and this back-and-forth will keep the drinker very well entertained until there’s peace in the valley in about five years time. In one way, the infant tannins here seem more Nebbiolo-like than Sangiovese, but the deeper I delved I discovered that not really to be true: these tannins will never be ethereal: they’re too much a part of the chassis of the wine; far too viscerally savoury to ever let go. I imagine that in five years my points will start at 94.

Castagna La Chiave Beechworth Sangiovese 2009
$75; 14% alcohol; Diam cork; 94+++ points
Maybe it’s a reflection of Castagna’s stubborn inherited nose that it’s these royal Italian varieties that seem so slow maturing that they’re never ready for appraisal upon release. They make Shiraz look like Gamay in this tough stony ground. We can expect Castagna Sangiovese and Nebbiolo to usually be wines of extreme longevity. Nevertheless, this Sangiovese is so elegant as to initially appear fleeting to the nose. Wrong. Things change. Legend says Sangiovese is the blood of St Jove. Whether or not it’s really God’s blood, this heavenly elixir certainly draws the blood of the drinker to the edge of the lips: it’s so rudely sensual it left me feeling like I’d been kissing too hard. Its smooth sweetness seems to come from blueberry, blackberry, fig, marello cherries and those juicy super-colossal Greek olives; its counterpoint edge from meadow herbage, spinache, tamarillo, Cherry Heering, and blood orange – in fact that rindy aroma is accompanied by enough curacao bitterness to remind me of Campari. So we have another Castagna that entertains with its youthful see-saw between fleeting, ethereal elegance, and hubs-locked, snow-chains-on determination and grunt. It will be a truly stunning wonder in five years; as it stands, it’s simply the best current release Sangiovese grown and made in Australia, beaten only by the dramatic 2006.


Castagna Genesis Beechworth Syrah 2009

$75; 14% alcohol; Diam cork; 95++ points
While Julian Castagna derides the old Grange philosophy of American oak and added tannin, this could almost be mistaken for one of the more eucalypt-mentholated super-Penfolds without the coconut and sap. Which is evidence of his determination: while Grange was a compromise short of the things Max Schubert felt essential for a superwine - Cabernet sauvignon and French oak for starters - Castagna has made no compromise. So this reminds me perversely of a Penfolds I have not seen. It reeks of blueberries, leather, fennel, meadow sward, anise, mace, cooking chocolate, dutch licorice, and dust. Then, once you’ve let it into your minions it leaves a delightful little lozenge of blackcurrant and blueberry in the middle of your tongue. The acidity, the tannins, the unction: all are sublime and beginning to harmonise. All the bells are ringing. And once again, the great soothe is here as powerfully as the sass.

Castagna Genesis Beechworth Syrah 2008
$300 for a six-pack of 500ml. bottles; 14% alcohol; Diam cork; 95+++ points
Whilst completely homogenized and harmonious after two years in the smaller bottle, this wine also presents contrast as dramatic as the thunderstorm that crackled around the Castagna winery as I tasted. I have likened the aroma of previous vintages of this remarkable biodynamic Shiraz to the ozone whiff of lightning on the blackberry vines; this time it’s struck the blueberries. But the complexity and audacious nature of the wine stretches far beyond that: it oozes about the glass at first: an incredible soulful syrup. Then it lets loose mellow seeps of Irish moss – which is in fact decaying seaweed, not moss - and the comforting creamy umami of shiitake to support the meatiness of the blueberries. With this comes the sweet aroma of the Castagna pasture: the heady vanilla of that sweet buffalo grass in the Żubrówka. Then the edgy aromas arise: juniper, deadly nightshade, black tea leaves, aniseed … like all the new Castagnas, and many of their forebears, it works a delicious magic by see-sawing constantly from offering smooth comfort to challenging edge, and finally a persistent little jujube of blueberry, blackcurrant and blackberry sitting on the tongue. It’s amazing.


Castagna Sparkling Genesis Beechworth Syrah 2008

$75; 13.5% alcohol; Diam cork; 95+++ points

The tiny bubbles and absolutely minimal liqueuring have softened some of the 08’s angular bits, but put a little more sharp into others. The aniseed, blueberry and juniper are all here chugging, the jujubes have taken on a St Elmo’s Fire halo, and the nightshade and tea leaves seem to have been replaced by a thin layer of coal dust, but overall, the similarity with the wine with 100% fewer cavities is reassuring. This is very dry for red fizz. It works that same old teetering see-saw of soothing and excitement, and keeps the sensories alert and entertained. As the thunderstorm breeze whizzed across the table, each sniff or sip drew out another contrast or complement, just as the vineyard changes aroma constantly with wind direction and airborne water. Blueberries at the bottom.

Castagna Aqua Santa NV Viognier With 100 Grams Residual Sugar
$75 for 500 ml.; 15% alcohol; Diam cork; 94 points

Unfortified, and naturally sweet, this autumnal wine is russet in more than colour: it seems to hold the sweet melancholy of autumn in its form. It’s elegantly rusty, like the ancient tractors on Farm Beach, where Eyre Peninsula farmers retire their old iron horses to a life of pulling the odd tinny in and out of the ocean on the school holidays. It’s not lush, not too sweet, and never too syrupy. Its acidity is perfect. It has more mealy Viognier tannins than the Ingénue, so it really whips the palate into line while plying you with dessert. Just stunning with the almond biscotti and a ristretto.



Paul Starr said...

Good stuff, Philip. You get the wines & the people and convey it all well.



Stu. said...

Thank you for sharing this Philip. Might have to crack a Genesis myself tonight.

Love the point about the Predator in the Castagna environment. a healthy ecosystem is often overlooked with the (sometime) debate/ zeal/ criticism of BD/ Organics.