“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)





31 January 2012



Tasting The Barossa Grounds
Fourth Annual RockFest Shows Vintage Overwhelming Geology 

Winemakers Louisa Rose and Julie Ashmead conducted a fascinating exercise at Yalumba the other day.  Tim Smith and Charlie Melton joined the team. It was the fourth annual Barossa Grounds Shiraz tasting, conducted with one-year-old wines from neutral oak, sorted into sub-regional categories and tasted blind.

This program has nothing to do with sales gimmicks.  The makers submit these unfinished wines in trust that they will not be unfairly named and criticized on quality grounds.  The idea is that a selected panel can scour them to see whether the various regional geologies and terroirs have distinctive patterns of flavour and aroma, which of course they do.

Last year, in order to seek statistical patterns in the descriptors the judges use, the tasting involved a large number of tasters and a tick-the-box system, which infuriated and confounded my slydexia: my graying white matter fuses when confronted with any type of standard form; the usually reliable writer’s vocabulary withers when restricted to descriptors chosen by others.  Boxes are to be emptied, anyway, not filled with ticks.

They did the same exercise again, but I was spared.  This year just a few of us sat down at the big white bench and discussed each bracket without knowing which sub-region the wines came from, which proved a much more satisfactory educational tool for this writer at least.

Simply put, the quality of the 2011 wines was confronting.  The horrid wet vintage, with all its errant funguses and moulds, was not, contrary to some stupid claims, a good year in anybody’s language.  The marketers and vendors who insist on talking it up obviously think otherwise, proving they have little or no respect for the consumer.

Why they can’t swallow some reality and match, say, the honesty of the wheat farmers beats me.  Those blokes’ll simply say they’ve had a bugger of a year and get on with planning for the next one.

As if an illustration of winery snake oil were required, a notable new release bottle has just hit this desk.  It’s a very pale Grenache rosé from the Moppa flats north of the Barossa.  It’s about as neutral as a Grenache can get, as if it’s been pasteurized, filtered and centrifuged: just what a great percentage of the 2011 wines require to make them better resemble your actual wine.  But the propaganda sheet says simply “Cool conditions during March meant we had to pick our grapes a little later than usual but the grapes came off with delicate aromatic qualities and freshness.”

In the second-wettest vintage in Australian history?  Pull the other one.  Many vineyards in the north Barossa were actually submerged in floodwater during vintage.  You’ll find that floodwater will often provide cooler vintage conditions, and make later picking more of a necessity.

What fascinated me in our Shiraz tasting was that in spite of the terrible year, the wines of each sub-region – Barossa Grounds, they’re calling them – showed quite distinctive aspects not so evident in wines from the other sites.  So we’re starting to be able to say with conviction that the various Grounds are as distinctive, as, say, the twelve recognized appellations of Beaujolais are distinctly different in the flavours they produce.  This has occurred again, in spite of the lousy squishy year.

What surprised me even more was the way each Ground broke away from many of the styles we had noticed in the previous three drier years.  Each area was distinctively different once again, but in ways quite removed from their appearance in the better preceding years.  More important stuff to pack in that swelling, invaluable database!

The old rocks of Gomersal, for example, gave the wines a lean, taut austerity, and a phenolic range that smelt and tasted like wet chalk. They showed plenty of lemon pith to bolster that dry finish, and maybe a sense of dried seaweed, which I usually relate to salt.  Maybe the endless rains got the salt moving in the marine limestone of those parts.

Next came a set of wines from the spread of country from Williamstown through Lyndoch to Rowland Flat. There are various unrelated geologies in this area, from the sediments of the Lyndoch Valley (over ancient schists) to the deep ferruginous sands of Rowland Flat, but the class still had its commonalities.  The wines seemed to share a visceral, fatty-acid flesh (botrytis-derived glycerols?) over a sinister metallic acid base, which Charlie Melton called coal tar, matching my suggestion that it resembled the sump oil from a Chamberlain tractor, a character that I frequently praise if the wines are balanced.  In previous years, I have found the fruit of these Grounds much more floral and scented.

The following set – Bethany-Krondorf-Vine Vale came from the piedmont sediments as well as the older bluestone schists of the range across the Stonewell Fault.  This geology very closely resembles the corresponding part of the Willunga Escarpment piedmont in McLaren Vale, from Hugo through Noon and Pertaringa.  I eagerly anticipate the day when we can compare both regions.  These wines were softer of overall texture, but more noticeably alcoholic.  Once again, that middle palate character that was textural more than flavoured may simply be botrytis-derived glycerols, as best manifest in Chateau d’Yquem.  But not Barossa Shiraz. I got the feeling that all these wines were picked at the same time.  They were not much like they looked in the previous tastings.

Eden Valley and the Barossa uplands in general were hit very badly by the various moisture-driven plagues.  They lacked much sense of fruit, and seemed marshy, swampy and dissipated.  I kept reporting the aroma of Samphire swampland, which once again is usually a salt indicator.  Texturally, they shared the slimy character of the “slip-skin” botrytis rampant there in 2011.  While these were of course unfinished and rough wines, and not for public release until they’re cleaned up (or rejected) they showed little of the unique force and authority they had in the previous three tastings.

Light Pass was next: the red dirt alluvium north of the Nuriootpa-Angaston Road.  For some reason, I felt these had instead come from black dirt, like maybe the cracking Bay of Biscay stuff north of Rockford. They had an immediate consistency of texture, with bone dry tannins and deeper, more intense fruits.  No jam, but glycerol-like mouthfeel.

Further north lies the Ebenezer/Moppa Ground.  The freak year saw these consistently share a fruitmince/Christmas cake/panforte complexity that is usually the character that makes the Greenock/Seppeltsfield/Marananga fruit special.  My fellow tasters felt this was a highly inconsistent class, which I wondered may be due to them, as winemakers, finding any fault a professional embarrassment. 

The next class, called Greenock, included wines from the several quite distinctively different geologies of the Greenock/Marananga/Seppeltsfield area.  These vary from extremely old rocks to very young alluviums.  Several showed salt indicators.  Otherwise they shared a distinctive lemony pithiness, velvety tannins, and noticeably alcoholic tail ends.  But they were not much like the wines we saw in previous years.

The trio of wines from the Stonewell area had nothing in common at all, apart from, perhaps the indicators of an extremely difficult year.    

So there you are.  I offer profound thanks to the winemakers for having the guts to display wines from such a hellish vintage, and wish them much better luck for the impending year.  I trust, and wager, that the 2012s will be back in the style of the previous three tastings, and we can get right back on with uncovering the incredible mysteries of the various Barossa Grounds.

Later this week, the McLaren Vale winemakers will stage their first such tasting: 2011s from neutral one year old French oak.  I’m hanging out for this exciting exercise, and as I say, eagerly anticipating the day when we can compare wines from the corresponding geologies of Barossa and McLaren Vale.  That WILL be something!

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