“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)





30 October 2012


Ben, Sarah, Kath and Paul Drogemuller at Paracombe winery

Top Points In Melbourne Show
Neat 20th Anniversary Present
For Paracombe's Drogemullers

Twenty years ago, give or take a few minutes, a new wine region called the Adelaide Hills decided to stage its first regional wine festival.  I recall being in a crowded and noisy room somewhere in Hahndorf, sitting at a desk lined with glasses, when a huge paw thrust through the mob, proffering another red.

“What do you think of that?” its owner asked.

I sniffed it, and looked at the very big man away off on the other end of that arm.

“Have you got ironstone?” I asked, recognizing the tell tale whiff of things ferruginous in that dense, glowering Shiraz.

“Well I’ll be buggered,” the fellow said.  “How do you know that?”

It turned out to be Paul Drogemuller, of Paracombe Wines.  Within a few weeks I was in his tractor shed, kicking barrels.  We were instant friends.  Turned out he’d lost a lot of property, including his collection of old motorbikes, in the Ash Wednesday bushfires and had then run a farm supplies store until one way or another he’d decided to jump into the wine business and plant a vineyard.

He wisely chose an upland basin immediately north of the Torrens Gorge atop the plateau at Paracombe.  It faced the south and east, so it drew the gentle morning sun rather than the afternoon scorcher.  This reinforced its cool nature, and ensured fruit of good natural acidity. While the place exuded a serene calm, it nevertheless seemed wild and high and remote: a very long way from the suburbs only minutes off, at the foot of Anstey’s Hill. 

But from Droggie’s shed you could look across the Gorge to the new vineyards at Lenswood, where great names like Knappstein, Weaver and Henschke were planting very widely-touted vineyards, or replacing others that had been cindered in those disastrous fires.

That day we walked the tidy vineyard, kicking lumps of ironstone and sandstone aside, and in there in his shed amongst the tractors and dust tasted dark old barrels of beautifully perfumed, intense reds: the aforementioned Shiraz, and you little beauty: a stunning Cabernet franc, the most prettily aromatic variety of Bordeaux.  This was an even scarcer rarity in those days.

And then this big man shyly pulled out a bottle of sparkling Chardonnay and Pinot noir, mumbled something about his love of fine fizz, disgorged it with a pop and a shoosh of froth, and poured a glass.

It was a refined, elegant and delicious dry sparkler, easily in the league of the posh stuff from the Piccadilly Valley, where an effusive degree of public relations fluff and bluster had been devoted to the promotion of the new fizz from Petaluma’s Bridgewater Mill.

We drank that bold certificate of assertion with Paul’s vivacious wife Kath, pregnant again after having a bonnie son, Ben.  These were honest, open-hearted country people who had boldly, but with an uncommon intelligence chosen this very special spot to commence a way of life they have relentlessly stuck to.

There were always neighbours about the farm, assisting with this and that; lending a bulldozer here, a tractor there, some muscle whenever the big man’s wasn’t quite enough.  People seemed to queue up to help.  I soon learned about the couple’s German heritage, and only became aware of Paracombe’s proximity to Lobethal, the Vale of Love, when I heard somebody joke about Paul having to “go all the way over there across the River to get a wife.”

However you look at it, that was a journey well made.

Gradually a modern winery appeared.  As the kids grew, the family would spend weekends mixing concrete to pour reinforced walls on the big slab neighbors had helped establish.  Each weekend they’d raise the wall made the week before, and pour another.  Paul assembled bits and pieces of winemaking kit, and gradually a handsome and substantial winery complex grew, overlooking the Gorge on one side, and that beautifully tidy basin of vines on the other.

It was delightful to watch the wines emerge.  Those reds were soon joined by others: refined, austere Cabernet sauvignon; a gently-oaked Chardonnay; a Riesling, from a neighbour’s vineyard at Holland Creek, as crisp and fresh as a mountain brook, and perhaps most significantly, a bright, zippy Sauvignon blanc.  The Marlborough explosion of this new variety had barely seen its fuse lit in those early ’nineties, and the Paracombe version immediately took its place foremost amongst them, and has since been a favourite in Adelaide.  To me it always seemed lighter than most of the Kiwi flood, a more frivolous and casual wine on the one hand, but dead serious in its precise elegance and refinement: it’s part slide rule and part party.

While Paul and his mates and kin built the winery and the suite of very fine Paracombe wines, Kath would strap her babies in the car and do the rounds of Adelaide’s wine stores and restaurants, quickly developing a reputation for being the last lady in Australia to whom one owed a debt.  When you had Kath Drogemuller standing by your cash register, waiting for a cheque, you got that bloody pen out lickety-split.

As the coat of infant drawings on the Drogemuller kitchen fridge gradually took more teenaged form, Kath worked up a distinctive, stylish label featuring that single berry sitting on a slice of sandstone, its parameter so stained with iron from the ground around it that it looks to the unwitting so much like a slice of crusty bread you could eat it.

Then Paul, having failed to convince its owner to sell him a nearby vineyard of Shiraz that was already ancient when John Davouren used it for his St Henri Clarets in the ’fifties, managed instead to buy each individual vine, which he dug up and moved to his own vineyard, one-by-one.  Those old strugglers sit around the homestead now, in dramatic contrast to the perfectly neat rows of the new vineyard, which is as cute and orderly as a manicured tea plantation.  The uninitiated might suggest that in comparison, those oldies look a bit like the tattered rows of Napoleon’s troops staggering home from St Petersberg, the weight of defeat heavy upon them, but uh-huh, that old legion’s smug and happy, and makes the Paracombe super-red, the right royal Somerville. 

One of my major poetic heroes, the great Charles Bukowski famously wrote “the days run away like wild horses over the hills,” which is exactly what happened between those bonnie, part naïve times, and the big dinner the Drogemullers put on a week back to celebrate their twentieth annual wine release.

It was one of those nights when you feel the warm security of a family of substance; a tribe whose decades of quiet, determined, uncomplaining travail and endeavour have finally stacked up to make one of our most admired, yet understated wine businesses.

As Advertiser wine writer Tony Love quietly asserted, it felt like a family wedding, with speech after congratulatory speech from folks who’d been in on it since the beginning.  Even the accountant stood up and told bad jokes about “birds”.  Anne Oliver conjured delicious tucker in the well-appointed kitchen Paul had built atop the winery, and we sat there like royalty in the dining room, celebrating a very special family’s brilliant success.

I shall review the newest suite of Paracombe wines over the next weeks.  In the meantime, you’d better jump in and order your 2009 Ruben red.  This $21 blend of Merlot, Cabernet sauvignon, Cabernet franc, Malbec and Shiraz presented the Drogemullers with a jim-dandy anniversary present last Thursday: out of the 3,170 wines in the Royal Melbourne Wine Show, it won the highest points of them all.  

Droggie and the author.  Paul is indeed a large fellow, with a heart to match.

28 October 2012


Tim Whelan and his friends played County Clare in Willunga yesterday ... I know it's not County Clare country, but they hung me soaring like a bonksie, out in the North Atlantic sky off the Ol Man O Hoy, the ocean glittering far below ... around the table from the left: Michael Reeves (mando), l'Hibou Hornung, Marie McEvoy, Elise Okell, Tim Whelan, Darryl Lindsay (fiddles), and Tom Martin (mando) ... photos Philip White ... click image to crisp up ... contact DRINKSTER if you'd like something along these lines to happen at your place!

25 October 2012

17 October 2012


Greek Column-Krater, c.510-500 BC, Athens, black-figure, Archaic, Ceramic, 14 x 15.75 x 13 inches, Museum Purchase with funds from the Volunteer Board Endowment Fund and the Curriculum, Support Budget allocated by the Provost, 1988.62, The Fralin Museum of Art - University of Virginia 

Three kraters do I mix for the temperate: one to health, which they empty first, the second to love and pleasure and the third to sleep.

When this bowl is drunk up, wise guests go home. 

The fourth bowl is ours no longer, it belongs to hubris, the fifth to uproar, the sixth to prancing about, the seventh to black eyes, the eighth brings the police, the ninth belongs to vomiting, and the tenth to insanity and the hurling of furniture.

Some Greek poet to Dionysius, from πke

16 October 2012


If you are driving a motor vehicle, at the speed limit, or over it, at which most appear to drive, how can you possibly absorb all this horrid friggin signage? If you dared read it, you'd be killed, or you'd kill others. This is just one side of the main street of McLaren Vale.  It gets worse down the other end.  Somebody should purge all this tasteless useless clutter. I wonder how that could happen? Get a Virgo in, please ... photo Philip White


Carolann, Alexi, Adam and Julian Castagna with respective hounds ... photo Philip White

The Entry Level's Top Floor

After That It Goes Up Higher
Catching Castagna's #10 Rocket 
Those who’ve been in this for the long haul may recall me bumping into Castagna a dozen years ago.  It was glass number 65 or something in a row of several hundred coupes of industrial auto plonk in my Top 100 tasting for Rupert, and when I hit it, it seemed so vibrant and alive and, well, Shirazy, that I couldn’t believe it came from Australia.

There were a lot of famous wines in that queue; some extremely expensive.  But that newcomer stood as cheekily as an impossibly good Côte Rôtie; or maybe something secret and intense by August Clape or somebody.  Most of Australia’s Shiraz was hot high alcohol jam in those years: dead grapes.  This was intense, yet elegant, and bright with life.

“Number 65,” I said.  “Can you check to ensure it’s Australian?”

It was Australian.  I had the stewards include the same entry in another glass a lot further down the line.  Second time I hit it, it looked even better. We put it in again.  Ditto.

Damn thing up and won itself the highest points of any variety in the whole goddam show; best of thousands.  I couldn’t wait to track down the responsible soul – I’d never encountered anybody called Chestnut before.  Like Mark Almond is one thing, but I’ve never struck a Walnut, Macadamia or Cashew, be they Mr, Mrs or Ms ... Castagna is Italian for Chestnut.  The label said they were at Beechworth. 

Ring ring.

Carolann Castagna answered the phone in a dreamy British contralto, but she’s a writer, I discovered, so she can sound like that with impunity.  She explained that it was Julian, her husband, I should be talking to, but he was in America or Zurich or somewhere.

“Oh no, here he comes now.”

The bloke was breathless. He’d just got home. He’d just been off directing another movie or something, to help pay for vintage.  I told him what had happened in my tasting and asked him the secret.

“Do you really want to know?” he teased.

“Of course.”

“It’s bio-dynamic.”

I remembered only horrid organic and bio-d wines before that.  They all seemed to need strong antibiotics, wadding, and a splint.  Castagna’s wine was so full of vibrancy and rude, healthy life it laughed as you drank it.

To this family, managing the land and its plants in the most sensitive and responsible manner is the key to all good food and wine.  They don’t boast of bio-d or anything much; they just think that’s the first thing anybody’d do if they had any respect for their land, their product, or their customers.

In the years since then, the annual Castagna release has become one of the true highlights of my calendar.  It sits up there with Penfolds, Cullen, Moss Wood, Margan, Wendouree  and the like.  Revered stalwarts.

More recent additions to the list include Oakridge and Port Phillip … you get the gist.

And Castagna.  Their annual open day on that bonnie alpine ridge of granite and sandstone was Saturday.  I hope they sold lots of wine. 

The Adam’s Rib duo, made by Adam Castagna from the home vineyard and some neighbours blocks, are the “entry level” wines.  Pity two thousand others didn’t compare their entry level plonk to these wild masterpieces.  Then, anything called Castagna is the best pickings from the family’s home vineyard, with Julian making the wines.

Or convening really.  What he does is not winemaking.  He makes sure the conditions are perfect for the wines to make themselves, should they indeed choose to. He listens to them. Like they chose not to in the disastrous moulds and mildews that smote south-eastern Australian in 2011, the wettest vintage since white settlement. Julian listened to them, and chose not to release any Castagna.  This is the mark of a great winery.  Very few will take such an honest and admirable lurch into, like, no money for a year.

So there’ll be no 2011 Castagna. Respect.

But the 2010s?  Pretty much drop dead gorgeous.  Incredible luxury items for your interior decoration and gifts at the festive season.  And it’s not just about smell and flavour. 

They’re brain crayons. 

Adam’s Rib The White 2010
$35; 14% alcohol; Diam cork; 94 points
Both makers will probably dislike me saying this but in style this is so far out there the only other horse in the race is Johnny Gilbert’s forthcoming By Jingo Grillo.  It’s about nothing smelling much like what everybody thinks grapes smell like, and letting the wine run off with its own flavour.  Like it smells like wine, not grapes.  Both those whites are big mature profound babies as thickset as the girls in Rubens’ room in the Louvre.  This one’s got her face in a bowl of broad beans in butter and garlic. She’s just let it have another blast of pepper grinder, a grinder which doesn’t have a friggin torch in it.  This is candle light wine.  Somebody’s stewing jam melon in the corner.  Woodstove business.  Pears, too, but creamier and more buttery than any pear I’ve yet pillaged.  But it’s no dessert wine.  This is cassoulet wine. Everybody’s laughing! Oyster omelette wine. Wah Hing salt’n’pepper egg plant wine.  Pig belly wine.  Park Lok pig tripe in chicken stock with onion, mustard seed and white pepper wine.  I just drank a whole bottle thinking that up.  Oh yes.  It’s Chardonnay and Viognier, and don’t you worry about that. Radical blanc for hardcore sensual rouge revvos.

Adam’s Rib The Red 2010

$35; 14% alcohol; Diam cork; 93+ points
Nebbiolo and Shiraz.  Granite.  Clean Beechworth air.  Wild yeast.  Approachable.  That’s what it tells me on the outside.  On the inside, add the triple-X rating.  It’s like the fruit section of a bacchanale in the final movement. The jellied fruit wrestling. Where all is ripe and red and rude, and we’re rubbing it on each other in the bath.  It smells deep and yearning and it wants you in there with it. The edge of it is pure smashed granite that sets the nostrils twitchin’ and itchin’.  That’s just a carapace, a front, to protect and hide the rich soft within.  There’s glowering, prickly anise, too.  Drink.  That stone-dust edge is in the palate like a vividly-coloured exotic reptile skin designed too for protection.  Which is what it will do, keeping the fruit department preserved and fresh for a long time while it scares everything else away.  This has to do with Nebbiolo tannins in a great year, but it’s not much like you’d expect of either of its components.  They writhe so well together you can’t pick them.  There’s also really sinuous acid, which will help with the preservation.  But hang on, that’s a raspberry.  A pretty raspberry gel.  That’s the leader.  Behind that there’s a stack of much darker blackcurrant and rude blue gunbarrel fig. But that’s just because I think like that. Rub it all over me so I forget.  Beautiful, elegant, intense, joyous wine for participation.  As the label says.  “Approachable.”  Really. 

 Castagna Genesis Syrah 2010
$75; 13% alcohol; Diam cork; 94++ points
Make a pie of whole berries of blackcurrant and blueberry, with a few junipers thrown in.  Sneak some really peppery watercress in there somehow: maybe layer the bottom pastry with it before you spread the fruit on there - the pepper in this wine is watercress pepper, not peppercorn pepper.  It has some anise, some licorice, some smote granite, some trippy petrichor, and the whole thing about this wine is the adventure anyway not the flavour.  It’s science fiction, with much ozone oozing bluely from simmering electric connections.  Like nuclear fuel rods glowering in the cooling brine.  After it’s prickled and twitched your nostrils right up past the Jacobsen’s Organ, it goes kinda velvety and says everything’s all right. Don’t believe a word of it.  You’re suckered.  The Alien lives within you now.

Castagna La Chiave 2010
$75; 14% alcohol; Diam cork; 95+++points
This is Australia’s best Sangiovese.  Ever.  It is precise, brilliant and intense.  That’s not saying a lot, but it makes my forehead fall to a supportive palm, while my breathe spills its marvels all over my desk. I have never exhaled a more satisfactory miasma born of the blood of St Jove.  Which means the chiave, the lock, the latch, is open.  Which makes me think of Chios, the Ægean island famous over the millennia for its wine.  Not to mention the Teacher’s Chair of Homer.  A liquor of sublime elegance, demeanour and poise. No further message. 

Castagna Un Segreto 2010
$75; 13% alcohol; Diam cork; 96+++ points
One of the pointiest wines I’ve smelt in recent aeons, this is a new thing. Nobody’s done this so well and jumpingly before, and if they did, it’d probly be by genetic modification and a failure.  But this has been grown outa the granite and sandstone ground from two sorts of right royal grape vine types, Sangiovese and Shiraz.  It is alive, like carbon is alive when it’s on the paws of a giant Black Panther who is pacing on account of the inconvenience of the cage. The edgy reek of its sweat, which is white and salty on its muscular blackness.  Back and forth, back and forth, up and down.  The Juniper berry’s here again, but it’s really as much the smell of the bark of its tree on the heath there all the way from London down to the gin factory at Plymouth.  Cat-scratching music, please.  With some well-polished tack riding past.  You can let it out to feed forever on the vast veldt of your sensories.  In other words, Black Panther (cat not cat) stalks girls on horses, and boys who sometimes think them gals look good.  You all deserve it. Stunning. 


Ray Beckwith opens the mail ... photo Milton Wordley
Winemaking - The New Wave
A Speech by Ray Beckwith
Langmeil Winery 1 August 04


The Barossa staged a huge international Shiraz conference in 2004.  Because the cost was prohibitive, numerous small-scale winemakers simply could not afford to attend, so they held a sort of Fringe luncheon event at Langmeil Winery.  When James Lindner asked me to address this, I suggested that they should best invite Ray Beckwith, who was then 92 years of age.  I knew Ray was fit and well, but could not be sure that he’d agree to talk of his amazing life in wine, as he’d been sworn to secrecy by the fusty old Penfolds regime.  Fortunately for that rapt international audience, Ray was happy to speak.  He cruised in driving his V12 Jag, slung his sports coat over his shoulder, and strode into a room full of Shiraz winemakers from all over the world.  I have compiled this account using Ray’s original notes -- perfect copperplate, of course – and my notes of a few moments when he improvised, like when he said that at 92 he felt he could finally talk with impunity.  I am delighted that I finally found this important document after foolishly misplacing it years ago.  Philip White  16 October 2012

Ladies and gentlemen,

Thankyou for your invitation and welcome.

I feel at home amongst today’s winemakers.  I will remember them as perfectionists and optimists who defend their ideas passionately.

They’re always aiming at that perfect wine; that Nirvana.

I had a local hospital procedure last month at which they put the question:

“Do you have any allergies?”

My answer: “Yes.  Bad wine.”

I have chosen to speak a little about the science of winemaking, and a little about the art of it.  There can be all sorts of views; maybe controversial.

For the science side it was suggested that I talk of the early history of pH as a central mechanism in the growth of lactobacillus.  I know I’m preaching to the converted, but some of you may not be conversant: pH – small p, capital H – is about Hydrogen ion potential.  It’s a measure of the “active acidity” ... pH3 to pH4.

In the 1930s the wine industry was plagued by “Sweet Wine Disease”.  Nobody knew what to do about it.  It caused a lot of stress and financial loss, especially with our UK shipments.  This is the time I became involved here in the industry in 1935.  Dealing with faulty wine from earlier vintages was a challenge.  It was a very steep learning curve.  We tried all manner of treatments.  Some just went to distillation.  But the most successful was the refermentation of the older wines with must from later vintages.

It was important to be able to market the wine, but of greater importance was to adopt preventative measures.

What could we do about it?

Let’s look at the sequence of events in my experience.

At Roseworthy [College] Alan Hickinbotham interested me in pH.  At Penfolds, that interest continued. At Adelaide University in September 1936, in the day of Professor A. Killen MacBeth and Dr S. W. Pennywick, the Professor let me use his private laboratory and the latest Cambridge pH unit.  The intention was to see if there was any correlation between total acidity, pH and taste.  I also tried the effect of various acid additions on the pH in wines.

The results were graphed.  Two were completed with dotted lines, and the third?  The Professor had drunk my samples.  Out of courtesy, I gave him a copy of my findings.  I could claim no direct correlation of total acid, pH and taste.  But John Fornachon had been engaged by the Wine Board to research Sweet Wine Disease, and I'd read his preliminary paper. I took a foolscap sheet and typed on it a very simple statement: ‘pH control may be a useful tool to control bacteria in wine.’

To me that was prophetic.

I was travelling home to Murray Bridge on the Melbourne Express.  It was a crowded train, and I was sitting on my suitcase in the dim light at the end of a carriage, listening to that clackety clack, when I remembered I had a copy of Fornachon’s preliminary report in my pocket. He described the influence of various factors on the growth of bacteria: SO2, alcohol, tannin, acids, pH, et cetera.  I noted a clue there, and the penny dropped. I knew I must follow this up at work.   

So back at work, I made enquiries about pH meters.  Leslie Penfold Hyland visited and I broached the subject of acquiring a pH meter, telling him my vision of control.  I held up the three brochures.  “Which is the best?” he asked.  I told him the best was the Cambridge unit with the Morton glass electrode.

“Get it,” he said.

I was impressed.  It cost £100.  My salary was £5 a week.

To put the proposition into practice, I had to adopt a suitable pH level.  Here I was in unknown territory.  Using Fornachon’s raw data as a guide, I proposed a pH of 3.8 as a maximum for fortified wine. This proved okay over many years.  Other standards were developed for flor sherry, dry red and dry white, and, with fine-tuning only, stood for many years.

The means of adjusting pH was by Tartaric Acid, a natural constituent of wine. 

So that is a bit of history.

Before I leave this topic, a few random thoughts:

In those early days, secrecy was common among the larger wineries.  That offended me!  Thus the above findings were not published.  Other winemakers have told me that it was years before they caught on to what I had done.  As far as is known, this application of pH to bacterial control was the first in the world.  The work I did in 1936 was duplicated by a team in California in the mid-1980s.  The conclusions were similar.

So while I had been sworn to secrecy by my employer, at 92 I think I can now tell you, speaking of it for the first time publicly, what I did all those years ago, when pH was almost regarded as a load of rubbish to be thrown out the window.  I think of this today when I drink those luscious sweet whites, like Rutherglen Tokay.

There’s been a complete change in the exchange of information since those early days, which is all for the better.  Look at today’s functions, here, and elsewhere around the Valley – it’s a testament to that change.

I have gone to some length concerning the history of pH control, but there were many other problems to be solved, such as metal contamination, stability, oxidation and so on.

I like to think that my generation created an infrastructure for succeeding generations to build on, and get down to the real task of winemaking.


As we know the making of good wine starts in the vineyard, where great advances in management have been made over the years: such as canopy management for exposure to light and disease control; soil, water, crop limitation and so on.

Winemakers have their own styles. Hypothetically, say we had a vineyard of even quality fruit and three winemakers were asked to make wines from those vines.  The chances are that there would be three distinct wines. In making wine there is a multitude of decisions to be made and each one has some bearing on the finished wine.

Examples are: at what stage of ripeness will the grapes be picked?  To define “ripeness” can be the subject of debate!

At the winery: how much skin contact prior to fermentation; whether to settle and clarify white juice; the type of yeast used … for red wines, to plunge the skins, or use false head or rotofermenters … and the frequency?  The temperature of fermentation. Decisions on the malolactic fermentation, and so on.

This is what I call “The Art Of Winemaking”.  There is no hard and fast recipe – a judgement comes into play and the winemaker is trying to project forward to what the wine is likely to be. 

Because of the time constraint in-between courses, I have touched only briefly on this subject, but it IS THE ESSENCE OF WINEMAKING.

So we have science and technology on the one hand and art on the other.  To use an analogy – I think these are complementary – science gives the understanding – the BODY – while ART gives the SOUL to a wine.

Body, art and soul - Alfred Scholz, general manager of Penfolds Nuriootpa, pours a Great grandfather Port for Ray Beckwith, left, and Max Schubert in the 'sixties.
The winewriters now so evident play an important role in the sense of being a bridge between winemaker and consumer.  In their role of entertainment and giving information, I am sure we can allow them some poetic licence.  They accent more the art of winemaking.  Maybe the science remains in the back room.

In conclusion, wine, being organic in nature, is still subject to the ills of the past.  The same yeasts and  bacteria that caused such problems and losses are still with us.

A good motto is “Do not take anything for granted. Check. Check. Check.”  That constitutes a common thread in winemaking over the ages: the need for attention to detail.  

Many years ago Franz Liszt was asked to what he ascribed his success as a pianist and composer. 

“There are three things, he said.  “First, technique.  Second, technique.  Third, technique.”

I have paraphrased Liszt’s reply: there are three important things in winemaking.

First, is vigilance. Second is vigilance.  Third, you guessed it, is vigilance.

Thankyou for your attention, and bon appetit!  

For more recent news on Ray, who's finally delivered himself into care, click here.

15 October 2012


This is of vital importance to anybody who loves South Australian old vine wine, or any wine made from grapes grown on their own natural born roots:  

15 October 2012


 Alan Nankivell, CEO
46 Nelson St
Stepney SA 5069

Submission from:

Drew Noon
Noon Winery
P.O. Box 88
Rifle Range Road,
McLaren Vale SA 5171

Dear Board Members,

Re: Submission to the Phylloxera Board regarding risk assessment and the Plant Quarantine Standard

Declaration of interest:

I am a small, independent grape grower and wine maker with old vines planted on their own roots, in McLaren Vale. My livelihood depends on the quality these old vines are able to produce. I do not have the need or desire to move grapes or machinery into or out of South Australia. I have no financial interest in any vine nurseries or the sale of plant material.


South Australia has something special to protect in having phylloxera free vineyards. The Phylloxera Board’s role is to keep South Australia phylloxera free to maintain this advantage. The path that the Board is taking to align South Australia’s Plant Quarantine Standard to the National Phylloxera Management Protocol (as currently written) places South Australia at increased risk of a phylloxera outbreak resulting from the freer movement of grapes, machinery and plant material into South Australia this allows, from regions we’ve never accepted them before. This includes, alarmingly, regions alongside known phylloxera infested zones.

I call on the Phylloxera Board to take a precautionary approach to relaxing the laws which have kept South Australia phylloxera free for so long. If we allow phylloxera in through lack of precautions, it’s very likely there’ll be no going back (eradication is rarely successful). One mistake is forever.

We don’t have to relax our standards. The National Protocol sets out guidelines for the management of phylloxera but recognises that states determine their own regulations. There is no compulsion for South Australia to adopt the National Protocol as our laws.

The Phylloxera Board is promoting “Farm Gate Security” to growers and we all need to practice this but I call on the Phylloxera Board to get on the front foot, at the border and maintain our first line of defence. We expect you to protect our state from phylloxera, we can protect our farm. The Board appears to be walking away from this responsibility, advising growers to provide their own defences when the pest arrives at their door. The battle is lost by then. This approach is not acceptable. This is not what levy payers expect from the Phylloxera Board.

Where is the risk in adopting the National Protocol?

The Phylloxera Board is negligent in its duty in accepting the National Phylloxera Protocol (as currently written) as the basis for our laws. It incurs a heightened and unacceptable level of risk to South Australia in doing so.

There are two principal new risks incurred to South Australia from adopting the National Protocol.

They are:

1. The risk posed by the upgrade survey.

The survey is critical because it is used to establish area freedom.

If an area is considered free of phylloxera by the survey, then it can move risk vectors to other phylloxera free areas (such as South Australia) under the National Protocols (as currently written). The survey needs to be of a rolled gold standard. The problem is the current survey is not good enough. This has been demonstrated in practice in the Yarra Valley (see the Yarra Valley Case Study page 16 & 17 available on the Phylloxera Board website). Subsequent research by DPI Victoria Biosciences Research Division has found both a DNA probe and emergence traps more effective at early detection than the root survey. Even when repeated twice over a three year period as required by the Protocol, there is significant risk that the survey would miss a low level infestation.

The Phylloxera Board has considered the risk posed by the survey in its recent Risk Assessment September 2012 and rated it as LOW. Where is the science behind this rating? What are the confidence levels provided by the survey of detecting a low level infestation? This assessment is subjective and not based on fact. There is no information offered to support this rating.

The reality is we do not have any survey method that is good enough to establish phylloxera freedom and until such time as we have one available, we should not accept claims made by new areas on the basis of the current survey. This represents a big new risk to South Australia.

2. The risk posed by proximity to an infested area (a PIZ):

This is another risk of concern to growers which the Board has considered in its recent Risk Assessment September 2012 and rated as LOW. This defies common sense and invites doubt about the credibility of the Risk Assessment.

One only has to look at where all the outbreaks have occurred in the past 15 years to illustrate that regions closer to the infested areas are at greater risk. This is why the PIZ boundaries keep getting extended. To deny there is a significant proximity risk causes a loss of confidence in the Board and the risk assessment process. Where is the science to support the assessment that the risk relating to proximity is Low?


Other new risks flow from these two.

That is:

Because there is a significant risk the survey would miss a low level infestation, the risk posed by allowing grapes, machinery and plant material in from new regions declared phylloxera free on the basis of the survey is too high.

Because proximity to an infested area brings higher risk of an outbreak, we should not allow risk vectors into South Australia from areas alongside infested zones, which you have already sanctioned and is currently allowed.

What we want:

I call on the Phylloxera Board and the regulators to stop making changes to South Australia’s Plant Quarantine Standard to align with the National Phylloxera Protocol (as it is currently written). I support the Board’s proposal as stated in the “Risk Assessment September 2012” document that the Plant Quarantine Standards “remain as they are now proclaimed as at July 2012.”, provided that South Australia adopts a precautionary principle in relation to new PEZs declared since 2000, treating them as Phylloxera Risk Zones in light of the significant risks they pose as discussed above. I want the Phylloxera Board to promote this change to PIRSA and the regulators so that this upgrade to SA’s Plant Quarantine Standards will be made without delay.

I want the Board to get on the front line in protecting South Australian vineyards from phylloxera rather than bowing to pressure from other states interests including nurseries who want access to our market and some big wine companies who want to be able to move grapes into South Australia to centralised processing wineries for financial gain. The Board’s mission is to protect South Australian vineyards from phylloxera and I want you out there doing just that. Not promoting “farm gate security”. That is principally my responsibility. Yours is to make policies to prevent phylloxera getting into South Australia by protecting our borders. Leaving our Plant Quarantine Standards as they are and classifying new PEZs as PRZs would provide strong evidence you are doing that.

Growers I talk to are not silly. They have absolutely no appetite for increased risk from phylloxera and they expect the Phylloxera Board to ensure adequate protections are in place. In particular to protect them from the risk posed by Victoria and the movement of grapes and other risk vectors. If they knew that you were sanctioning a relaxation of the protections that have been in place, they would be furious.

At our McLaren Vale Phylloxera Board stakeholder meeting, one senior grower who sat in front of me during the presentation and didn’t say much, turned around at the end and asked incredulously “who’s paying these guys?”, another during the presentation called out “it sounds like you’re asking us to practice unsafe sex”. Growers (your stakeholders) are not happy with relaxing the standards. They see no benefit to them, only to the other states and big wine companies.

These changes are being made at a time when phylloxera is on the move in Victoria more than at any time since introduction of the pest in the late 1800s.

I suggest that 50 years from the last outbreak would be a good time to begin discussing relaxing the quarantine standards with South Australia’s grape growers and I’m not sure you’d get any sympathy then!

This is certainly NOT the time to be dropping our border protections. Rather, growers would like you to be strengthening them.

Comments on the Phylloxera Boards 10 risks and proposed actions:

I endorse the McLaren Vale Grape Wine and Tourism Associations comments in their submission in relation to these risks and proposed actions.

In terms of priority, these risks and actions should be dealt with after dealing with the treatment of all new PEZs as PRZs. This change in the definition of a PEZ in our Plant Quarantine Standard should be made urgently and completed before January 2013 and the next grape harvest.

Changes required to the National Phylloxera Management Protocol:


The Protocol needs changing to protect all members of the industry nationally.

The survey as defined in the Protocol can only establish a low risk area rather than a pest free area. We have no survey methodology at present rigorous or robust enough to establish pest freedom. The difficulty of early detection of phylloxera and the need for better methods is well recognised by research scientists. Hoffman and Herbert (2006) in their paper titled “Finalising and validating a diagnostic tool for the early detection of phylloxera” state that “There is an urgent need to develop a phylloxera-specific detection system…” so that phylloxera detection would not rely on “problems with visual detection…” Until we have such a proven system for early detection, we should not be relying on the root survey as outlined in the National Protocol. It isn’t proven or supported by science and the risks and costs of a mistake are too high.

Therefore, I call on the Phylloxera Board of South Australia to argue this case at the national level, through the National Vine Biosecurity Committee, for a change to the National Protocol to require treatments and precautions to apply to the movement of risk vectors from PEZs declared since 2000 to other PEZs, the same as are applied from PRZ to PEZ, until such time as we have a survey proven by science to be robust enough to establish pest freedom and an on-going survey programme in place to ensure this status is maintained.

History shows that phylloxera has avoided containment all around the world. Australia is in a unique position to maintain its old vine heritage and advantage over other wine producing countries. Our strict quarantine standards have defied the odds so far. Giving up this advantage by taking unnecessary and unquantified new risks would be a tragedy.

The Phylloxera Board and the State Government have a duty of care to apply a precautionary principle in relation to phylloxera risk. Please take this precautionary approach to the national forum to protect South Australia and all regions from a potentially tragic mistake and in the meantime please increase rather than decreasing our own level of protection in South Australia’s Plant Quarantine Standard.

With many thanks,

Drew Noon.




The author with Dudley Brown of Inkwell Wines. Dudley is an activist.  We are not famous for sitting on the fence. This photograph of us sitting on the fence is by Leon Bignell MP, the local Member of Parliament..  All the rest are by Philip White.


Veteran Rutherglen winesmith Mick Morris was awarded the Order of Australia earlier this year.  The Morris winery at Fairfield Estate was Australia's biggest until the dreaded Phylloxera struck Rutherglen late in the 1800s. Thanks to photographer John Russell and The Border Watch for permission to use this image.
Taking The Mick In Rutherglen
Great Muscats In Kelly Country
Sharing A Few Ancient Tinctures
by PHILIP WHITE – This was written for The Sydney Review in June 1991

The roof is low and it ticks in the heat.  Little bit of a ripple of old galvo; just a flyspot on Aussie.  Underneath, in the dark, the rows of sweaty black barrels suck the light from the air, just as the glowering juice inside them will suck all the water out of your eyes.  

The only brightness in here is where the sun pings through old nailholes, splattering the dirt floor with hot white polka dots.

This is where Mick Morris works.  He comes out of the gloom in his neat olive drills, with ‘Morris Wines’ in racy cursive on the pocket.  He is a nuggety, sun-dried man that looks at you through a pair of squinting eyes that shine, even here, and his hand is like a mechanic’s.  He moves sideways a touch, and one of those inch-wide sunbeams lights up the parting of his short back’n‘sides.  He is shrouded in cobwebs.  They stick to his hair oil.  The brightness of the sunspot hurts your eyes. 

“Would you like to have a look around the winery?” he asks, wiping his hands on a rag. 

You tend to lurch at him when he says it: a rude, lustful, salivatory sort of lunge that you immediately regret, but it makes no impact on Mick.  Happens to him all the time.  ’Cause when he picks up a couple of glasses and that metre of stained plastic hose and leads you off into the dark you know you are a very lucky piglet indeed, and you are about to do some irreparable damage to your old notions of heaven.  Here under this roof, this bloke is the caretaker of one of the galaxy’s rarest troves: a shedful of very old Muscat, some of it pre-Phylloxera. 

The smell of the joint is as vivid as its pictures.  Somewhere there amongst the musty, dusty aromas of ancient oak, hot iron, powdery gunmetal dirt, and a thousand tiny leaks where the good oil drips and weeps, you have a cornucopia of smells, all Australian, and the single absolute essence of this larrikin isle, ca. 1859, which is when this temple opened.

Follow Mick down the barrels, stepping slow and soft to leave both powdery floor and slumbering, sulking Muscat as they are, and you can hear the jangle and clatter of harness and hoof as Ned (left) and the Kelly Gang rocks up for a long slow one.  Rutherglen is, after all, their patch.

There are wines here which began their life in those days.  At the end of your sipping, slurping, sighing lap with Mick, if you’re particularly good, he may take you to one small cognac barrel which seems to be the holiest of holies.  The stuff inside has wasted and evaporated, concentrated and stewed there beneath the baking roof for so long it has turned to treacle.  Its siphoning days are long past: you dip a stick in now and lick it and you know you have, in that drop, the refined spirit of what was once many buckets of ripe, sweet Muscat grapes. 

A spoonful of such concentrate can make a cask of much younger stuff take great leaps toward the sort of magnificence only large age can impart: it is, in fact, concentrated age.  You will taste it for days, and then weeks, and even months and years later, in the supermarket queue, at the dull wheel, in your bed or the pub or the pool, some trigger will squeeze and the grin will spread and the eyes glaze as the flavour and the whiff and the rich, sticky glory of it all comes sweeping back.

Once when I visited, Mick apologised that that muscat in ‘Grandad’s Barrel’ wasn’t as old and pure as it may have seemed.  It seemed very damned old to me, with its gluey, utterly hypnotising nature. 

How, I enquired, could it not be old?

“Well”, said Mick, staring at his boots, “it got so thick a few years back I had to freshen it up a bit”.

“Oh Mick, really?  How long back?”

“About thirty years.”

“Oh.  And what did you dilute it with?”

“Just a little bit of forty year old.”


But it’s not all muscat there in Mick’s shed.  He has Muscadelle, which they call Tokay in Rutherglen, as old and profound in its intense wicked stickiness, and a hoard of ageing Durif, which he uses in vintage port and dry red table wine.   
He came my way recently, and we snuck out to lunch. 

“I don’t make much white, so I’ve brought mainly reds”, he said softly enough for the uninitiated to imagine he was apologising.

“You don’t make any bloody white, Morris”, I joked, knowing his son David does most of that at Griffith.

“And of course you’ve brought ALL reds!”

Those deep cellar eyes did their lightshow and he poured out his Shiraz/Durif sparkling burgundy, and said “This is far too young, this stuff”, and I agreed and it went down like silk, like velvet, like Bess the landlord’s daughter.  The landlord’s black-eyed daughter.

“Now we’ll have the lighter red”, he said, tipping his new Cabernet, the 1988.  It was intense, sinister wine of much proportion: a silky thing, but strong. I said as much.

“Yes, it’s about 15.1%”, he said, apparently oblivious to the rest of the winemakers in Australia, who try to keep their table wines between eleven and thirteen percent alcohol by volume. 

“But if you like the bigger wines, you’ll probably like the Durif”, he said, “They get up above sixteen.”

“Oh.  Doesn’t port start at seventeen?”

“Yeah.  But that’s fortified.  That’s different.”


I may point out here that one degree Baumé is a level of grape sweetness which, when fermented to dryness, will produce just over one per cent by volume pure ethanol.  The intensely sweet botrytis dessert wines you find in half bottles are not much riper than these black grapes Mick uses to make dry red.  The difference is he ferments all that sugar to alcohol, producing very deep strong wines of great longevity.

Any way, we ploughed through various back vintages of Durif, finally lobbing at the 1970, which, for a wicked black thing, actually smelt a lot like a good sauternes, a suggestion at which Mick showed faint signs of shock.  It was rich, sweet, chocolatey wine, naive, sinuous, long, and as clean as a whistle.

“I think that’d be fairly high in alcohol”, Mick warned.

“Oh?” I said, looking quizzically at the label, which clearly stated “13.5% ALCOHOL”.

“We used to out 13.5 on the labels in those days because we thought that was optimal.  We never got that low much, though, of course.  They ripen up quick.”


“Now.  I’ve brought along a couple of bottles of my Old Show Muscat for us to try.”


“And some Old Show Tokay.  Bottled it up ’specially.  I actually prefer the Tokay.  You’ll notice... ”

There is no point in writing more about this.

Morris Winery ... now part of the transnational Pernod-Ricard group, whose major Australian winery is at Jacob's Creek in the Barossa.  The current furore about South Australian authorities attempting to relax the regulations on the movement of machinery and plant material from Phylloxera country into Phylloxera-free vignobles reflects the concern of South Australian growers of priceless old vines on their own roots. They feel the regulations should be tightened, not relaxed.

11 October 2012


Ray Beckwith and Thelma Schubert at Ray's 100th birthday celebration at Kalimna Homestead in February.  Ray made a passionate speech about his discovery of the importance of pH in winemaking before the Second World War.  It was Ray who appointed Max Schubert (1915 – 1994) , Thellie's husband, to his job as chief winemaker for Penfolds at The Grange, Magill, in 1948 .... photo Richard Humphrys

A century is a long time

Genius wine scientist Ray Beckwith has left home. 

Since his 100th birthday in February, Ray has gradually, reluctantly, had to admit that he’s not quite up to looking after himself with the dignity he’d prefer, so he’s has moved up the street into Barossa Village aged care.

“I need a lot more nanna naps now,” he admits with a shy grin.

Ray had been receiving a carer's pension for looking after his disabled son Jim, who's in his seventies.

The man who wrote the recipe for modern winemaking worldwide had been hospitalized three weeks ago.  He finds his energy levels too low to waste them pushing his zimmer frame around, and is preferring to spend whatever vim he has on thinking, talking, and savoring a glass of good red with his meals.

His neighbor and friend, Liz Nash, visits him daily.  “In hospital, he was adamant that he was going to be ‘home any day’,” she said. “Then early last week, he quietly told me that he had reached the age where ‘others’ were now making decisions for him.  He appears to have accepted that he will live out his days in care … mind you he knows exactly how many days he’s been in the home.”

If you’d care to drop Ray a note – he loves receiving mail - or feel inclined to send him a bottle of your best, please do so.  He’s never been a big fan of what he politely calls  ‘the wine that comes in a box’!  

It’s Barossa Village, John Atze Parade, Nuriootpa, South Australia 5355.

We don’t want our greatest living winemaking treasure feeling left out!

Ray and Peter Gago at the 100th at Kalimna ... photo Philip White

09 October 2012


The Exeter Hotel, 246 Rundle Street, East End, Adelaide, drawn by Millie The Kid (Amelia Dickins) at 17 years of age, from across the road in 1987, when all the adults she knew drank there. This postcard is now a  precious rarity, and Millie's a grown woman with a family of her own.  Funny thing is she only drew the top floor, which nobody seems to question. I always thought she'd hoped we'd leave the drinks at the downstairs bar, and head up to that balcony for solids.  We were always a bit short of solids.

No Headline Required

DATELINE: Mid-to-late eighties. Summer.  Head for The Exeter.  Damn!  There’s a bloke on my barstool in the corner, where I like to sit with my back to the wall so I can watch the door.  He looks sickly, effete, so I stay away and drink further down the bar, with Lawrence.  The next day, the Englishman’s there again.  This is becoming a bad habit.   I sidle closer and make conversation.  He’s a dismissive Pom who seems to think we’re half-witted alien peasants, but he understands architecture: he’s fascinated by the pub’s chamfered corner with the door in it - the door I like to look through from my perch in the corner - and he likes his Cooper’s Ale by the slow pint.  He has the distant smell of the traveler: the man adrift without a bed; almost without interest. He reminds me of the schoolteacher in Wake In Fright.  Day three, I go earlier, to beat him to my spot.  When he arrives he seems irritated to be dislodged.  I explain my historical attachment, and why I like to keep an eye on the door; he seems to accept my theory, but would prefer to have the corner to himself as he’s not too well and would prefer to sit.  We talk about the bush he has just traversed and how big and ancient and overwhelming it is, and the sorts of dried-out people who inhabit it.  He mentions Africa with the sort of disdainful familiarity some folks show their dirty kitchen. He never returns.

POST SCRIPT: It was at least a year later when my copy of Bruce Chatwin’s The Songlines arrived.  It had been much discussed: the great Brit travel writer focusing his sentimental gaze on Australia’s relationship with its original peoples.  I had devoured his In Patagonia, The Viceroy of Ouidah, and On The Black Hill, but they’d been in paperback.  This time, I’d gone the whole posterity hog and paid full tote for the hardcover.  It had the author’s photograph on the back.  I’d never seen a photograph of him before.  It was Bruce, the Pom in the pub.  We had never discussed our professions.  He died in 1989.

DATELINE: The Exeter, early ’nineties. “Hey Philip,” a mate says.  “There’s an interesting bloke in the saloon.  Big hat.  Cowboy. Wonder who he is.” Eternally curious about potential drinking compadres, I lurch through for a look.  He’s denim from arsehole to breakfast, and sure, the hat’s big.  He’s got his worn-out ostrich skin cowboy boots up on a chair, and he’s stretched out, reclining, back to the wall, drinking a short whiskey on ice.  He’s legit.  I am too close not to offer a howdy.  “Howdy mate,” I say, awkwardly.  “Where you from?”  “I live in a trailer in Willie Nelson’s backyard,” he drawls in a smoky baritone.  “Where you from?”  When I shake hands, I realise there’s not much of his right one left: it seems all little finger and thumb.  He holds it up.  “Never try to stop a .44,” he says with a laugh.  “I’m Billy Joe Shaver.”

POST SCRIPT: I couldn’t believe my luck.  This was the dude who’d written songs, not just for Willie, but for Elvis and Kristofferson and Waylon and the lads.  

They revered him.

His album Old Five And Dimers Like Me was an outlaw classic; among his more memorable couplets is the inimitable "The Devil made me do it the first time, second time I done it on my own".  

We drank awhile and talked of my heroes and his, and later clomped around to the Queen’s Head where he held a plectrum with that claw-like thumb and finger and played his hits to about forty of us, mainly women.  He seemed to lose interest in singing after a while, and took most of them back to his hotel.   

Somehow, Billy Joe’s still alive. Having repeatedly married and divorced his wife, Brenda, she eventually died of cancer; their beloved son, his regular guitarist, Eddy, died of a heroin overdose. Billy Joe survived a heart attack on stage in Texas and continued to record.  Bob Dylan boasts of to listening to him in I Feel A Change Comin On. He appeared in Robert Duvall’s brilliant The Apostle, amongst other movies, and was most recently in the spotlight a couple of years back when he was acquitted of shooting Billy Bryant Coker in the face in Papa Joe’s Texas Saloon. Billy Joe’s defense was self-defense: he said Billy Bryant pulled a knife on him.  Dale Watson famously recorded Where Do You Want It?  to immortalize the event.  The story about Billy Joe having his hand shot off was bullshit: he’d lost it in a sawmill accident.

DATELINE: Kinselas, Sydney, mid-’eighties.  I’m drinking cognac in the cocktail bar with Adam Wynn: we got a late start: it’s 2AM. A short Indian fellow approaches.  He’s in dark blue blue drill shirt and pants, like an electrician wears - just like Allan Ginsberg wore continuously through his stay in the early ’70’s - and he’s carrying an airline bag stuffed with newspapers.  “Gentlemen,” he says in a perfect Trinidad-Indian-Oxford-English, “I admire your attitude to cognac.  May I buy you a drink?” We hit it off like a house on fire.  The guy’s so funny, slapping high fives and hollerin’ “Get down” in faux hillbilly.  We drink and laugh; laugh and drink until they gently usher us out into the skinny morning light of Taylor Square.  As we bid our farewells I tell Adam “I’ll see you back at the winery on Wednesday,” referring to his new venture a thousand kays away, on the High Eden Ridge at Mountadam.  Our Indian mate suddenly shows a new interest.  “Oh,” he says, “do you gentlemen have contacts in the wine industry?  I plan to visit the South Australian wineries in a few months, when I have finished my work in the Northern Territory.”  I mischievously suggest that between Mr Wynn and myself we could arrange the odd good day at a winery sort of thing, and enquire as to the work in the Territory. “I am writing a book about Australia,” he says, “about the relationship here between black and white.” Which triggers a raggedly unison “Well who the hell are you?” He puts forth his hand.  “I am Shiva Naipal.”

POST SCRIPT: Shiva, the younger brother of V. S. Naipal, had written two novels, but I knew him through his prickly acuity in The Spectator, and his two riveting travel books, North of South and Black and White. The former was wry account of travels in Africa; the latter a terrifying history of the Rev Jim Jones, and Naipal’s account of visiting the Guyana jungle as officials were still cleaning up bodies after the horror of the Jonestown Massacre.  Once his tour of the north of Australia was cut short, Shiva took the spare room for a time in Adelaide while he drank my cellar dry before going back to London to finish his highly contentious and much-publicised book.  

But he died suddenly, of a heart attack, at his desk in August ’85.  His widow, Jenny, later forwarded me an unposted letter she’d found in his papers. 

“Life has been hellish,” he’d written, “and somewhat unreal since my return.  Hardly had I unpacked my bags when Indira Ghandi was assassinated … the next day, at the behest of The Observer, I was on my way to Delhi … not surprisingly, given the events of the last few weeks, the Antipodes receded from the foreground of my consciousness.  I am now faced with the not too easy task of restoring those six months to their proper place. If all goes reasonably well, it should be done by the autumn of ’85.”  It wasn’t of course.  Imperfect skerricks of it eventually found their way into An Unfinished Journey, but I think to this day his book would have blown Chatwin’s clean outa the water.

Once one had won his trust, and grown the confidence to ask him, Shiva spoke much of his fear of visiting India.  He felt it would flood his writing brain, so nothing else would fit.  He'd been born a Brahmin in Trinidad, and admitted that he would never be ready to visit India.  It seemed to terrify him. His travail, to look at Indira Ghandi's blood for The Observer, must have been deeply confronting.

His was the most challenging, entertaining, vivid intellect I have encountered.  

Click the image for precise view.

05 October 2012


Beware The Whisky Explosion
Many New Brands Dodgy Mixes 
They're Draining The Big Stacks

Noticed new brands of whisky on the shelves of your local?

Beware. Scotch whisky’s booming like never before.  When there’s a surge like this, quality drops.

Sales of whisky from Scotland, of both the premium malt type, and the bulk blended sort, are exploding.  Consumption of premium malt whisky in bars and restaurants soared by 31% in the UK in the year to April; Scotch whisky in general saw an export increase of 23% last year, earning £4.23 billion.

This is in spite of the inroads Irish whiskey has made into the huge USA market. Last year, Irish whiskey sales there increased by 24%, surpassing Scotch single malts for the first time.

This has led to the big French companies buying Scotch distilleries. After twenty years of decline - sales crashed by one third from 1992-97 – the French Cognac business is finally enjoying something of a renaissance, but they’re hungry for more of Scotland. Pernod-Ricard, which owns Jamiesons Irish whiskey, at last count also had eighteen Scotch distilleries. Louis-Vuitton-Möet-Hennesey owns Ardbeg and Glenmorangie; and still smarting from its loss of the latter, Rémy Cointreau bought that beloved pearl of Islay, Bruichladdich (below), in July. After Jim Beam had let it fall to the point of dereliction, Mark Reynier, a London merchant, and some bright privateer mates bought Bruichladdich for £4 million in 2000, and after twelve years of smart and enlightened management and a sharp hike in quality, let it go to Remy for an incredible £58 million.

But all this is nothing compared to the ravening British lion, Diageo.  Not only does this monster own 34% of the Möet-Hennesey part of LVMH, but it owns Smirnoff (the world's biggest-selling vodka), Baileys (world’s biggest liqueur), Guinness (world's best-selling stout) and little old Bundaberg rum.  Not to mention Johnnie Walker (the world's top-selling Scotch). 

Like Diageo’s other blended whiskies - J&B, Bell's, Black & White, White Horse, Vat 69, Haig and Dimple, Johnny’s a mixture of cheaper grain whiskies, blended with malts from Diageo’s phenomenal mob of malt distilleries.  These happen to include Auchroisk, Banff, Benrinnes, Blair Athol, Brora, Buchanan's, Caol Ila, Cardhu, Clynelish, Convalmore, Cragganmore, Dalwhinnie, Glen Albyn, Glen Elgin, Glenlossie, Glen Ord, Glenkinchie, Lagavulin, Linlithgow,  Lochnagar, Knockando, Mannochmore, Mortlach, North Brechin, Oban, Port Ellen, Rosebank, Royal Strathmill, Talisker, and Teaninich. 

Malt distilleries are mothballed and rekindled according to the booms-and-busts of the international economy.  There are barrel houses full of ageing whisky all over Scotland – at least half a million barrels at any given time.  When there’s a boom, like the current explosion, with very aggressive inroads being dozed into India and Asia, these vast stores are pillaged.

Put crudely, whisky is vodka made from grain - some of which has been smoked over peat fires - stored in barrels for a minimum of three years. It is coloured and sweetened with caramel and then watered down for bottling.

Given the parsimony of the Scots, the whisky business was never big on expensive new oak.  Traditionally they bought old barrels from the sherry makers of Jerez, bolstered by an endless supply of cheap throwaways from the corn distillers of the USA, where local laws usually  determine that barrels can be used only once, and it's probably just as well - made from fast-growing Quercus alba, these are spongiform, like balsa.  

But as the British post-war vicars and their wives died out, so did much of the sherry business, meaning that, used bourbon butts aside, the cheapest barrels on Earth ran out.  Good clean sherry barrels have become rare and expensive.

This meant an inevitable change of flavours.

Enlightened distillers, like the Bruichladdich rebels, went to other parts for their oak.  As well as trialing new American barrels, which tend to give whisky a distinctive citrus tinge, they bought old wood from the wineries of France. Suddenly we had whiskies that carried flavours of Bordeaux and Burgundy, even Sauternes. 

These experiments are often sold as novelties, so single-barrel bottlings and small batch blends proliferate, filling the market with a baffling array of new premium whisky flavours at an equally astonishing range of prices, from expensive to stellar.  In the twelve years of his management of Bruichladdich, Mark Reynier and his master distiller, the legendary Jim McEwen, released well over 200 such products.

But in those huge stacks of slumbering barrels elsewhere round Scotland, there are hundreds of thousands of barrels that would not, shall we say, make a responsible blender’s top cut. 

The styles of the cheaper blended whiskies are jealously protected.  Like Guinness, their characters may change slightly from market-to-market, but within each of those it is important that the product retains a constant aroma and flavour.  While it’s possible that dud barrels can be lost in such mega-blends, they can’t take many risks.

It seems to me that the risks are being taken much further up the price range.  If your new small-batch product can bring you twice the money of your constant cheap blend, you can push it into aspirational markets obsessed with exclusive luxury goods but which are naïve about what they should in fact be getting for their bigger spend.

In other words, if you’re going to take a risk, you might just well make a bigger profit from it by flogging it to ignorant show-offs.

In recent years, we’ve had a proliferation of expensive small-to-tiny batch whisky releases in special crystal and whatever, at prices which can hit the tens of thousands of pounds.  Most of these, no doubt, are exquisite and unique. A beautiful example is the $17,500 Highland Park 50 year old pictured.  Having Shetland blood, I'm rather partial to a dram of  Highland Park, from Kirkwall, Orkney.  That's our closest distillery.  With a license.

But back to the whisky shelves: tucked in, lower down, above the blends, amongst the more common and famous malts and whatnot, we’re seeing new house brands at alluring prices, especially in the giant chain stores.

Many of these are dodgy assemblages of the sorts of rejects and second-rate barrels that makers would never risk on their best, most jealously-guarded products.  Amongst them you’ll find the taints of brettanomycaes, the enemy of winemakers.  It lives in oak and kills wine flavours.  As it does with whisky.  This is best hidden in whiskies boasting peatiness: a novice will often fail to tell the difference between the acrid yeast and the smoky peat.  You can even lose cork taint in such styles if they’re flogged to novices, like the disbelieving storekeeper who looked at me as if I were mad when I took a badly corked Ardbeg back to his shop for a refund.  He took a dram and told me you couldn’t get corky whisky.  “Especially in a malt. Not one this good.”

Which leads me to the Japanese. When Brian Morrisson sold that other pride of Islay, Bowmore, to Suntory in 1994, there was a sudden change of style as the economic rationalists from the huge Japanese brewery had their way.  Amidst much rumour and argy-bargy, the legendary stillmaster, Jim McEwen, abandoned the retirement monies he would soon be due after 37 years there, and moved across Loch Indaal to Bruichladdich.  Since its phenomenal sale in June, it would appear likely that Jim now has some retirement money. And he’s left his reputation untarnished.

But not all malt lovers run from the Japanese, and not all Japanese whisky-makers are economic rationalists.  One of the more reliable and loveable whisky characters of these risky boomtimes is the crusty Scots blogger, ralfy.com, who publishes inimitable whisky reviews on Youtube.  In his appraisal of the new Japanese Yoichi 15 year old pure malt whisky, he makes various wise references to many of the matters I discuss above.

In Japan, he says, “the quality of the casks used is absolutely first class. And that is simply not always the case when it comes to Scotch whisky ... Japanese whisky is produced by design; Scotch whisky is produced by default.”

Check him out by clicking here.  

The Bruichladdich motto, by the way, is Clachan a Choin, meaning Dog's Bollocks.  To read my 2009 report of the Bruichladdich revival, click here.  To read of recent manoeuvres  at Johnny Walker and a weird whisky adventure in the outback, click here. That's the wild Islay coast near Bruichladdich below.