“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)





16 October 2012


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. 

No comments: