“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)





03 April 2013


 Winery returns to the silence
Time to pause and digest 2013
And have a drink with Michael

By the time you read this, vintage 2013 will be pretty much over in South Australia.

Yangarra, the winery a hundred metres from my little house has gradually changed its mood over this last week, as the intake and the crushing and grape sorting has slowed down and the focus goes instead into the tanks and their contents.  As a starship approaches its goal, the beast changes its sounds and lighting as the last of its grapes rock up. It exhales arrival miasmas.  It seems relieved.  Even the throbbing rock which has kept the overnight energies up turns quiet and more pensive.  Reflective.  Like all good wineries, it lives.  It has a life with its own cycles of energy and purpose, call and response.  It eats, force-fed, then it relaxes. And digests.

Even Elsie, the brood mare in the paddock between me and the winery, seems to be more settled as the vintage traffic slows.  Her great teeth break her evening carrots with more deliberation.  She prefers them cool, straight from the fridge.  This week, she tried her first dried fig.  Just a soft one, she chewed it and pondered, like a great old wine judge savours a beautiful glassful.  But Elsie don’t spit.

For several weeks, it’s been constant round-the-clock shifts. Heavily-laden tractors and trucks come and go at all hours; the growers and makers have intense discussions around the receival bins and the amazing grape sorting machine, munching berries, tasting juices and fermenting musts.  Looking each other in the eye.

That grape-sorter is a glimpse into the future.  It arrived, shrink-wrapped in bits for the  2010 vintage. We felt like occupants of the space shuttle accepting a new pod of gadgets from below.

With the humidity of France, and the numerous moulds and rots which develop all too quickly in those vineyards, the very best winemakers have depended upon humans to sort grape bunches as they pick, excluding the poorest. Then the picked bunches are spread on sorting tables, where other folks select the healthier bunches and send them on to the crusher-destemmer.

Forgive me for quoting my own work, but in that ’ten vintage I met the excited inventor, the Lyonnaise engineer Jacques Blain.  His company, Vaucher Beguet, had been supplying the French industry with grape processing machinery for years.

“A customer in Bordeaux complained that human grape sorters were far from perfect,” Jacques told me. “They talk with each other, you know, tell the jokes, take their eyes from the work, and still we see imperfect fruit getting through. So they ask me to design a sorting machine. We have three weeks to deliver.”

With his business partner, Gerard Vouchet, Jacques conjured a destemming device, and added to it a vibrating, sloping steel panel with perforations which let the smaller imperfect berries fall into a reject bin so only the better fruit proceeded to the crusher. 

“It did not work very well,” he told me, “because all the leaf and stem and other contaminant still come through with the must. So I say to myself ‘We should try with wind’. Gerard said ‘Give me five minutes’ and he soon came back with his wife’s hair drier. It worked. I patent the machine and we delivered ... In 2005 we have sold seven sorters: four in France and three in the USA. Now we have sold 300. There are six in your country.”

I don’t know how many we have now.  They’re all over the world.  Other companies have rival types.  But once you’ve seen the reject stuff this ingenious device throws into its various containers before it spits the chosen fruit out the end like caviar, you wonder what you’ve been drinking all these years.

Even carefully hand-picked bunches from precious old bush vines -- stuff like you’d see in a fruiterer’s window -- render up an astonishing amount of protein, in the form of critters who’ve discretely made their homes within the bunches: earwigs, wasps, millipedes, moths, reptiles, snails, and, in the case of machine-harvested fruit, which is the norm these days, quite a few rodents, sticky and puzzled and dying to get out of there, if indeed they’re not already shredded.  Bits of gizzard which once went straight through the crushers into the fermenters these days go onto the marc heap for mulching.

Folks who’ve derided my tasting notes for decades, and I mean those with reflections on meat and other strange non-vinous notions, would cease to wonder once they’d had a good hard look in those reject bins.  Until now, we drank that shit.  The range of clarifiers and chemicals of diverse types which were traditionally applied to remove traces of this grunge have always added their peculiar lustres to the finished, bottled product.

We are moving, as they say, on.

During the last weeks, there has been an amazing parade of good winemakers and wine writers pass my kitchen door as they enter and leave that winery; many have blessed me with their presence.

It started with my friend Maynard James Keenan, winemaker and proprietor of Caduceus winery, away up in the cold air of the mountains of Arizona.  He came with his winemaking wife, Jen, and we spent a day munching grapes in the vineyard, marvelling at vines and varieties and the dirt beneath them, tasting barrels and lunching gradually and thoroughly before he went back to his astonishing musical work on the stage.

Since then, the best of our wine critics, like Tony Keys, James Halliday and Max Allen have followed the same route.  Dozens of significant winemakers have dropped by, from Alsace to California, and much fun and fervid discussion has fizzed over tables as the musts frothed away in that winery.  It is a fellowship, and vintage brings it all into very close, if dissolute, Bacchanalian focus.

Even my sweet beloved Mum came with my sister.  Lifetime fundamentalist Christian  teetotalers both, they abided my tiny homeful of hundreds of bottles and glasses, and asked acute farmerly questions about the harvest over their Ceylon tea and sugary cakes, while my Mum sorted through my seeds of the hottest chillies on Earth to take the best home to grow in the garden of the old folks’ home.  Pity help the poor innocent who pinches one of her Trinidad Scorpions or Bhut Jolokias when they fruit.  Both ambulance and fire brigade will be required.

And now it’s all winding down.  Young people of brilliant fitness and determination can cease their travail, plunging caps of skins into the fermenting juice below.  The hoses can be rinsed and hung, the shovels and forks and gumboots can be washed and racked.  The writer can get back to his word piano before he forgets everything; the winery, and those amazing folks who administer to her innards by tending the astonishing works they have made of what the viticulturers delivered can hunker in for the autumnal slumber. 

The yeasts have died after converting all that grape sugar to alcohol; now it is the turn of the malolactic bacteria to chew away, converting the harsh malic acid of the grapes to the softer lactic acid of mother’s milk.

While it is the barrels’ turn to imbibe, I think I shall go and get drunk with Michael Lane, the viticulturer.  He grew it all.

It has been a very good vintage here.

photos from the pizza balcony at Settlement Wines by Philip White

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