“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)





17 September 2013


It started with retsina but don't blame it all on the Greeks -
they use pine, the rest use oak

"I have always considered 'Greek cuisine' an oxymoron," Jeffrey Steingarten, the New York food critic infamously wrote in The Man Who Ate Everything. "Any country that pickles its national cheese in brine and adulterates its national wine with pine pitch should order dinner at the local Chinese place and save its energies for other things."

For "other things" he suggests "The Greeks are really good at both pre-Socratic philosophy and white statues."

It's easy to take the piss out of the Greeks for their retsina: it seems kinda cute but very clunky, as if they'd attempted to move out of the big white statues business and suddenly build a car.  But there's nothing new about this ridicule.  Way back when the Italians were called Romans and were prone to invading neighbours they quickly became revilers of the resined wine which they had after all pillaged, and those were the days before Crime Converters might have taken it off their hands so they could purchase smaller volumes of something better, like their own premium Falernian stabilised with red lead.  Which poison led to the mindsets of lovely chaps like Caligula, Claudius and Nero. Killer lead aside, they were a thirsty lot anyway, and the ones that insisted on forcibly visiting Greece drank so much stolen retsina they ended up blaming that for their hangovers.

A thousand years later retsina overdoses copped the blame for the deaths of the crusading Vikings, Eric I of Denmark and Sigurd I of Norway.  It nearly killed this mongrel Viking hillbilly on repeated occasions another millenium on, with his 'seventies discovery of Theo's excellent Greek grill in Hindley Street.  But as with the Italians, those royal deaths and close shaves probably had more to do with the obscene number of oinochoes consumed at each sitting, and perhaps even the shipments of rough brandy which always followed.

In the beginning, the Greeks never added retsina for flavour.  Their clay amphorae were so porous as to leak, and they found the easiest method of sealing those huge jugs was to line them with pine resin, which was a precursor to the modern habit of sealing the tipping flaps of dump trucks with Bostik so they don't leak juice when being used for grape transport in our Mallee.  The truckies fondly call this handy sealant Gorilla Snot.

It was only when the Greeks became so accustomed to the flavour of the resin in the wine that the winemakers discovered they could secure an ongoing market if they added the stuff anyway, regardless of whether their newfangled non-leaking containers required it as a sealant.  You may snigger at the suggestion that eventually the drinkers of wine which travelled as grapes instilled with that delicate Gorilla Snot twang might demand the same distinctive flavour in their wine after better trucks are adopted, but cast your mind back to those old Italians.

During their invasion of Gaul, they discovered the Celts had invented the oak barrel.  This had likely come about following their invention of the carvel-hulled boat, or caravel.  If you could butt timbers together in a shell or pointy cup shape and rove them securely, they would keep water out so well you could board the damn thing and drive it to England.  Not much beyond that somebody seemed to realise that if you went the full three-sixty you'd have a container that kept water in, and everybody knew, even then, that man could not live on water alone, so in went the vino.

The Italians quickly realised this Gaelic barrel thing was a vast improvement on their brittle leaky amphorae, which required too many slaves to pour, and were notoriously tricky to ship.  Sure, the smashed ones were handy in road surfacing and building fill, just as we use sand and gravel, but most of them were lying on the bottom of the Mediterranean and thus difficult to recycle.  The barrel, meantime, floated, and was handy re-used as heating fuel or for smoking meats.

Which led to humans becoming accustomed to the flavour of oak in their wine.  Once wineries had perfected cheaper containers of concrete, steel and plastic, the market was well addicted to oak flavours, which the three most influential modern Australian winemakers, John Glaetzer at Wolf Blass, Peter Lehmann and Max Schubert knew all too well.  These chainsmoking Barossa gourmands grew up eating smoked meats in smoky kitchens and soon realised their wines were more alluringly smoky if the oak in their barrels had been burned a little.

This flambé business not only added controllable smoke flavours, but caramelised the sugars in the singed wood, which added soft fudgy toffee flavours.  Humans are suckers for fudge.

As Australia became addicted to its wine shows, these grew outrageously.  Instead of tasting and fairly appraising a decent number of wines per day, judges were soon facing a couple of hundred snifters at a sitting, a task far beyond the capabilities of even the exceptional beagle. 

Oak being a lot easier thing to sniff in a drink than your actual wine, and winemaking judges being fully aware of the huge cost of good barrels, we soon had John Glaetzer's mantra being whispered about the business like an om ah hum or Holy Mary :  "No wood no good; no medals no jobs."  Glaetzer could say that, being the winner of three or four Jimmy Watson Trophies, and Bacchus only knows how many Montgomery Trophies, which were the hard-core highest honour gongs of the day.  A dozen of 'em seems to come to mind.  The Monty was eventually replaced by the Schubert trophy, which goes to the top red wine in the Royal Adelaide Show.

The French being the best forest managers on Earth, it should be little surprise that they generally make the best barrels.  Chile, Australia, the USA - all big wine-producing countries make fine barrels, but the best are still made from French oak.  The French climate grows really good densely-grained oak, which is far superior to softer, more porous, faster-growing woods of grain and flavour more coarse and sappy, but to get enough tree to make two good French barrels takes well over a century and leaves a great deal of wasted timber.

In 1999, at the peak of Australia's tax-dodgers' obsession with planting far too much Chardonnay in the desert, this writer worked out that if Australia were to get every new barrel made and sold in France that year, we wouldn't have sufficient to ferment the fruit of the new Chardonnay vines which had yet to grow a berry.

So we developed the stainless steel, plastic and concrete wine refinery to feed a market which we knew had succumbed to the winemakers' addiction to raw toasty oak.  And we filled the tanks with all that leftover tree: sawdust, shavings, sticks, cubes and planks.  This is our pine resin.

Just as the Greek sophists of their day realised their woody additives were also handy for masking the faults of bad, lazy or insanitary winemaking, many of our sub-bronze slackers these days enjoy  the advantages of the same scam.

If you love your wine as passionately as coffee addicts do their coffee, you should take fifteen minutes to absorb the products available from an "oak products company" like the Oak Solutions Group.  Check their menu of sophisticated lumberjack goods on their website  and wonder whether this is more Nescafé instant than your actual Arabica beans.  There's a helluva difference between a good wine made in a beautiful seasoned $1500 French oak barrel and one manufactured in a humungous tank with a few bucks worth of "Premium Dark Roasted Oak Chips" shovelled in.

It's high time our winemakers declared these instant additives on their labels, so we can spend accordingly, and learn.  I doubt that they'll need to tell us when they begin lining their leaky newfangled amphorae-shaped fermenters with pine resin, or even Gorilla Snot, but it'd be nice to have the regulation in place nevertheless. They're not about to volunteer to impose it upon themselves, believe me.

Some premium small wineries, like Maynard James Keenan's Caduceus at Jerome, Arizona, spend great deals of money having large oak containers built, so their wine enjoys all the oxidative and temperature stability advantages of oak, but with minimal oak flavour interference ... these biggies are the philosophical opposite of the oak chip mentality of most big wineries. That's Maynard with some newies, above.  Below you see beautiful oak fermenters for Pinot noir at Kooyong, on the Mornington Peninsula, Victoria. Such vessels are used to derive the various advantages of oak as a natural container, without extracting toasty caramels or too much sappy flavour, like retsina, or most Australian bulk red.




Anonymous said...

Do you hate everything about wine?

Philip White said...

Dear Anonymous,

I just had to publish that. Because it is so fucking stupidly, ridiculously fucking DUMB.

Anonymous said...

Throw a lump or 2 of kurrajong at em whitey