“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)





13 November 2013


Organoleptic music: aural v oral
The human influence on terroir
Girls roll boys in plonk rock jam 

"I encouraged all the artists to have a new look: their own version of the song.  I have an almost automatic reference for the songs, as I know them so well. But each artist - I wanted them to approach it like it was something new ... "

Creedence Clearwater Revival kingpin, John Fogerty was answering Allen Toussaint's question in Uncut magazine back in July.  Fogerty was releasing Wrote a song for everyone, an album on which he'd invited special guests to record their individual takes on different songs he'd written forty years back.  Having worked with Fogerty on reworking Proud Mary, the great Toussaint was curious as to why Fogerty would attempt new recordings of his songs after they'd been imprinted into the brains of four generations and covered by so many very famous artists.

Proud Mary in particular seemed a tricky one to rework, as Ike and Tina Turner's 1970 version, and Tina's subsequent honings of that model seemed pretty much to put an end to any need for further translation.

In the 'seventies I came to reviewing wines after several years writing capsule reviews of rock albums, an easy transition for such a thirsty bastard.  Since then, I have always marvelled at the similarities between the music biz and modern wine: from artistic conception and composition through the practical playing and recording to packaging, marketing and release, there are many parallels between these vast industries, one of which deals with satisfying our aural desires, the other our oral and organoleptic lusts. 

The cynic could rightfully say neither commodity is essential for human survival.  Somewhere in here lies the excuse for the sophisticated degrees of artfulness and cunning both extremely competitive industries employ in their thirst to swap their products for your money and love.

Keith Richards has a longstanding belief in the scarcity of good rock music.  "The ratio of good stuff to bad stuff doesn't change.  Ninety-seven bad; three good," he said on Finnish broadcasting TV in his famous 1988 interview.  I have always felt wine is more or less up that rut.

As in wine marketing, a good product backed by truth, honesty and a fair price beats the sophistry required to peddle bullshit.  Although the Rolling Stones are brilliant guerrilla marketers - that's easy for them - the marketing dollar behind any new Stones album would buy you a very big winery indeed.

Chalk Hill Wines is the public end of the Harvey family's McLaren Vale business.  Harveys are big contract vineyard managers in the district, and are influential and highly respected.  As well as their own premium wine brand, they have extensive well-sited vineyards of their own on various geological bases.  All of which they understand, and accurately discuss.

Jock Harvey, Chalk Hill winemaker Emmanuelle Requin-Bekkers, and Tom Harvey

Viticulturer Jock Harvey is a past president of the McLaren Vale Grape Wine and Tourism Association; his brother Tom, the Chalk Hill marketing boss, recently assumed that same role.  Stalwart activists in the battle to stop housing intrusion into the vignoble, the Harveys are not scared of hard politics.

And they're not scared of rock'n'roll.  The McLVGW&TA's own Scarce Earths Shiraz marketing theory revolves around Mclaren Vale Shiraz wines being permitted that appellation if a select judging panel agrees each wine is an honest and fair representation of its geology.

How you can import celebrity judges to join a local panel and make such claims, in these infant days of the region's appreciation of its infernally complex geology, beats me.

But, biffo!  Here's the Harveys with a thinkingperson's six-pack: a $360 set of wines made by six individual winemakers from the fruit of the family's Heritage Vineyard in Blanche Point limestone, a formation that was laid down as seabed between 34 and 56 million years ago.

Rather than pontificate about the flavours being typical of the rock, they've deliberately set out to get six different flavours typical of their winemakers.

Handsomely boxed together and labelled, each Alpha Crucis Winemakers' Series McLaren Vale Shiraz 2012 bears its maker's image and some basic vital statistics.

The Steve Grimley (left) model (picked 7th March; 15% alcohol) was made by the bloke normally responsible for Stamford and Clark and Direct Wines.  Steve's wine reeks of beetroot, prune and dried figs, with a nose-prickling edge of oak (dried ginger) and summer dust.  It's lean for its large alcohol, compressed and almost brittle, with mean dry tannins. 88++

Mike Brown (left, Gemtree Vineyards) picked his on 1st March and got 14.5% alcohol. It has a distinct whiff of coal dust and boilerstoker's apron across its fruit, which bit seems more along the lines of blackberry and mulberry.  It reminds me of the old timber tearooms at the Murray Bridge Railway Station, when The Overlander would stop for twenty minutes and that entire trainfull would spill out for a rapid cram of smokes and jugsa beer or tea and scones with blackberry jam and cream.  Its flavours are lean and sinuous, and reminiscent of good Shiraz from the south of France. 88+

Peter Schell (left, Spinifex Wines) picked on 4th February and still squeezed out 14.5% alcohol.  His wine shows more clean fresh oak and sweeter fruit than the previous pair.  It smells like morello cherries soaking in lemon juice.  It is even more sinuously slender and supple, with a determined but gradual rise of chalky tannins - the first indicator I see yet of a clear reflection of the site's chalky old seabed sediments, if, indeed that's where this bit of the wine came from. 92+++

Corrina Wright (left, Olivers Taranga) picked on 2nd March and got 14.5  alcohols.  Her wine is vibrant with morello and maraschino cherry, with a scent something along the lines of a very posh unscented cosmetic cream.  It also has hints of ripe blackcurrant and blueberry: it's all fruit and radiant health and freshness.  It's more unctuous than any so far, with comforting flesh around welcome acidity and that chalk again, although in this slightly more chubby body it seems less prevalent. 93+

Bec Willson (left)harvested on 1st March to win 15.5% alcohol.  Hers smells leaner if not outright meaner, with estery dried banana influences in a warm compote of prune and blackberry.  It, too, has a faint whiff of the old coal dust at its base, and then maybe a rise of summer meadow blooms, drying in the field, as a pleasing topnote.  The wine is leathery and snaky, and those chalky tannins seem more predominant.  We're back to the sunny south of France.  88+

So after all that, what would Chalk Hill winemaker Emmanuelle Requin-Bekkers do?  She drew 15.5 alcohols from a 29th February pick, and made a wine with fruit very akin to Corrina Wright's model; all cherries and comforting unctions as mysterious and alluring as the Queen of Sheba's bathroom.  Unlike the other five, it also has a bright topnote of spearmint.  Then, its texture, viscosity, form - call it what you like - displays a textbook gradual transition from those fruity carnalities to a retort of that tannin, but in a very fine grain.  It's my clear favourite for its clarity and its fruit preservation, whilst making no obvious attempt at sophistry.  And yes, in such an elegant and honest frame, its alcohol becomes evident in the aftertaste and exhalation.  It makes me dream about picking some in the direction of 13.5% alcohol.  93++ 

"Without scientific rigour, this was about providing an opportunity to see how winemakers influence the taste of a homogenous product, and whether we might get a taste of their personality," Tom Harvey said.

"Like artists given the same paintbox to paint something without prescriptive direction on the subject or style, I hoped their true artistic ability was displayed, rather than seeing them serve a ‘house’ winemaking style as so many do nowadays."

And then, getting closer to rock: "It's good that we're paying more attention to what's below the ground, but I also think I've made a pretty solid case that in exploring a site’s potential we really need to have a number of winemakers making wines from the same grapes in each district."

So?  Sophistry of marketing, or guerrilla? This is more about truth and honesty, and, as far as rare educational opportunity goes, fairly-priced.  And, yep Keef, she's top three per cent.   

If you're a Shiraz nut, I recommend you get ten or eleven mates with similar fetishes, share a box, talk til you're reaching for the beers and thrash the Fogerty album loud.

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