“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)





26 January 2014


Big strange dreams ... I went to lunch today at the exquisite Elbow Room in McLaren Vale and laughed and tuckered beautifully with good friends ... but just a dream took the edge of the brain away ... like featuring why Barossa Grenache is so different to McLaren Vale ... [that's Dicky Wag lecturing Ludwig Von while my sisters play John Cale's version of Heartbreak Hotel above; Rubella plays the bass lines with her back]  ... McLaren Vale has old settler Poms and lovely Italians, but nary a crusty German like the Barossa ... maybe that's why top McLaren Vale Grenache is very different to top Barossa ... below that the little electric blue things [I'm colour blind - I think they're probly blue] ... then photographer Milton Wordley coming over all stern whilst eating his ice cream; Milton's not even German ... his Dad was a mad journo and his Mum came from the circus and last year we made the book A year in the life of Grange ... then grappa and castrato and red wine wiv wasted water ... then another frame from the movie ... maybe we should make it ... you better go eat in this marvel joint real soon ... take the rest of the day off ...  you gotta admit the thought of a Police Wine adds a shot of intrigue to the tail of an unwinding yarn ... see you at the Burnside CIB Max ... mad dream and photos by Philip White ... and if you make head or tail of all that you're a better man than me, Gunga Din

22 January 2014


Paracombe Adelaide Hills Sauvignon Blanc 2013 
$21; 13% alcohol; screw cap; 93 points

Paracombe's pioneering Sauvignon blanc was impressive from its launch, twenty-one years ago.  Rather than being simply grassy, like the raw battery acid/catpiss/lawn clippings nature of many rival Kiwis, and later, Adelaide Hills examples, it always seemed more genteel and comforting, without being the slightest bit fat. It has always been made in stainless steel, like a Riesling. I was impressed in those early days by the wine's capacity to smell delicately rosy, perhaps after the style of the beautiful Rieslings of Brian Barry at Jud's Hill. This release has a little of that yellow rose sweetness in its fragrance, with delicious buttery Anjou pear and some lime peel: as much pith as zest. For the mineral maniacs, I'd suggest its aromatic reflection of its ground is pretty much along the lines of damp ferruginous dirt, freshly turned by the plough. So it has earthy soul amongst all those delicate reassurances. Each of these perfumes are reflected with gentle elegance in the mouth division, the wine having an almost dainty unction, balanced by that stimulating granular texture you'll find in the Belgian Bosc pear. It makes me hunger for Chef So's scallops on the half-shell, grilled with a touch of soy and mandarin peel, and garnished before serving with spring onion shreds. If you were to ask Eddie in advance for this dish at Park Lok, I'm sure the kitchen would oblige. As for all those pear references? Funny that the Paracombe plateau also grows utterly delicious pears ...      

Ben, Sarah, Cath and Paul Drogemuller of Paracombe ... 30 years since the two on the right bought their first vine cuttings after the destruction of Ash Wednesday; 21 years since their first release ... and two fine hybrids who've grown up in the interim on the left ... there was never a bad wine made by this lovely lot

Coates Adelaide Hills The Semillon Sauvignon Blanc 2013 
$25; 13% alcohol; screw cap; 94++ points 

Duane Coates made this after the style of the dry white blends of Bordeaux, going to the extreme of basket pressing - like you'd do with a red - and depending upon wild yeasts during a ferment in expensive French barrels, then nine months on lees in the same oak.  This technique returned a meagre 300 litres of wine per tonne of fruit picked, a ratio acceptable only to a fanatic who prefers the company of gourmands to that of his accountant. It smells like damp chalk and loquat, with slightly prickly/tickly references to those fine Chene Caucase barrels. And I swear it has a whiff of white chocolate about it, like the Belgian Guylian sea shell-shaped dainties, which somehow brings me back to that White Cliffs of Dover seaside chalk. The flavour is along the lines of the buttery Anjou pear, with very fine drying tannins and soft acidity. The wine is much more genteel and elegant than, say, a Chardonnay made in the same manner: it's sufficiently stimulating to set those dribble glands gushing like faucets, but affords enough viscosity to comfort the palate at the same time.  This see-sawing of sensations drives me straight at octopus, grilled or pickled with fresh herbs. The great Enzo Clappis's pickled fish also comes to mind. Jeez I have lovely memories of The Maylands when Enzo's hand was on its tiller, and those savoury fishies on my plate!    


21 January 2014


All these bushfire images were taken after the 2013 blaze at Currency Creek, in the Murray River estuary on the Southern Fleurieu Peninsula ... photo Philip White
Where there's smoke there's fire
Winemakers and the gun lobby
A week of heat and destruction

What a sick old week for wine industry, er, communications, and I don't even refer to the savage Dry vs Wet Wars, whose main engagement lines are in King's Cross, Sydney.

So far, the wine business has managed to stay out of dispatches from that unwinnable horror.

Let's go inland, to the big irrigators of the Murray Basin.  In the midst of all this aggravated talk of alcohol and violence, the last thing any winemaker needed was a link to firearms.  Like, what has wine to do with shooting in New South Wales National Parks?  

There are calls to boycott the products of those international champions of the Critter Label, Casella Wines. They make Yellowtail Wines at Griffith.  Since news broke of them being the major sponsors of the Sporting Shooters Association (SSA), the drivers of parks hunting, things have gone all fizzy.

I'll admit to a previous life of hunting goats in the Flinders Ranges, and wild pigs out on the flats. Destructive vermin.  When I was a kid, we'd shoot rabbits for the pot.  Underground mutton.  After dormant decades in the trigger finger division, I shot a clay pigeon last year, and I boast like a hunter - one shot: one hit. Not bad fun for some, having the odd clean shot.

Other than intense rivalry, this has not much to do with Griffith or Casella, but Wolf Blass has always been an enthusiastic pistol shooter ... and since the start he's had a Bundesadler critter on his label

Sydney Morning Herald state politics editor, Kirsty Needham, unstitched a yarn no wine writer had dared touch when she reported that "the Casella brothers are all keen shooters," and Marcello Casella had converted part of the old McWilliams winery at Yenda to a factory for the Terminator ammo brand. Needham wrote further about the soaring popularity of shooting in the Griffith region, with its burgeoning gun clubs and ammunition manufactories, and its handy proximity to the Cocoparra National Park and the Binya State Forest.

Needham finished with a savoury twist by quoting local SSA treasurer, Trevor Allen, who complained about "The 'Mexicans' coming up from Sydney and Melbourne with their guns".

"They don't have respect for anyone's property or live stock," Allen said. "They threaten the farmers."

Range wars.

This news coincided with Griffith grapegrower Rod Gribble telling the same newspaper's Environment writer, Peter Munro, on video, about the heatwave's devastating blitz of his wine grape crop. Gribble talked frankly of how frosts had damaged his vineyards before the heatwave, which combination has left his 2014 vintage in penury. He explained the nature of 'hen-and-chicken', where grapes develop unevenly within each bunch, so you have some small sour, bitter, pea-sized berries amongst other fatter sugary ones.

No good.

Whether they were frosted or not, this ailment is common this year in vineyards right through the Mount Lofty Ranges, from the Fleurieu to Clare.  As well as other parts of the entire south-east corner of this big dry baking/blazing chip of a country.
Heatwaved, sunburnt hen-and-chicken Shiraz in McLaren Vale, January 2014 ... this bunch is more the exception than the rule in the better Vales vineyards ... the vineyards with the better-managed leaf canopies have little of it ... photo James Hook

As occurred all over south-east Australia, that week-long heatwave was severe and long enough to stop the vines taking in water - they shut down, get sulky and go dormant around 32-35⁰C - so while the pea and lentil-sized berries simply toughened, tightened and shrank, the fatter, sweeter berries go to raisins through evaporation in the heat, giving discomfiting sweet-and-sour flavours when the whole caboodle goes through the crusher.

Ethyl alcohol, sure, but finesse?  Nah.

Back to the annual problem of communications.  Marketing.  There stood poor Gribble, in 45⁰C heat, an excavator uprooting his worthless Semillon behind him, his Chardonnay vineyard a parched and bleak slab of industrial monoculture, bare earth reflecting destructive heat up into the vine canopies from below.  While he held badly damaged bunches in his hands for the camera, he had the local propaganda division to deal with once his clip went to air.  So he just had to say, in obvious contradiction to everything else, that "the grapes will make excellent quality wine ... there's no doubt about that."

And then, tellingly, honestly, he added "but the quantity - you know, we get paid more on the quantity than the quality - and the quantity is really going to be reduced.  And that is going to affect us dramatically."

Communications, see?  After the fires in the ranges east of the Barossa, I was reticent to ask mates there about vineyard damage.  I ask the honest, reliable folks for vintage reports each year, because in this business, truth is my currency.  Liars and spindoctoring Goebbels Division rocket-polishers are a direct threat to my credibility.  These determined ethanol-mongers will happily chew up anyone who reliably tells me that things are not quite perfect.

Currency Creek 2013 ... photo Philip White

If I were to believe the Country Fire Service (CFS) reports during the eastern ranges blaze, I would have thought the entire region from Flaxman's and Springton, north through Keyneton and Hill of Grace to Truro, and across to Angaston, was cactus.  All those beautiful vineyards.  But apart from a few rows of vines in Flaxman Valley, which was almost a separate fire, it seems that very few vineyards were damaged.  The fire went mainly up the Mallee side of the ranges, in the gorges where they meet the eastern flats, and scorched north toward Truro.

Contrary to popular goss, vineyards do burn.  On Ash Wednesday, which I cannot believe was thirty years ago, old vines, particularly bush vines, burnt in Clare.  Last vintage, modern irrigated vineyards burnt at Currency Creek.  In a twisted piece of reality, the plastic dripper lines there worked like cordite fuses in some places, burning along beneath the vines once the power went off, the pumps stopped, and the water dried out.

Currency Creek, 2013 ... photo Philip White

Regardless of the poisonous residuals left in the ground from cindered Perma-pine posts and plastic, those vines seem largely to have revived.

A buzzword feared by winemakers is 'smoke taint'.  From my enquiries, the winds that fanned those fires up the east side of the Barossa ranges dispersed the smoke so efficiently that many folks weren't even aware that the fires were close.  So, fingers crossed, growers hope that barbecue-flavoured ailment will not be noticable.

Because I have mates who grow grapes all through that region, I sat up all night listening to the CFS reports and watching their website.  In such a conflagration, one doesn't ring people to ask whether they're burning down as it happens.

But I must say that the CFS reports are more chaotic than accurate.  They are often hours out of date.  Listening all night to CFS reports on local ABC 891 during the peak of the blaze, I should have been forgiven for believing that all of Eden Valley, from Springton right up through Hill of Grace, was ash.

Not so.

If the local ABC stays on air, and refrains from feeding us cricket or broadcasts from Sydney or Brisbane, and instead leaves a good broadcaster on air with the phone lines open, immediate reports from farmers or folks on site are much more reliable and accurate than whatever the CFS has the time or ability to patch together.

Currency Creek 2013 ...photo Philip White

ABC 891 did a good job during the eastern Barossa Ranges fire, keeping the lines open all night.

The CFS volunteers are heroes.  They were fast into the Barossa Ranges, dousing big River Red Gums with retardant even before the blaze reached them. As the fire chewed up the country at speeds of up to fifty kilometres an hour, these fireys saved countless homes and humans.

And many big trees and vineyards.

As in the particularly tricky - too wet; too mouldy - 2011 vintage, there will be good wines made from 2014, although much of the crop is already toasted.  These finer wines will invariably come from the better winemakers and growers.  The sorts I generally recommend in these epistles will have the best chance.

So.  That's my first go at summarising the 2014 year.  Who knows what Mother Nature, who's obviously very pissed off at us, holds in store as the remnants of the year's wine grape crop struggles through to harvest.  There's a long way to go.

In the meantime, it'll be interesting to see whether Casella's love of guns helps it regain its grasp of the USA Critter Label market.  Armaments are very popular in that big free country.  If Casella became famous as a sort of vinous Shooter's Party, perhaps its USA sales could outweigh any loss of domestic sales.

They could even run competitions there, where the winners get a free ride to shoot critters in the National Park at Griffith, using trusty local ammo.
It's all a matter of communication.

Currency Creek 2013 ... photo Philip White

14 January 2014


River Heaven gets Hellishly dry
Tumbleweed back on the menu
We coulda thought this through

It's Ground Hog Day.  Every summer now, the minute the radios cease keeping us awake playing Silent Night the winegrape growers of the Murray Mallee begin a great howl of grief about their rattly future.

They rarely look at their past.  Let's face it. 250,000 Australian servicemen and women returned from World War I to find that most of the jobs filled by men before the war were now taken by women, who cost half as much. Add to that the shellshock, the jitters, the illnesses and the onset of the Great Depression, and you have a twisty challenge for politicians addicted to the opiate of power through re-election.

After WWI, we had only four million people, total.  A quarter of a million votes was a goldmine for the cunning powermonger.

What they did was inspired, but tragically ill-researched.  To fill up the great empty spaces in the hinterland with easily-managed electorates, they sold troops cheap blocks and encouraged them to plant crops. By 1915, South Australia alone had allocated 11,247 square kilometres of country for 3,240 settlement farms.

Berri, Waikerie, Cadell, Renmark, Cobdogla, Chaffey ... all these arid locations were sliced up and allocated to blokes who were encouraged to use water out of the Murray to grow grapes, fruit, vegetables and cattle for milk or meat.

This was a lot cheaper and easier than offering the buggered troops proper psychological support as part of a thorough debriefing/rehabilitation regime.  It was also cheaper, easier and quicker than conducting a little science to work out what the Mallee can honestly grow for real profits, ongoing.

After World War II, another 350,000 soldiers were discharged, and the pattern was repeated, adding Loxton to what we delightfully call the Riverland, as if it were the French Riviera.

Mallee grape-growing was always an up-and-down business.  Initially, this was largely for dried table fruit.  Kids ate Sultanas at school, just as we drank free milk.  When we couldn't possibly eat any more "Tanas", this fruit went to fortified wine or brandy.   

Politicians taxed the huge brandy business into oblivion in the 'seventies, so the white grapes that had gone into the stills suddenly became white wine, although the technology for sound and stable white had barely evolved.

All this happened without any real research into varieties which made premium wine in arid land.  Thanks to the ebullience of the Chardonnay evangelist, Len Evans, Chardonnay and Semillon replaced much of the Sultana by the mid-eighties.  To be honest, much of the bulk Chardonnay and Semillon  was pretty much indiscernible from the Sultana wine anyway.   

But then the Chardonnay grape had come from Champagne and Burgundy, where there is much higher background humidity than the Australian Mallee, and it also, er, snows.

Semillon came from Bordeaux, whose climate very roughly resembles Tasmania or the bottom corner of Western Australia.  Like, it'll, er, snow.  Apart from over-rated, blinged-out, hard-to-find Semillons from Evans' beloved Hunter Valley, which is sub-tropical, Semillon is second only to Chardonnay in tonnes produced up the Mallee (which is arid).  But we're just as likely to see Semillon as the word Sultana on the bladder packs which contain it. Like not.

For the ideal desert-friendly red grape, the CSIRO at Mildura crossed Sultana with Touriga Nacional, the noble Oporto grape, to make Tarrango, which few took seriously, other than the late Stephen Hickinbotham, who used it to make his slurpy Cab Mac in the early 'eighties.

Generations of politicians have enjoyed playing with Murray Valley voters by pleasing them with gentler taxation of very cheap wines, and manipulating their rights to water, regardless of how much water there actually was.  At the same time, they play with the votes of drinkers all over the rest of Australia by keeping the price of bladder packs artificially low.  The Wine Equalisation Tax ensures that higher-quality, more expensive wines are priced artificially high.

Bladder packs comprise nearly half the wine made in Australia; most of them come from the Mallee.

Their contents are on a par with the thousands of huge bladder packs now standard for export: one bag per shipping container, pumped full and bloody shipped, mate. Bottled in bloody Blighty, mate.  Ew.

Now the annual sackcloth and ashes wailing has begun.  2014 will be the fifth vintage in a row where most of them won't make a profit, in spite of all this nonsense about tax and water and the billions spent on gabfests up and down the Big Rivers.  Not to mention the actual subsidising of some electorates, with taxpayer-funded pipes and channels. The mantra seems to be "if you can't give 'em more water, make it easier for 'em to get." 

In the meantime, the big wine refineries have advised Riverland growers that their 2014 crop will bring even lower prices than last year, when they were already way below the cost of production. 

Last week, ABC Rural reporter Sallese Gibson suggested "farm gate income in the Riverland could plunge $27 million this year."

Grower Jack Papageorgiou told Gibson "If indications out there what they are showing, nobody's going to survive. It's going to be pretty tough ... not just for the grape growers, it's going to be getting tough for our small business and the Riverland economy ... what we need to be sitting down with winemakers and say 'OK, enough is enough; we need clear direction.' Where do we sit as grape growers for their future requirements?"

Given the history, and the politics, the answer's simple.

If you want to see the future of your relationship, look at its past.

The refineries' future requirement, given the quality of the fruit in this enormous ill-founded adventure, will be ever-increasing amounts of grapes whose price does a magic plunge, consistently, every year. 

And regardless of the Abbott regime's confounding attitudes, cutting irrigators' costs by providing cheaper water is a tricky business when there's not enough water in the River.

Especially when we return to the normal drought.

The executive director of Wine Grape Growers Australia, Lawrie Stanford, told the ABC the problem is simple: Australia is still producing too much wine.

It's breath-taking.  Endless haphazard attempts to keep the region alive by soft wine taxes, irrigation system subsidies and impossibly cheap water never rate a mention.  And there's a cruel multiplier in the health and violence issues and incredible hidden costs in the abuse of this artificially cheap wine.

What Stanford most noticeably failed to say was that despite all these taxpayer-funded prop-ups, arid Australia produces too much low quality fruit in a world increasingly interested in better, finer, wine.

Wine which requires less irrigation per unit; wine which returns more dollars and jobs per unit to the communities which grow it. Wine which, in spite of the scandalous tax system, is already more profitable.

So what'll happen?  When the refineries discover the true tonnage of the 2014 crop - and it's going to be down sixteen per cent in McLaren Vale, for example, or down one whole third - they may find a few extra cents per tonne for the odd exceptional Mallee grower, especially if they have a new variety ending in O. We may even see a percentage of bladder pack fruit going instead into bottles, where it'll masquerade as better wine.

But if Mr Abbott has a sudden burst of consistency and applies his car industry attitude to irrigated viticulture in the desert, and lets the market rule, then I guarantee that within a few years our cheapest wine will be coming from China, which has announced it will double its grape harvest in five years.

China is already far and away the world's biggest grape-grower, to which most Riverlanders will respond "but they're table grapes!"  China, however, is very determinedly pursuing a dead-serious premium wine industry, and there's plenty of snow and water on the Tibetan Plateau to outgrow anything Australia can manage.

Besides, we know from history that table grapes make the sort of wine that many Australians love to guzzle from the cosy old silver pillow. As long as they're cheap.