“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)





27 February 2014


Penfolds Bin 51 Eden Valley Riesling 2013
$30; 11% alcohol; screw cap; 92++ points 

When that late rogue Leonard P. Evans OBE for some reason decided that everyone in Australia should grow Chardonnay, he said it would become "the vanilla essence of Australia". As a dude with something of a vanillinoid obsession, I was disappointed that hardly any of the Chardonnay we grew displayed any hint of vanilla; it was more like really bad Riesling. Now, all those wasteful years later, here's a lovely Eden Valley Riesling that has more shades of, well, not essence, but real vanilla bean. Much more than most of that horrible Chardonnay ever afforded.  It's predominantly limy, of course, like good Eden Rizza, with the usual hints of citrus rind, candied orange, pith and blossom, and smells too of the grainy sky of those old ranges in the summer, but it also has a reassuring smooth creep that says vanilla to me. Like the really fatty vanillinoids you'll find in Jackfruit. And that's all aroma. Drink it, and you're straight back up the citrus tree. Lemon, lime, citron - even bergamot - the whole damn family's there amongst the shiny leaves.  The flavours taper off into that pristine mountain brook freshness found only in the most elegant and fine of Rieslings. The poise and balance are perfect. Bring it with whiting or gar flashed through the pan with butter and lemon juice, white bread and Paris Creek butter, and I'm anybody's. Five days later: The last glass sees most of those fleshy primary characters expired, as you'd expect, leaving the appropriate entwinement of those dusty/pithy rind-like phenolics, or tannins, with a stiff trainline of steely acidity. This authoritative chassis will see the wine last and develop over many years beneath that beautifully reliable screw cap. In retrospect, I'd add one point and another plus.

Penfolds Bin 311 Tumbarumba Chardonnay 2013 
$40; 13% alcohol; screw cap; 88+ points

Candied pear. Fresh Nashi pear. Muskmelon. Lemon junket. Face cream. Pale charcuterie meats. Fresh-sliced Buderim ginger root. Dust. All very neat and tidy; crisply pristine; fresh-faced; freckly; giggling. Palate too, although in the mouth the wine has a little more flesh than even those fatty aromas hinted. It reminds me here of a particularly good clean Chenin blanc without botrytis: it's slightly waxy of texture and all pale melon and pear of flavour, and very fine. Such a delicacy could have presented the winemakers with a tricky show to balance without toppling, but they've done it: the tannins are barely there; the acid perfectly unobtrusive. This'd be the one to wean those Cloudy Bay addicts at the streetside tables of Double Bay with the Maltese terriers licking their painted toes through the strappy Blahniks. Many of them are making a wedge movement towards cheap Chablis. This'd be better, but it's a lot more spendy. Five days later: This is a wine for medium-term cellaring; It'll last longer, but I'd probably prefer it in three or four years. Maybe 90+ points, having thought long and hard.

Penfolds Reserve Bin A Adelaide Hills Chardonnay 2012 
$100; 12.5% alcohol; screw cap; 93+++ points

When first opened, this wine seemed surly and flat. After the immediate entertainments offered by previous editions, it was disappointing. Especially when tasted alongside, say, the brilliant Moss WoodMargaret River 2012 (95+; $70). I thought maybe it had the post-bottling sulks, but they usually recede after three months or six with whites, and this was bottled on the first of March last year. By the end of day two there were signs of life: at least the snoring ceased and the damn thing began making those snuffling noises you'll get from a Labrador puppy. Now, four days on, the bottle has almost expired, and it's doing the Robert de Niro "so whatter you lookin' at?" trick. The fruit - mainly ripe white peach - is still somewhat surly, but it's gradually been crowned by a halo of carbide, cordite and split slate or mudstone. This all stacks up to a wine that will astonish those who can afford to stack $100 bills in a cellar for six or ten years, hoping that when they get 'em out and count 'em, there'll be a lot more of 'em in there. Hardcore Penfolds redsters know this feeling well. As for the percentage of astonishment? I'd say 5% - 15%, compound, in organolepticoins.

Penfolds Yattarna Chardonnay 2011 
$150; 13% alcohol; screw cap; 95+++ points 

Probably the most vast, impenetrable white wine I can recall, this monster is as close as Penfolds has yet got to the true spirit of a "white Grange".  At once more promising than the recalcitrant Bin A, this brute seems to just sit there on the ground, more Great Pyramid than Sphinx. It has no face to fall off. It even smells like the bloody pyramids. I've been letting it play two games with me. The first is pouring it cold, and letting its movie unfold as it warms. Those edgy, acrid reeks of cordite and other very dangerous explosives grow with great deliberation, awakening the old powder monkey in me. The second is repeating this day after day, as the bottle wanes and the wine gradually admits oxygen through the cracks between its mighty bricks. Fruit? Chardonnay. Forget all those melons and vanillinoids and peaches and whatnot. They're all here in great force, but only to be united in a Chardonnay as intense and majestic as Chardonnay gets, anywhere. I'd like to offer more precision in my prophecy about this wine's ascension to glory, but it is simply too thick and concentrated and closed yet for more accurate analysis. If I were Peter Gago I'd be expecting some shareholder-obsessed Grace Longhurst writing from head office to accuse me of “accumulating large stocks of wine which to all intents and purposes were unsaleable,” ordering me to cease production forthwith. Bugger them. When this wine finally enters into Heaven, to sit on the right hand of God, it'll be the first time a Chardonnay's done that without the Almighty grunting "Get off my goddam hand." Five days later: the worst thing that's happened is the wine's beginning to look a bit more along the lines of what everybody seems to imagine Chardonnay should be like.  If my plus signs, which indicate cellaring potential, extended so far, I'd add another on this the last glass in the bottle. Stunning. 

PS: I wrote this following poem about air, not wine, in the heat of an horrid summer. But it seems to perfectly fit the nature of the Yattarna:


The nature of sky

Now that I see the air is made of blocks
Drystone style – no mortar
Not being putty
I get trouble with the tiny gaps

It’s better on the days the masons chamfer the corners
Something about that neat angle where the bricks kiss

But you’ll always get shit like this bastard
Just straight basalt blocks cut so square
You’d think the cracks were drawn on

 Philip White

Penfolds Cellar Reserve Adelaide Hills Pinot Noir 2013
$40; 14% alcohol; cork (!); 91+ points

The notion of Penfolds fitting a Pinot noir into its house style has always amused me, especially given Australia's belief that good Pinot is all cherries and strawberries. But the confounding intensity of wines like La Tâche or Domaine de l'Arlot (in the days of Jean-Pierre de Smet) shows "great" Burgundy can also be great in size and force, and not much like strawberries at all. This gives Peter Gago and his team a window through which they can build Pinots with the sort of unflinching intensity, tannin and depth that shows through most of the Penfolds Shiraz wines. This one has aromas of black tea tin and dark nightshade greens as much as, well, black cherry juice so profound you expect bitter flavours, or kirsch. The wine is quite unctuous in the mouth: it's big and viscous, and reminds me of the moonshine fortified cherry wine we'd buy in flagons from a senior artist called, I think, Peter Carey, in Corkscrew Gully in the early' seventies. After that hearty flood of feeling the wine tapers quickly to a long lemony acid tail with very fine tannins. So it's more of a squish than a Tâche this year, but a hearty, sensual wine nevertheless. It's certainly more Penfolds in style than, say, the elegant, angular Pinots of Yarra and Mornington, and a maybe little cheaper than the best of them. I want it next year with runny goat cheese and walnut biscuits. Four days later: Longer, smoother, syrupy, losing the primaries now, as you'd expect. Give it five years.

Penfolds Bin 138 Barossa Shiraz Grenache Mataro 2012 
$40; 14.5% alcohol; screw cap; 88+++ points

A logical step on from the Pinot, this wine shares some of its fleshy black cherry with that wine, but here the cherries are Grenache-derived, and they're sandwiched between the blackberry vines of the Shiraz and the black Iberian ham and leather of the Mataro. There's some tea-tin, too; even the tinge of the smithy's forge. Overall, the smell's a rich plum, cherry and blackberry stew on the woodfire stove, with all its fire and iron. Texturally, it's much more slender and snaky than the Pinot; flavour-wise, it's much less primary fruit and more of that fire and iron. And the leaf of the blackberry as much as its fruit. It's an elegant wine which could use four or five years of dungeon to give those fruits a chance to get up and get mellifluous. Now, I'd have it with stewy roo or venison with black olives, juniper berries and bay leaves; mash and baby beetroot on the side. Four days later: All smoothly assimilated now, dominated by Marello cherries. Still a lovely thing. An extra point or two. 

Penfolds Bin 2 South Australia Shiraz Mourvèdre 2012
$30; 14.5% alcohol; screw cap; 89+ points

Hearty and meaty and rustic and old-fashioned, the style of this one reminds me of the old Shiraz Ouillade reds Max Schubert made in the 'sixties, the Ouillade being Cinsault. For what I imagine to be a similarly arcane reason, the marketing thinktank of today suddenly calls what we've always known as Mataro Mourvèdre, perhaps to get us feeling more French. This is a bright prune-and-blackberry thing in the fruit sector, silky and slick feels gradually falling below the dust and velvet of the tannins. But if we must think of the south of France, like the Roussillon area, wines like this are two-a-penny, thanks partly to a couple of generations of young Australian winemaking graduates who went there in search of work and taught them how to make cleaner drinks without bothering to learn much from them until much later in the piece. So there you go. A good easy drink, but expensive. Four days later: Everything's gone, except the wine. The bottle's still half full. I'd remove two or three points and that plus. Drink on purchase if you can find it deservedly discounted

Penfolds Bin 28 Kalimna South Australia Shiraz 2011
 $40; 14.5% alcohol; screw cap; 89++ points

Kalimna was an old Barossa vineyard when Penfolds bought it in 1945. Its new release Shiraz, the Bin 170 2010, will enter the market on May 1st at $1800 per bottle.  The 'South Australia' bit of the name on this Bin 28 indicates the fruit is from anywhere in that whole rambling state, but not necessarily Kalimna.  Like, if you could get $1800 a bottle for Kalimna fruit, why on earth would you be selling it like this at $40? Duh. If those prices are any indicator, there's at least 142 Bins of difference, and some of them appear to be water. In wasting the value of the grand Kalimna name so, Penfolds seems intent on sending it down the same treacherous discount trail as Koonunga Hill, which was a beautiful reliable red from a beautiful reliable vineyard until they wasted that name on what has become just another huge generic blend destined for the discount bins. Koonunga, incidentally, means mound of excrement, making the hill redundant, so it's probably just as well. Anyway, this wine is fruitsweet and juicy, with fine dry tannins and a bonnie, open countenance. It has a hint of that staunch stance that marks Penfolds, but on the other hand it could be mistaken for a whole lot of components that were just a touch too tannic for inclusion in a middle-range Wolf Blass. Confused? So am I. But there's nothing confusing about actually drinking this wine.  It's not too bad at all. Roast lamb. Spinach. Parsnips. Four days later: Ew. Very telling degradation. Make it 80, at about half that price.

Penfolds Bin 128 Coonawarra Shiraz 2012 
$40; 14.5% alcohol; screw cap; 78 points

Who the hell thought up these prices? Here's a Shiraz cordial sort of a drink.  This is not what David Wynn had in mind when he bought Coonawarra in 1951: he could have made wine like this from many highly-watered parts of Victoria, where he and his Dad Sam traditionally bought fruit much more cheaply than Coonawarra could offer, even if they had to then blend in some grapes from their huge bushvine vineyards at Modbury, and maybe a bucket or two of Wendouree currants, which they bought by the drayload. It's a minty, spicy, cheeky little cordial, mind you, inoffensive and simple, but showing just about the same amount of side tit necessary to get your mechanic to refill the thing that makes your windscreen wipers squirt that stuff on, you know, like, the windscreen. Four days later: Sour and astringent, as I'd expect after my initial notes. It looked a bit better at day two -  maybe I was hard on it, or drunk, or thinking of side boob, but nah, I doubt it. $40 is nonsense. This is an $18 wine. 

Penfolds Bin 150 Marananga Barossa Shiraz 2011
$80; 14.5% alcohol; screw cap; 92++ points 

Once one's digested the reality of Kalimna Shiraz coming from anywhere in South Australia, and not really Kalimna at all, Marananga sounds, well, what. If one then has sufficient remnant curiosity to read this back label, which says this wine is "... named after the stack location where the barrels of wine were matured in Penfolds Barossa Valley Winery's barrel hall," you probably couldn't be bothered going on to read the next bit which claims the wine comes from the Marananga district, which is where geniuses like David Powell and Michael Twelftree moved their tankfarm refineries after Michael and Annabelle Waugh, using real wooden barrels without a tankfarm, began winning perfect scores from Robert Parker Jr., who has a lot to answer for, via the crafty manoevreings of of the open-minded USA Jewish bacon merchant Dan Phillips, who eventually went broke, leaving many small Australians even shorter. Anyway, as one who really appreciates the very old geology of that little bit of the Barossa, I am convinced that this wine really does come from there, because it's pure Georgadis in style, that being the name of the major grower. It has the chocolate-fruit-and-nuts panforte characters of the best neighbouring vineyards, and its mood is glowering and tannic like the bats that swoop in the darkest bit of the ghost train. Maybe it's just the tiniest bit salty, like some of the local creekline vineyards. It's certainly a lot more true to Maranaga than that stack location. Juicy, dribbling, pink roast beef is the go. Now I'm dribbling. Five days later: This peaked about two days back. It's astringent and marshy now, and I still feel suss about salt. Probly wrong, but that's my feeling. Fairly pointed first time, but it looks very expensive now. Trading on the sub-region's fame?

Penfolds Bin 407 South Australia Cabernet Sauvignon 2011
$80; 14% alcohol; screw cap; 90++ points

Musk, moss, tussocks, lots of very deep green things, white mushrooms, the earth they grew in ... prunes, juniper, soft dried apple, fudge ... coffee, black tea leaves ... slightly gingery oak ... here's a sombre, brooding Cabernet after the Medoc style. All those things are very well locked in and assimilated - I have to try hard to sort them out. But it has that red summer dust, too, making it very Australian. Conserve, but not jam. Complex, not cheeky. It's a self-satisfied sort of aroma; it doesn't quite let you in. It certainly doesn't tell any jokes. It has a set of feelings and flavours that follow that course to the T, gradually letting its clean lemony acid take control, easing you out slowly. The tannins are very fine; the wine only hints at astringency. It's just nicely furry in the finish. It really does need a few years for its fruit-juicy bits to emerge. Juicy lamb cutlets. Five days later: Fading, but it hung in there very well. Still looks like a modest Medoc. Straight Cabernets of this quality are rare in South Australia, Fair points, if a tad spendy.

Penfolds Bin 169 Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 
$350; 14.5% alcohol; screw cap; 96+ points 

For horrid personal reasons (like grief) my notes on this beauty failed to make it onto my list of reviews upon its release last year, so it's a fine thing to look at it again after a twelvemonth I wish I could forget. Obviously, the wine has enjoyed its year better than I did mine. It is growing the most ravishing of perfumes. Juniper, aniseed, bergamot, violets - this is why Cabernet confounds the noses of the greatest parfumiers - all these aromas and many more, most unlikely, bounce about without yet showing much sign of sitting there together in the back until the front ones learn to drive. That aside, the whole business is just so completely disarmingly stunning and humorous it never fails to make me smile. This is the dream of the aroma that David Wynn imagined when he began the rejuvenation of the decrepit Coonawarra sixty years ago. He'd love this were he still with us. It has the elegance that only Cabernet can sport, but very, very rarely does, even in Coonawarra. Put most simply, it is a heavenly liquor: the stuff that makes wine permanent, even if an essence of this purity is so rarely attained. If I had a dozen, I'd put it in the twenty year bin, only to discover in 2034 that I'd gutsed them all without regret. If you are ever faced with the notion of having one last drink, this would be the perfect candidate. Try and keep the bottle going for three or four days, then you'll be more accepting of following it down. Five days later: Enough said. Ravishing.

Penfolds Bin 389 South Australia Cabernet Shiraz 2011
$80; 14% alcohol; screw cap; 93++ points 

Smooth and mellow, harmonious and gently alluring from the first sniff, this seems to me to be the best 389 for years. It has hints of red and black fruits and various things critics normally hunt for in the snifter - it oozes old harness, dates and dried figs, for example - but overall it triggers a wistful mindful of good solid things from a past many of us can barely recall, if indeed we were lucky enough to smell such stuff in the first place.  You'd never recall any of these aromas if you grew up in a block of flats, for example. Or at the beach. It's a wine of mood rather than bright facets, all assimilated and harmonised in the textbook Penfolds style of yore. It's almost melancholic. Forget the "Baby Grange" nonsense some marketing twerp thought up Bacchus only knows how many vintages ago - it's nothing like Grange. But it IS pure Penfolds. The flavours are right up the same old barn: hessian dries; bags of plums and old apples in the stable. Then there's just the cutest, most appropriate rise of fresh dark fruits about half way through, after which those perfect old tannins and pithy, lemony acids seep in, stirring the drinker to reach out through the dream for another pour. It's a wine I could just sit and drink for its perfect ponderance. Have a couple right up with people you can talk to, but really really try to stack some away. This'll undress you in ten years. Five days later: Peaked on day three. Still a lovely nostalgic reverie in this glass ... I'm drinking it with Beethoven's Last Quartets. It's still a perfectly presentable luxury of a drink, worth the money, but only if you cellar it awhile. I'd give it another plus, maybe another point.

Penfolds St Henri Shiraz 2010 
$95; 14.5% alcohol; screw cap; 93+++ points 

St Henri being a personal perve item - Edmund Mazure honed its original recipe in the 1880s in an old winery I played in as a kid in Kanmantoo - I always come over a tad runny in the middle when the moment comes to unlock each new release. In this its awkward youth, this one seems more Penfolds than Henri just now. But play with it, let it loll about a big glass, give it the hour of day, and you'll begin to see the difference: this will be a wine of perfect smooth seduction when its dusty tannins have done their preserving job and fall to the bottom. In a way it's more like the big brother of the 389 than a sibling of the grander Shiraz wines coming up next. It's a wistful and nostalgic thing. If there's anything that's off the recipe, it's that wee strand of seaside dunal flavour that comes from the inclusion of Limestone Coast fruit, making me think of salt. But I'm sure Bacchus, Pan and the passage of time sort that out. Well, I hope so. Six magnums under the bed for my eightieth, please. If it's salty I'll hurl the empties at you. Five days later: Apart from the slump of cheeky primaries, which you'd expect, there's not much change.

Penfolds RWT Barossa Valley Shiraz 2011 
$175; 14.5% alcohol; screw cap; 95+++ points

Holy Hell. My mouth is having a funny turn. This is ravishing. It's the tight, ungiving French warship forest oak, rather than the sappier American wood we see in most of these super-premium luxuries. It gives this most Australian Shiraz a more satisfactory edge. It's the wood Max would have loved getting for his first Granges, but the war had blown the forests to smithereens and the Penfolds mob simply couldn't afford to buy the ridiculously expensive leftovers. It's so united and locked in it seems smugly determined to get on with its very long life - it doesn't even realise I'm drinking it. It won't be vaguely ready to drink for a decade. I'm sure I'd write a lot more if I sat here and drank the whole bottle, but I'm gonna revisit this one for days. I'm riveted. Five days later: The penultimate glass: it's still raw, fresh and completely disinterested in the fact that I'm tipping it into my black gizzards.  It acts as if my kidney filters will be no challenge at all. Call it Gallic arrogance if you will, but there's also a bloody big lump of Ocker disrespect for authority at the fore. We'll show 'em. I'd love to sit down and drink a sixpack of these with the late great Gerard Jaboulet - he would have loved it, and marvelled, and smoked away and nodded and giggled. He had to postpone an appointment once so sent Mon and me to a restaurant in Hermitage where we ate a flat plate of lentils and thin slices of carrot in a pork stock with truffles. That was it. The simple perfection of the south. There was a decanted '78 La Chappelle there waiting. I'd give anything to try that lunch again, but with him and Max Schubert and a bottle of this, especially when it's thirty years old. We'd need a dozen, as the day wound by. I'll bet Max woulda forgotten his emphysema and had a Gauloise. Heaven's above!

Penfolds Magill Estate Shiraz 2011 
$130; 13.5% alcohol; cork(!); 95++ points 

Mmmm. Look at those alcohols. Only thirteen and half of 'em. Brings to mind Max's 1951 recipe for his newly envisioned Grange, in which he determined the fruit would be picked between 11.5 and 12 Baumé. And it would comprise half fruit from this vineyard, and half from the 650 million-year-old Umberatana group siltstones and limestones of Morphett Vale, around the church where my Dad preached the hot gospel on the odd Sunday night. He wouldna preached in a Baptist church if it wasna for the cash, and he panicked about us kids going out to play in the Devil's grape vines after the lost souls hit the sawdust trail, if indeed any bothered to. That's all impossible-to-recover geology now, that ground there. It's buried beneath execrable suburbia. There's only one bit of this prime geology left, at Seaford Heights, at the entry to the McLaren Vale vignoble, and that's being "developed" as I write. Forget the election: on  this priceless, irreplaceable piece of farming land, both parties support the vandalism: there's only callow decrepitude on both sides. Fuck them. This is a supple, lithe, brilliant wine. It has perfect balance and demeanour, even in this its youth. I can see my fingers through it as I hold the glass. It is not black. It is full of life and promise. To some it would seem a little raw. It is. But this old blistered palate can assure you that this will be a wine many plagued with regret will only hear and read about in the decades to come, because those of stronger faith sold their car and bought it all. Prepare to beg at their tent flaps. Three days later: Still growing, if a little more assimilated and velvety. The most Australian Shiraz. It makes me weep over the Grange/Magill vineyards John Spalvins and John Justin Roche between them pulled out for subdivision in the early '80s, with the approval of the Labor government of the day. That broke Max Schubert's heart, and to a great degree, his will. Roche went off to West Australia and spent the money planting a vineyard in the Frankland region, way down south. Within a few years, that was the first vineyard I saw in Australia that was rotten with salt. But this wine? It's brilliant. Give it another plus, and drink a bitter toast to idiocy and greed.

Penfolds Bin 95 Grange 2009 
$785; 14.5% alcohol; cork (!), 93+++ points

Smashed schist and fudge are words you won't find in any of PR guff for this wine. Smells that are worlds apart. But they're what I get upon my liberation of this poor imprisoned thing. Massage it back to life with jug swirls and double decants and the gap between these extremes begins to fill with little oozes from one side or the other. Carbon comes from the stony side; banana esters and fresh tar from the other. The tar gradually remembers its roots in vegetation, and it lets wimpers of prune and juniper and Deadly Nightshade berries loose. It is a black velvet wine after two hours. It has no shimmer. After four hours there's a hint of prune. Promising. At least prunes have shiny skins. At this stage the flavours are showing signs of edema: it is a raw, brutal, gradually swelling thing. It was not built for this vulgar molestation. It was triggered, after all, in the year of obscene heat which in retrospect seems a rehearsal for 2014. But rather than tip this first glass back into the bottle where it belongs, I have savoured it right up to the moment of the Penfolds press embargo lifting. So I publish. Points? How do you measure this baby's life before its umbilical is severed? I've taken the advice of the anaesthetist and put up 93 with the imagining of more plus signs than my rigorous protocols permit. Don't take any notice. That may go up and down over the next days. I shall post adjustments here as I work on a glass a day til it's empty. Watch this space. Three days later: The wine is beginning to harmonise and perhaps even glow as it sucks in the oxygen. It still lacks any shiny reflections: its flavours are all matte black, like a well-dressed woodfire stove. For lack of understanding - I don't lack faith - I'll hand it another point, perhaps expecting to give it more in a day or two if I can avoid drinking it all in a wild lustful surge. It is only now revealing touches of delightful primary fruit. Blueberries and blackcurrants, prune and mainly marello cherries in kirsch, dusted with confectioner's sugar. It also has that wicked traditional twist of young balsamic, which in such modest degree simply serves to make me more huuuunnngreee. 25-30 year wine, no worries. Especially if it had a screw cap. Right now, a jug of it with spooned Stilton and Patum Puperium Gentleman's Relish on thin rye toasts would set me swooning. Even in horrid vintages like this, Peter Gago and his stern determined team are making the best Granges, although of course I couldn't taste Max's models fresh upon release until I hit the red in the early 'seventies. My bad.

The tip-outs jug contains one damn fine drink. I wish my beloved Lord Twining was alive to share it, but it seems they found him dead five weeks back where he often slept in the park near that disgusting National Wine Centre. Twining loved his Grange as much as he loved his Krug. For information about the book Milton and Wordley and I just made, A year in the life of Grange, click here. Or here. This book was published independently of Penfolds, who had no editorial control whatever. It has earned acclaim that humbles me.


26 February 2014


Moss Wood Ribbon Vale Vineyard Margaret River Sauvignon Blanc Semillon 2013
 $34; 14% alcohol; screw cap; 90 points 

Now we're talkin'. This wine bears no resemblance at all to Hunter Valley Semillon or Niewzillun Savvy-b. The dark tomato leaf methoxypyrazine nightshade whiffs of the Sauvignon is so mellow here that it seems simply to add the gentlest acrid hint to the buttery loquat of the Semillon. The wine has a viscous but grainy quince/pear texture. It also brings Sapodilla and Cherimoya fruits to mind. The tannins are like the furry skins of those fruits. Firm but unobtrusive acid helps draw the whole hit out into a lengthy, drily delicious business. The overall feeling reflects the warmer conditions of 2013: all those alcohols stack up to a number that would normally deter me with a blend like this. But the wine's such a cosy puppyfat squish I'll forgive it. It sometimes seems more like a new white variety rather than a blend of two that are so familiar. It sure is a blonde, whichever eyeline you take. Lamb korma with spinach would set it curling a rather provocative, sensual dance: the yoghurt would complement that Breathless Mahoney alcohol. (Breathless, for those who came in late, was the steaming blonde in Dick Tracy, famous for interchanges like this: Mahoney: 'I'm wearing black underwear.' Tracy: 'You know, it's legal for me to take you down to the station and sweat it out of you under the lights.' Mahoney: 'I sweat a lot better in the dark.')

Moss Wood Vineyard Margaret River Semillon 2013
 $38; 13.5% alcohol; screw cap; 94+++ points

Who needs Sauvignon blanc when you can get Semillons like this? More Martina Navratilova on the beach than Breathless Mahoney in the copshop (just check those forearms), this marvellous thing has more of your actual sport than bordello. Its breath is slightly salty, like dimethyl sulphide, the smell of healthy ocean, with sandy dunal grasses and greens rather than lovers' leap cliffs.  It's still very husky in the voice department, and if you must have fruits it has similar whiffs of Sapodilla and Cherimoya. The flavour's much more stringently muscle and sinew - with none of the chub of the Ribbon Vale blend - and its hemp and sand tannins take me straight to Maggie R's Boranup break. It does have some clean, lithe, slightly buttery flesh under all that angular muscle, but compared to the blend, it's a very different set of seductions. It's an extremely fit wine. I could think of nothing more appropriate than applying it to crays and some oily scallops on that Boranup beach. Stunning. Forget the bloody Hunter and all those simple Semis the wine show mob lazily bedeck with bling. This is the best Semillon in years.

Moss Wood Vineyard Margaret River Chardonnay 2012
 $70; 13.5% alcohol; screw cap; 95+ points 

Oh Jeez. Spice first. A tiny pinch of fresh mace, the skin of the nutmeg. And some actual nutmeg. Old white pepper tin. Fruit? Lightly poached Passe-crassane pear and the peel of the canteloupe. Flesh? Sloppy aged goat cheese. Wood? Like freshly-sliced Buderim ginger root. There are many very famous Chardonnay-growers in Burgundy who would like to lick their sticker around this bottle. And I haven't even tipped any of it into me yet. So let's try that. Ewww. Almost sickly in its fatty acid content. Human mother's milk, without the salt. I'd love to see its isovaleric acid count. It's seriously sensual swoon city. To drink, it's all those things distilled into a heavenly smooth unction with green melon. Perfectly drawing acidity that sucks the blood to the surface of the inside of your lips. It feels like you've been kissing all night. It is its own food. Cheap for its sublime quality. Have it near a bed.    

25 February 2014


Yangarra High Sands unirrigated bush vine (1946 planting) Grenache slowly approaching ideal picking condition. I took this photograph this evening. Below: the scene in a similar summer in 2009. Admittedly the photo below was taken in the extreme heat of the day, the above at sunset, but you can see through my photographic sophistry. The biggest difference? Biodynamic viticulture. Turn the herbicides off. Let the grass grow, so the earth stays alive, the vines grow more resilient without the prophylactic influence of the drugs, and the sand is not so destructively reflective in obscene heat ... photos by Philip White 

Vintage '14 in South Australia
Ridiculous: best word for it
But smartest guys got it licked

"You’d think nothing could survive out there on some of those days."

I woke in a seven Richter hangover a few minutes ago, sweating. In the moments it took to realise it was the weather outside, and not entirely an internal problem, a wave of reassurance broke.  It wasn't like 45°C, as we had in January. This was lovely mellow warmth: exactly what this ridiculous vintage needs. These last days have given us perfect gradual ripening weather, but the  lovely gentle rain of the preceding weeks needed this breezy warm spell to dry things off.

It's almost as if that opening line from Tim Freeland related to 2009, which now seems like a dress rehearsal for this year. Both times, South Australia blistered in record heat which built for days before crossing the border to Victoria, setting it ablaze.

This last January there was one horrid week when my brother's bushy suburb in the hills east of Perth burnt to the ground.  At the same time, another brother in Pinnaroo, 3000 kilometres east of Perth, had scrub fires at three points of the compass, fortunately a respectable horizon away, but very discomfiting nevertheless.  My sister at Kanmantoo, where the hills hit the Mallee, looked out her front door at the smoke of the big Rockleigh fire, and another brother sweated it out preparing for the worst at his place on the southern shoulder of Mount Remarkable in the Flinders Ranges, watching Bangor and Wirrabarra explode around him.

Some homes survived, but many didn't in the bushfire that whipped through the Perth Hills ... photo by Stephen White, whose house luckily survived

There were more fires across the Onkaparinga Gorge from where I live. There was little point in expecting sympathy from my kin - in comparison, the deadly Onkaparinga Hills ignitions were piffling.

Freeland's comment came in after that fiery blitz of record heat, and the record sousing which finished it.  He'd read the pre-emptory abuse I'd got on the chat lines even before I'd written that such weird conditions were hardly ideal for grape growers and wine lovers, and sent me a marvelling e-mail, describing how his bush vine Adelaide Plains fruit had survived quite well.

Tim's a partner in wine crime with his old Gawler High School buddy, Dominic Torzi, in the Long Hop and Old Plains brands. Dom also makes the delightful Torzi Matthews wines - these three labels led me to call these joint efforts the best value stuff released in Australia last year.

At the risk of further dissing 2014, let's recap with some facts. We had two stupendous heatwaves. Adelaide was officially branded the hottest city in the world on January 16th. We had five days in a row above 42°C.  From January 13th to the 17th daily temperatures were 12°C or more above the normal average. It hit 45.1°C on the 14th.

Vines close down above 32-34°C.  You can water them, but they don't seem able to do much with that irrigation: they're in a kind of hibernation, just sweating it out while their sugars soar towards the sort of gloopy jamminess which is increasingly unpopular in both winery and marketplace.

That vicious heat seemed the end of nearly everything to many growers, from Port Lincoln to Griffith.  Friends twenty kays south of here on the Sellicks piedmont reported watching the wind blow famished bunches clean off the vines.

The first tricky bit of the 2014 crop came away back before Christmas, when the vines flowered and the tiny bunches began to form.  In some parts of McLaren Vale, like other vignobles, the flowering took an agonising six weeks. Extreme winds and freaky weather irregularities led to uneven berry formation: the phenomenon we call hen-and-chicken.  You get bunches with big ripe sugary berries alongside mean little green buggers the size of lentils, and all points in between.  This makes sweet-and-sour wine which demands unusual winemaking sophistry, and rarely gives ideal flavour.
When that heat hit us the big berries went nuts with sugar, but because the vines had the dormant sulks, the green berries stayed put, presenting the winemakers with an even more sweet-and-sour extreme.

High Sands Grenache again, at least a week or two short of ideal. These bunches still have some green berries that may or may not catch up, but these bunches are much more even than in many conventional industrial vineyards ... photographed this evening by Philip White ... photo above right by James Hook of DJ'sGrowers

Everything changed when Huey suddenly chose to drown us in the wettest 24-hour period since 1969 - the fifth-wettest Adelaide day on record, when 75.2mm fell in the city and parts of the Ranges took 130mm and more.

While this sousing offered instant relief in the cooling division, as it continued, the vines switched back on and those fat ripe berries sucked it up til they split.  When this occurs, sugary juice begins to ooze, adding to the bird-peck damage that many  growers already had. This is food for all sorts of moulds, like the botrytis that wrought havoc in too many vineyards in 2011.  Even if the ground is firm enough to carry spraying machinery, and there's enough fungicide to go around, the growers then face the problem of leaving the sprayed fruit for fourteen days for the chemicals to neutralise before they go into the tank with the wine. Those over-ripe berries get even riper.

Botrytis taking hold on white grapes ... photo James Hook

"We started picking for Old Plains and Torzi Freeland International on Feb 9th," Tim told me in that aforementioned missive, "directly after the heat on a cool Sunday morning. We’ve bought in 22 tonnes of Old Plains old vine Shiraz, from four different vineyards at Penfield Gardens and Angle Vale.

"The old bastards gave us steady Baumés from 13 to 14," he said. "They held up really well in the heat, tough old buggers: thick skin. They trucked through ferment, plenty of dark colour, aromatic, spice. Basket pressed and barrelled down last Sunday. Just finishing off ferment in barrel ...

"Even the Lenswood Pinot Gris looks okay at this stage. There's no splitting, but the same grower has some split on other varieties that were more advanced."

So. By that stage we had panicky growers getting less than ideal grapes off before anything else went wrong. Less fortunate ones, with borderline quality at the best of times, were facing the dread reality that there'd be no buyers for their crop.

Machine-harvested botrytis-ridden Shiraz fruit in 2011 ... photo Philip White

But, as in 2011, the very lucky and the very smart sat it through. Those who'd managed their leaf canopies, ensuring there was good shade to stop the bunches stewing, but enough breeze space to dry out moulds and funguses, stood back in amazement.

The lovely pacifying cool of the last fortnight put these growers back on the profit map. The high sugars fell. Some folks were even beginning to worry that the grey cool was permanent, and those greener berries would never catch up.

Winemakers were facing the possibility of putting their casual vintage staff off for a week or two, as there was little for them to do until ripening finished.

So that warmth that set me sweating in hungover fear this morning is just perfect. Tickety-boo. Schmick.

If it had been like this since Christmas, we'd be looking at one of the best vintages ever. If it stays like this till the traditional ANZAC day rain, some may still lay to claim to something along those ideal lines.

Only time will tell.

And yes, that hangover? Blame it on Dudley Brown, the Inkwell winemaker who was the chairman of the McLaren Vale Grape Wine And Tourism Association in the 2009 heatwave. Last night, in a tremendous bucolic splurge, he married his sweetheart, the formidable vine scientist Irina Santiago.

Today, they're picking beautiful fruit with near-ideal vital statistics, if a little below the perfect tonnage.

"Whitey," he said, "we might just be looking at a really good year. Trouble is, everyone's so bloody punch-drunk after those waves of crap the weather sent us, that we're not quite capable of realising it."

Some leaf bugs and extreme heat stress evident, but there's still a lovely healthy crop on the old  High Sands vines this evening ... photo by Philip White ...  Disclaimer: believing all winewriters should live in a vineyard somewhere, the author quite deliberately rents a small flat on Yangarra Estate. So he can learn stuff. Never too old. It's exciting.