“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)





24 March 2014


Tomorrow did indeed come for these grand old glories, although it took many decades. None of these wines would have offered much pleasure (a) in their infancy, without a bloody good day or two's breathing, or at least double-decanting, or (b) without many many years in the appropriate cool steady cellar. So how should the critic report such wines in the awkwardness of their infancy? ... photo Philip White
 An argument about air and time
How much do readers deserve?
Should the critic even bother?

'Hey guys, tomorrow never comes,' was the headline in WBM - Australia's Wine Business Magazine.

'A trend with some wine reviewers is revisiting a bottle of wine the day after they first taste it,' wrote editor Anthony Madigan, left, 'or a few days later, noting any improvement or otherwise in the quality of the booze and adding it to the tasting note.  Don't know about you, but I think that's a cop-out. Ninety percent of consumers want to know what the wine tastes like when they open the bottle. Because, really, who apart from a few geeks in the wine industry would be interested in seeing how a wine evolves after it's been opened for a few days? Most punters just want to drink the bottle in one hit. So guys: open the bottle, taste it, write the notes and move on to the next one.'

While Anthony, better known as Madge, rightfully maintains the page this was published upon is generally a tongue-in-cheek piss-take, the item triggered a splurt of digifits on things like Twitter, with much micro misunderstanding leading to macro insults taken without necessarily being delivered. People were unfollowed, for Bacchus' sake!

One of the guilty pundits referred to in this bitchery was Max Allen, who plays a grumpy, cynical, roistering Gallienus to James Halliday's omnipresent God Almighty in the wine pages of The Australian.

In the hungover December 28th edition of The Oz, Max (left) dared to suggest that some of the Grenache wines on his desk tasted different, even better, 24 or more hours after they'd been opened. 'They all tasted different,' he wrote, 'some a little bit, some quite a lot.' In conclusion, he dared to suggest  'don't be too quick to judge a wine when you first pour it: give it some air, a chance to breathe and stretch its legs. Then taste it again and see if it's different. You never know: it might surprise you.'

Max Schubert playing blending tricks in his office at Penfolds Grange in the mid-eighties ... photo Milton Wordley ... image from our book, A year in the life of Grange

This was hardly revolutionary. When Max Schubert was in semi-retirement in his little office at The Grange, and as their cellarmaster was charged with stocking the cellars of Government House and the State Bank, he would ring this writer excitedly to get up there to see what he'd discovered. He was swamped in bottles sent in by winemakers hopeful of making the legendary gubernatorial and infamous State Bank collections, and enjoyed playing games with them. Mud pies. He'd have an ordinary red open for some days, then add a little of another and more of something else, and from commonplace discount bin plonk, with a dash of something fresher and more opulent, concoct drinks much more satisfying and fascinating than any of their ingredients.

It was fun. And funny to learn how close most winemakers get without understanding how to go that extra few percent to cross from passable to perfection. 

Max showed the young Whitey how simply educational it was to watch a wine decay, and learn about its composition in reverse as different aspects of it fell away through oxidation. He would open simple cheap wines dominated by whatever component the dying wine had lost, and in replacing it, teach unforgettable lessons.

As with his beloved Grange, many wines actually bloomed as they inhaled air over a day or two. With the advent of the airtight sanctity of screw caps, such airing is an even more important aspect of understanding a wine, but that's only the beginning. In his WBM piece, my respected colleague obviously referred to very thirsty people whom one hopes rarely drink alone.

Thirst is not foreign to your scribe, who drinks alone most of the time, and is thus very much more aware of just how much of a bottle or six one should properly 'drink in one hit.' Presumptuously writing in the suspicion that there are many lonesome couch cowpersons out there taking the odd schlück with a takeaway pizza as they gaze at Master Chef, wine that improves for a day or three after opening is always a desirable notion.

On another level, the expensive wine that takes some days to blossom is best recommended for those like the Governor, whose obligation was to present great wines of proper maturity to guests. Several decades with his nose on the winestone have taught the writer that wines that take longer to bloom after opening are usually the safest to recommend for longer cellaring.

Of course many sink the whole damn thing within an hour or two of purchase, and slouch back to Hungry Dan's for another, but that's hardly what the thinking critic should recommend.

Return from Howard Twelftree's wake: one of the dangers of drinking too much very young wine without breathing ... Milton Wordley, the author, and Miss Tilley ... this photograph was found in the author's camera in the midst of an eight Richter hangover ... it is suggested these figures should be cast in grand-scale bronze by Alf Hannaford and erected in the remodelled Victoria Square, just as a warning to our youth.
One presumes that this 'ninety percent of consumers [who] want to know what the wine tastes like when they open the bottle' and then proceed to guzzle the lot are rarely the type to bother about what the Maxes or James or indeed Whitey have to say about nuances and the finer aspects of the gastronomic arts. These people may indeed enjoy a rollicking read, but this scribe's long experience writing in the mainstream chip wrappers taught him that such folks are much more likely to buy a product on its score, regardless of whether such measure is made in points out of this or that total, or in James' incredibly influential world, the number of stars he throws about. Godhead, see?

Max recently remarked that he'd lost a job writing for some big international journal because of his refusal to award scores. He'd prefer to write considered appraisals without pleasing producers and thence ad-hungry editors by scoring everything five stars or points in the high nineties. May Bacchus and Pan continue to bless him.

Anyone who's faced a serious line-up of baby reds knows immediately that young wines - especially the best of them - need plenty of air and time ... photo Philip White

It's frustrating to be called a critic who always points high, especially given the number of bottles it takes to find one worthy of slotting in the heady scores above ninety: it's easy to fill a wheelie bin with empties in order to find two or three deserving of those outer-space nether regions. (The 'plus' characters that often follow the score are there to indicate a wine that will be more satisfying if given air or years in the cellar.)

So what do such scores really indicate? Dear Max (Schubert) often talked about the mood, the feeling, the warmth and atmosphere a good wine would conjure in the mind of the drinker. He spoke lovingly of the wines he thought had what he called soul. I can promise you such heresy was rare in those blazer-and-tie days. Measuring stuff like 'soul' with digits or stars is pretty much impossible.  Writing about it is a personal matter tricky if not outright impossible for most, and it's a risk to presume the author's sentiment will be shared by the reading drinker. 

Remember what we're talking about: The base ingredient in wine is ethanol, a powerful psychoactive depressant, lethal in large doses. Better winemakers dress this coarse relaxant drug in veils of gastronomic mystique: satisfying, almost hypnotic layers of sensory intrigue and confounding complexity.

Or, indeed, simple joy.

Some properly-matured wines don't need much breathing - they've had enough of it indeed if they've survived fifty or sixty years under the curse of porous corks ... photo Philip White

This writer hopefully, perhaps naively presumes his reader will appreciate this ingredient in his recommendations, and strives to somehow relay some of his feelings and forecasts in each instance.

Put simply, the mystical top end of vinous literature is entwined with the immeasurable experience that takers of other drugs call the high. This old drinkster writes to share the high he finds in his preferred cups. It is an attempt to please determined seekers of ecstasy, like that patriarch, Leonard Cohen.

'I only drank professionally,' Leonard once recalled of his more absorbent days. 'I found this wine: it was Chateau Latour. The experts talk about the bouquet and the tannins and the fruit and the symphonies of tastes. But nobody talks about the high. Bordeaux is a wine that vintners have worked on for 1,000 years. Each wine has a specific high, which is never mentioned.'

Put even more simply, 'dance me to the end of love.'

Even the most hardened connoisseurs need plenty of time to mature ... drawing by George Grainger Aldridge, from our book, Evidence of vineyards on Mars



Anonymous said...

How does this relate to goonbag which is half what Australia drinks.do goonbags change after you open? Maybe whitey you should wite about this instead

Moredsir said...

I have often wondered why after spending a few decades or more growing up, that some visually apparent adults, would rather revel in their ignorance, as though still babes barely able to see, let alone try to comprehend the world and thus enjoy it more.

Wonderful only happens if you wonder first.

@TheVinsomniac said...

@whiteswine I now look forward to Drinkster reviewing some goon bag Whitey

Anonymous said...

I'd have thought Drinkster readers care more about their wine experience than those reading WBM. I have met many in the wine biznuss who simply don't care about what they drink = they're in it for the $, er , biznuss, of it.
Keep on educating me please, Whitey.
Harfield J

Ross McKay said...

I love any article that ends with a Leonard Cohen lyric. It makes me want to grab a bottle and head to the garage and listen to loud music while sitting in the armchair