“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)





29 October 2014


Still pushing the boundaries:
Castagna makes rad 13 whites
and tight 12 reds for the cellar

Julian Castagna was Australia's first biodynamic winemaking hero. There were others of the faith, of course, but when the first serious wines emerged from the Castagna Vineyard at Beechworth in 2001 it was immediately evident that the bar would suddenly be set very very high.

Castagna's Genesis Syrah was a radical beauty. It came out of nowhere. The 2009 was the clear winner in the Top 100 I conducted for years in The Advertiser. I seem to recall several thousand wines and about 400 Shiraz entries and ringing this bloke I didn't know to ask him how he'd done it and he whispered “Do you really want to know?” and without much of a pause: “... It's biodynamic.”

Castagna went on to dominate that competition for years. One year I gave the top gong of the whole damn outburst to his rosé.

Now, with his wife Carolann and son Adam, he's jumping around at the forefront of revolutionary or reactionary whites, depending upon your point of view. While it's common to sing great operas about his reds, I reckon a lot can be learnt by spending a few days with the four whites he released at his Northern Alps vineyard on Saturday.

Castagna Growers' Selection Beechworth Harlequin 2013
$35; 13% alcohol; DIAM cork; 85+++ points 

Coppery-gold from extended skin contact in amphoræ, after the ancient Caucasus style, this is as close as white wine gets to red. It's shy, even a wee bit sullen to sniff, which is why the makers suggest cellar temperature and a decanter. But wave the shotgun at it and it begins to cast off its slumber and mumble to rub its gurry eyes. It smells of autumn. Decay. Worzel Gummidge. The very last pears and quinces of the season, dropping soft from their boughs. Kingston black cider apples. It has the forceful texture of a well-balanced red, with that sort of dusty tannin. But the flavour is not at all red: it's more like soft-candied orange rind as much as those over-ripe pears and apples. 

So you know what I'd do? I'd stuff a brawny chook with whole cumquats, like peel on, lumps of fresh ginger and garlic cloves, just cut in half. Some chunks of dried ciabatta might make it a little more conventional. And some fresh herb, like tarragon and sage. Stuff it all in so hard the cumquats squash and bleed a little. Sew your bird up good and tight, baste her with with some rock salt and roast her slow. If you forgot to pluck her, give up at this point. 

Put a bottle of this Harlequin in a decanter for a day, then put the decanter in an ice bucket for fifteen minutes before serving. Let it warm in the glass and it's suddenly a 90-pointer plus. If this combination results in any children, you could name them after the varieties mixed herein: Roussanne, Sauvignon blanc, Semillon and Viognier, in descending order of volume. I reckon that'd be a first.

Egg-shaped amphoræ fermenters at Castagna ... all photos Philip White

Castagna Growers' Selection Beechworth Chardonnay 2013 
$35; 12% alcohol; DIAM cork; 86++ points 

Made earthy and get-down with a little Burgundian vendageur sweat, this is a cheeky devil of a wine, and tough. It has that sharp reek of cracked stone - granite in the case of Beechworth - and then you think you're nearing a smell of fruit and you get that cheesy picker again. The wine is quite solid of frame; stocky and firm without chub. It reminds me of bitter melon (Momordia chirantia) and isovaleric acid, the powerful pheromone which is predominant in humans and valerian - IVA can occur in secondary ferment. And maybe it reminds me of tarragon. Then comes the standard grape acid: tight and stroppy and as dry as bone china. The wine leaves a tidy little lozenge of ginger and pear smack in the middle of the tongue. This is the sort of structure that drives me straight toward crayfish on the flame. So I grab that naughty picker and jump the TGV to Marseilles for crustaceans on the wharf, where you can still get a waft of Gauloises or Gitanes on the right day, mixing with that acrid reek of Africa. Another three or four points are due after 24 hours of air.

Castagna Growers' Selection Beechworth Roussanne 2013
$35; 14% alcohol; DIAM cork; 93+ points 

Röst gefr ödlingr iastar
- öl virdi esvá – fyrdum.
Thögn fellir brim bragna 
- biórr forn er that – horna. 
Máls kann mildingr heilsu 
- miödr heitir svá – veita. 
Strúgs kemr í val veiga 
 - vín kallak that – galli.

Immediately recognising this as a Viking wine, I grabbed for my Edda, Snorri Sturluson's primer on how poets should address kings in early 1200s Iceland. This Roussanne has something very ancient about it, almost mystical, but in a framework and template that is as cool and considered and icily deliberate as modern Norse design. Or really good vodka. 

Not that I mean cold. For this wine is full of warmth. It has a burnished Golden Syrup hue, almost as if the Jarl wanted everybody to know what it was like to drink from his golden cup. It has really sexy honey notes, approaching sweet mead, and then there are waves of crême caramel and the insinuation of so much sugar that you can easily see yellow peaches poaching in sauternes. 

So Edda came to mind, and I stepped once again through the viking drinks menu with Snorri, just to be totally satisfied that this is the choicest of cups. Roughly translated, the verse above says "The King gives currents of yeast (that is what I adjudge ale to be) to men. Men’s patience is dispelled by surf (that is old beer) of horns. The Prince knows how speech’s salvation (that is what mead is called) is to be given. In the choicest of cups comes (this is what I call wine) dignity’s destruction."  Tilsagt verse, Snorri Sturluson, Skalholt, Iceland 1179 – 1241 

This wine is not sweet. It's gorgeous. It gives you all those golden feels and ends up as fine and dry and chalky as a geometry teacher.

Slice some abalone steaks about as thick as a Granita biscuit. Fold each one in a linen tea towel, put it on timber and smack it firmly once square on with a steak hammer. Once. Grill 'em quick in a real hot iron pan with salt, fresh pepper and ginger. And/or garlic. Hit 'em with some lime juice and eat 'em like biscuits: devour each one with a skölful or a horn of this beautiful threat to your dignity.

Carolann, Alexi, Adam and Julian Castagna with respective adoring hounds

Castagna Beechworth Ingénue 2013 
$55; 14% alcohol; DIAM cork; 95 points 

This smells like some mysterious midnight cream for the neck, from Guerlain or Lancôme. Like you can hear her putting it on, but you never get to see much more than that throat with just a line of moonlight along it where the fingers stroked. It's just disgustingly sensual. It smells like the flesh of the magnolia petal, or that of the jasmine, without the overwhelming fragrance of the pistil.  I don't think the Ingénue name applies this vintage: there's nothing simply endearing or innocent about this. You know you're in trouble from the start: it's just sicko lush and leaden. And I know everybody thinks Viognier should taste like apricot but that's just not here. Maybe some would report a few slivers of white peach with a blush, but that's not right, either. If we must speak of fruit, it's nashi pear. But even that's to pass it off. It's more creamy. And now I've whacked half the bottle and haven't once thought of food. Easily the best Viognier I know. 

Castagna Beechworth Un Segreto 2012 
$75; 13% alcohol; DIAM cork; 94+++ points

It would seem this recipe is pretty well set in the granite stone of the Castagna vineyard now. Not only does Julian know which patch of the block is best included, but he seems certain in advance how much Shiraz should go in with the Sangiovese. 

This new release, like the best 2012s right across the south-east of Australia, is freakishly tight, and highly reluctant to let many hints loose about exactly where it's thinking of going should you happen to leave the back door open and the leash off. But it has what I call the Plucking Day whiff of the chookhouse, which takes me straight back up the back steps into the kitchen. Mum's got her sleeves up and her pinny on and because she's got stuffing and gizzards up to her elbows she says "Oooh I'm glad you're home! Can you just push this hair back out of my eyes?" I find this unusual, rustic - but to me endearing - aroma in many favourite Sangioveses. Especially the best Italian ones, if they haven't been Super-Tuscanned to death, with Merlot and Cabernet and extravagent raw oak and whatnot. "Westernised," I call that. It's like putting pineapple on a pizza. 

Now forget that dusty feathers smell, and think about a blueberry based drink with ripe juniper and bilberry; all velvety flesh but no sugar. And then stop thinking completely while you stack a sixpack in the coolest cellar you know for at least five years. This wine will blow your mind. Just go drink something else for awhile. 

Castagna Genesis Beechworth Syrah 2012 
$75; 13.5% alcohol; DIAM cork; 94+++ points 

Paris, Texas, right? The bit they missed. Harry Dean Stanton stops marchin across the desert like a madman and marries Nastassja Kinsky who stops whorin in the perve booths and everything works out all right and this is their baby. 

By the time the 2012 Grange and other wilder wonders like the Roennfeldt's Roads come out in 2016 and 2017, I shall be completey over apologising for and making promises about the stubborn, intense, yet elegant offspring of that vintage. Bad luck. It's one of those years. 

Better quality if you wait. 

So here we have a Genesis which is nothing like the juicy, electrifying one which sprayed my brains all over the ceiling at the Top 100 Tasting all those years ago and ended up winning the whole damn thing. That got me thinking about biodynamics, I tell you. Nope, this wine is a generation beyond that still-delicious forerunner. The vines are older: they're well into probing the tiniest cracks in that rock. And then you've got a year with its eyes on the horizon and its boots on its feet. So it's a dry, ungiving lickblock of velvet and dust we've got here; in a sublime autocompressed structure, with all that stoic chin up stuff and fruit so dry it will deter many until it starts to melt and dribble in a decade. 

Perhaps more than any other Castagna, this one proves to me this vineyard's unassailable right to join the best of Australia's Shiraz gardens. So is it moving from the left wing to centre? Nope. It's simply growing up. Stopped whorin. Stopped marchin crazy cross the desert.

Castagna Vineyard at Beechworth, on the clean and breezy northern side of the Australian Alps in Victoria ... this photo by Julian Castagna

1 comment:

@Keira_McIntosh said...

Good to see :) Had the pleasure of sampling them on Saturday. That Roussanne....phwoaaar!

Fantastic day. Good crowd and such hospitable hosts. Sunday recovery at Bridge Road Brewers not bad either ;)