“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 January 2015


Get the rocks right get the climate right get the vineyard right get your winery rockin

Laissez-faire is a term that applies pretty well to the manner in which many Australians select new varieties which they hope will suddenly be the next big thing.

The most vivid example of this was the manner in which many planted what they thought was the promising Iberian Peninsula Albariño in the late noughties. When it turned out that the Spanish had in 1989 instead shipped Traminer cuttings to the Australian government for propagation, which these unsuspecting growers then purchased and planted, most producers barged on as if it made no difference at all.

It was fucking nuts. Nobody knew really what they were doing, but through vineyard to bottle to market many winemakers pushed their big mistake through the dumb wine press hacks and straight on into the bank.

Buoyed by the great news that Traminer was also known as Savignin, most adopted that name, although they'd never heard of it before or bothered to discover it was used mainly to make a dull sherry-like wine in friggin' Jura. Jura. That's like the Tristin da Cunha of great vignobles. Eventually they enjoyed the fact that many unsuspecting addicts of New Zealand Sauvignon blanc might understandably confuse the two, regardless of the fact that the oily Traminer is even less like the crunchy, grassy Sauvignon blanc than it resembles Albariño. Like, you know, nothing like either of 'em.

This fudge reminded me of the 'seventies and 'eighties, when Traminer Riesling, the most popular bottled white in New South Wales, was commonly a blend of one or more of the various types of muscat or Frontignac with Semillon, and contained neither Traminer nor Riesling. It wasn't entirely surprising that some winemakers felt no cringe at repeating a new version of the substitution twenty years after we thought we'd got all that deception sorted.

Winemakers hear of varieties somebody's drunk some of somewhere in the Old World, and the goss spreads very quickly. A bottle may be brought home and shared and talked about; somebody imports some; a few flash restaurants might stock it, and off goes the goss. Without much real investigation, or, Bacchus forbid, scientific research of geologies, altitudes, climate and whatever the individual imagines the variety's most suitable source terroir to be, there's a mad scramble for cuttings and within four or five years the marketers are trying to convince us that whatever came out the end of the winery is a brilliant new beauty which we should be accepting with open mouths.

They're certainly not all terrible, but this is happening now with varieties that end in O. The clown's mouf.

Before they purchase cuttings and plant, many growers at least have the good sense to consult an ampelography or the internet to discover what one person or another thinks the typical chacters of that variety may be.

But a general scouring of the popular sources leaves this critic bewildered at how vague such references can be.

Take Roussanne, the white variety of the south of France. References to this are perhaps a little more precise than many of the lesser-known types.

Wikipedia says "The aroma of Roussanne is often reminiscent of a flowery herbal tea. In warm climates, it produces wines of richness, with flavors of honey and pear, and full body. In cooler climates it is more floral and more delicate, with higher acidity ...

"Wines made from Roussanne are characterized by their intense aromatics which can include notes of herbal tea. In its youth it shows more floral, herbal and fruit notes, such as pear, which become more nutty as the wine ages. Roussanne from the Savoy region is marked by pepper and herbal notes. Wine expert Oz Clarke notes that Roussanne wine and Roussanne dominated blends can drink very well in the first 3 to 4 years of their youth before entering a 'dumb phase' where the wine is closed aromatically until it reaches 7 or 8 years when it develops more complexity and depth."

'Herbal tea' surely leaves a bit to be desired. Take a look at the array of tisanes - perhaps a better name, as these contain no tea - on offer at your local supermarket and you'll find dozens of contrasting and complementary herbs in the dangle bags. Licorice, peppermint, sage, camomile, lavendar, citrus, ginger, aniseed ... who knows which of that vast array of flavours and aromatics the Wiki writer imagined are represented in Roussanne?

All these notions crashed through my mind when my landlord, the Yangarra Estate boss Peter Fraser (below), recently offered me a tasting of the eight vintages of Roussanne he's made from the vineyard just 300 metres from this desk. He'd been thinking about this before Wikipedia was a zygote.

Part of this vineyard is in the ironstone prolific in this neck of the northern McLaren Vale woods; part is in the Kurrajong geological formation, a rubble of many types of rounded riverine rocks from many sources, which have washed down from the great mountain range which once towered above the Willunga Fault and its escarpment to the east. This Kurrajong - a true geological plum pudding - resembles parts of the Rhône Gorge geology, where similar rocks were washed from the French Alps at about the same time as our local stuff. In both countries, Roussanne seems to love it.

Kurrajong on Peter's Creek

"Check these," he said after he'd tasted these bottles all his day long. "Interesting." 

Kurrajong Formation: this is a very youthful version of it being laid down now in Nore Guzar, Afghanistan ... great place to grow grapes in 50,000 years

So I tasted these wines over several days late last year. I looked again at the same bottles  a whole fortnight later. 

I make clear that I rent a cottage on Yangarra. I love watching the development of Peter's plan to devote the entire vineyard to the varieties I call 'North-west Mediterranean,' But I have no commercial connection with, or investment in the Jackson Family, the Estate's Napa Valley-based owners. 

Call me a crofter who drinks more than he shears.

It is a local joke that McLaren Vale enjoys the best Mediterranean climate on Earth. Combine that with the freak geological connection, and let's take a look at what the combination does to Roussanne. 

Yangarra Estate Roussanne 2007 (13% alcohol) As we expect of first crops from baby vines, at eight years this wine is frail and decaying in a genteel manner. It smells of old quinces and their preserving syrup, with a nostril-tickling prickle of burlap. Maybe a whiff of unscented candle wax. While it's gradually falling to bits, it's still pleasant and soft, with gentle tannins that remind me of a weak old clove. It has a watery, nostalgic air as its fruit falls away (three days open), but it leaves a steely baby vine acidity, solid and stalwart, which would well accompany roast pork. 75 points 

Yangarra Estate Roussanne 2008 (13.5% alcohol) That slightly soapy/altar candle waxiness is here again, but with an enticing array of spices and exotics, from dry laurel/bay leaf to fresh mace and cassia bark through fruit mince and citrus rind to fresh coconut flesh and preserved or even candied pineapple. Some fatty acids soften the whole adventure; think crême caramel. All that aside, it seems disarmingly soothing, akin to a cool chamomile infusion. Its tannins are extremely fine; its acid less obvious than the '07. 85 points 

Surface ironstone taken from the Roussanne vineyard before planting

Yangarra Estate Roussanne 2009 (13.5% alcohol) Here's where Wikipedia's pears hit the fore. Buttery ripe Rocha pears, to be precise. Some fresh, some lightly poached. The wine's viscous and cosy. Its slightly acrid top notes bring the skins of pineapple and canteloupe to mind, but below there's that smooth pear syrup and faint butterscotch padding an array of extremely fine-grained tannins. It's elegant, highly appetising wine with a reassuring, langorous finish. It made me yearn for Richard Olney's cool Provence salad of pork belly and beans, or maybe a boullabaise on the Marseilles wharf. Yum. 93 points 

Yangarra Estate Roussanne 2010 (13.5% alcohol) Rocha pears again, this time with a little of their ever so slightly bitter skin in the topnote, along with that tickly, prickly burlap and the peels of pineapple and canteloupe. Otherwise, it's all creamy and waxy, and really enticing and comforting - it smells real safe. Once again there's a hint of a gentle camomile infusion: more flowers than leaves. The wine has that camomile texture. If you get itchy hay fever eyes, try washing their lids with a cool camomile tisane and you'll understand what I mean by safe and reassuring. No more itch! This Roussanne tapers off to a long smooth finish of lovely texture and feeling, which hides its considerable but elegant acidity. This is a very special drink; quite unlike any other wine I can recall. It really set my salivaries gushing while counterbalancing that anticipatory response with satisfaction: a clever, gentle see-saw. 94++ points 

Yangarra Estate Roussanne 2011 (13.5% alcohol) In the humid wet of 2011, you didn't need to see botrytis on your grape skins to know it was at work beneath them, softening them, and converting some of their acid to glycerol. Those fatty acids are obvious here: whey and speck came to mind as the wine sat there, unchanging, day after day. It has the built form of a creamy Burgundian Chardonnay from a damp year, the botrytis having that strange, gently bittering influence it can exert on tannins long before it makes the wine luscious. It reminds me of handing Len Evans a glass of delicious Yeringberg Roussanne back in the heyday of Adelaide's Universal Wine Bar. He took it, rolled his eyes, then, eventually realising it was not the Chardonnay variety he was exclusively promoting, he chided me as only he could: "Coarse, broad, no finesse ... " That was a waste of a taste, I assure you. Len tended to hate things he didn't think of first. Personally, I really enjoy this style of wine: it's appetising, slick, sinuous, and full of heart. No herbs or chamomile here! 92++ points 

Where Kurrajong blends with ironstone on Peter's Creek, at the foot of the Roussanne

Yangarra Estate Roussanne 2012 (13.5% alcohol) Here we hit the fresh fruits, and they're mainly aromatic types from the jungle. Plantains, for example, and other banana types, with all sorts of references to rambutan, lychee, paw paw and mango, even a touch of starfruit. Honeydew melon. There are flowers, too: from camomile and lantana to the edge of jasmine and magnolia petals. There lies the flesh. The prickly edge is hemp and old white pepper, setting those fat fruits a neat and tickly counterpoint. All those things are whipped to smooth cream in the flavour department, with some soft fresh coconut meat. The fluffy vanilla slice fatty acids are the first to tease the tongue, then the more metallic steel and ironstone ones - like you find in Clare Riesling - move in to bring the whole delicious exercise to a long but increasingly austere finish. This is a wine that will glow after some proper cellar. 92+++ points 

Yangarra Estate Roussanne 2013 (13.5% alcohol) Pouring this is as organoleptically dazzling as sticking your smell sax (mine's tenor in this music) right into a freshly-opened ripe gorgonzola. We have pears again, this time aromatic Bartlett before it yellows as much as the buttery Rocha. No apologies for getting specific. I smell dry laurel leaf on the cutting edge, but then it goes into all that cream. At one point it took me to home-made peanut butter. The Queensland blue pumpkin. Take a big one, and very carefully cut the crown out, with the stem intact (handle) and scoop out the seeds so you don't make a hole in the shell. Dice onions, heaps of garlic and a fistful of speck or Max Noske's Hahndorf Butcher's perfect kassler. Put all that in the pumpkin's cavity with enough fresh cream to fill her up. Oh orright then maybe half of it should be Sauvignon blanc. That grassy acid is handy. Put the lid back on and bake it slowly. Serve whole damn thing intact on a big plate in the middle of the table with a ladle. As you apportion the soup you scrape layers of pumpkin from the inside of the shell. 

Not only does this wine remind me of that smell that slays you when you take the top off your pumpkin, but it made me want that whole business mmediately. All that soft-boiled peanut and cream and white onion, caramel, umami, aminos, and then the sullen steely acidity slumbering away, the great preservative, at the bottom of the dazzle. 93+ points 

Yangarra Estate Roussanne 2014 (13.5% alcohol) Through this queue of fascinating bottles, three heartening curves move upwards to the right without too many wobbles. One line is the age of the vines: you can feel the complexity and authority of the fruit rising as the vine roots get down into that rocky ground and the plants learn their neighbourhood. 

Next is the leaf canopy, and the way the vine doctors manipulate it to achieve that ideal dappled balance of shade and sunlight: the russett skin of the Roussanne seems particularly fussy about this matter of fluttery on-off light as the breeze shuffles the leaves about. 

And the third, of course, is the winemaking, as Peter and his crew gradually screw closer to the ideal recipe. Which, of course, does not exist.

Given all that, it might be no surprise that I reckon this one's the triumph. It's creamy, like that stuffed pumpkin. It has the most delicious spread of peanut butter. It has whey and Paris Creek unsalted butter. It has jungle plantains, fresh ginger, taro, yam and a slice of bitter melon. It's balanced, clean, unctuous and appetising. It has extremely fine-grained tannins and acidity that sits there like a golden Buddha, between smug of body and sinuous of intellectual intention. It is indeed a lovely drink, and one which makes me marvel at what a silly thing it is to attempt to grow Chardonnay in McLaren Vale. Or Chardanno. 94++ points

SO THERE. Expecting you to take my praise by the pinch - living in the midst of it, I must be influenced; you should cut my points in half - I think Roussanne is an ideal variety for a place like McLaren Vale, and in particular a slightly elevated place like this, with its unusual blend of geologies and gentle maritime breezes of constant humidity.

Go visit the Rhône Gorge and have a think.

After days of sniffing and sipping, the overall flavours that linger in my brain are various pears, quince, loquat, fresh ginger, melons both bitter and sweet, camomile infusion, umami-rich chicken, fish and pork stock, fatty amino acids, and in the older wines, caramel, butterscotch and honey. Without ever being sweet. And whizzed to a tincture in a king-hell forensic laboratory blender.

The younger wines have the potential for great longevity - they seem never to change. I had a suspicious sniff of the bottles a fortnight after opening and was dumbstruck by how solidly they'd retained their form and fruit.

A week later, some had yet to budge. They had faded, of course, but their very stern south-of-France form had barely moved. Only very expensive Barsac and Sauternes, but heavily botrytised and not bone dry like these, share this capacity.

Unlike many other buzzy varieties being thrown in here, there and everywhere, I know Roussanne is a hot property if it's in the right place and done with the appropriate curiosity and enlightenment by the right people.

And the right stone.

All the bottles and rocks and the landlord photographed by Philip White

1 comment:

The ace said...

Great variety, should be more of it. scarce as on wine lists...pity.