“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)





03 March 2015


John Geber at his Château Tanunda winery at Tanunda in the Barossa Valley ... "Darling I've bought a Château!" ... It's always tricky photographing this front side of the mighty building: the sun never hits it full-on. This keeps the biggest wall face, and thus the vast cellars behind, beautifully cool ... photo Philip white

So you think you're a wine hero?
Take a look at this here dude:
Mr John R Geber is a wine hero

John Geber could talk the shell off a snail. This thought slid into my mind while he was talking about money. He's one of those rich people who talks about money a lot. Sometimes he talks about how hard it is to spend because it just plain hurts to see it go, other times he talks about how hard it is to spend it properly. Enjoyably. Like he talks about always flying economy and he flies a lot. He'd rather spend the money when he gets there. "It's only twenty hours on the plane," he said. 

In 1998, on a whim, John bought Château Tanunda. Having kicked off in diamond country in South Africa he made a lot of money in the tea business and sought a new challenge. When he rang his Swiss wife Evelyn to tell her he'd bought a château she asked how many bedrooms it had.

Little did she know.

The enormous Château had been let run down to an almost terminal degree, and Southcorp/Penfolds as it then was trashed a container full of its priceless historical documents. All the history. All the records. Typically, that pre-Fosters-pre Treasury Penfolds regime regarded this jewel of the Australian wine world as an unfortunate liability. 

It just wasn't shiny enough. At one stage it was set for demolition; at another it was to be converted to a posh hotel.

John wanted it to do what it was designed to do.

John Geber makes a point ... photo Philip White

The story of how this incredible building came to be is breathtaking in its audacity and vision. It is a telling reflection on the bull-headed types of folk that set this colony on its feet. It silently boasts of the way men like John Geber were smart enough to see a chance, and rambunctious and rich enough to give it a proper go. Long may Bacchus bless them.

In the 1880s the vineyards of Europe were still dying from the dreaded phylloxera root louse, and eager Australian wine businessmen saw an opportunity for export. The wine industry, however, was mainly small of scale and disorganised, with many peasant-sized growers--560 in the Barossa--but little strong uniting leadership. 

Vineyards were expanding, but many grapes were left to rot in the good years. There simply wasn't the winery space to use them.

In 1889, in The Inheritance in the Hills, George Sutherland suggested "The great thing that is needed for the advancement of the wine industry is a large increase in the cellarage or storage. Any new investment of capital having this object in view would be gladly welcomed."

A couple of the remaining 'ovals' ... photo Philip White 

In her forensic 1980 work, Winery Buildings in South Australia 1836-1936, the architecture historian Katrina McDougall offers perhaps the best source to discover the secrets of our old wineries. She explains that in 1888 Beaumont winemaker G. F. Cleland amalgamated his winery business with that of William Jacob of Moorooroo, Barossa, and went on to form G. F. Cleland and Co. Ltd., which lured big investors and wine pioneers Sir Samuel and Lady Davenport, Dr. and Mrs. E. D. Cleland and C. J. Horrocks. Together with many smaller investors, led by Barossa growers kingpin John Basedow, they raised ₤38,700.

One of the few historical records the Southcorp ghouls didn't throw in the garbage ... click to enlarge ... photo Philip White

That was an enormous amount of money. Especially when you consider that Australia was tumbling into a terrible depression. Foreign investors were tired of sinking money into the wild blue yonder down under for little quick return, and were recalling what was left of it. The Great Maritime Strike was followed by the Australian Shearers' Strike and banks and building societies were beginning to fall like cards.

Fortunately for Cleland and his mates, the resultant unemployment supplied a lot of extremely cheap labour: The Barossa was populated by men who were handy with stonemasonry. The building supervisor was Basedow. They dug the schisty bluestone they needed from the quarry Bethany Wines now inhabits, and erected brick kilns at the front of the site they chose at the highest point of the Barossa Valley floor, overlooking some of the first Barossa vineyards.

Basedow and his men completed that vast edifice, the biggest building in the Southern Hemisphere, in eleven months. Builders of today take note.

The identities of the designer and architect, if there was one, went into that Southcorp skip. Whoever drew it, the plan was not only massive, with walls a metre thick at the ground, but ornate for factories of the day, and very easy, if mighty, on the eye. Where the Flemish gable flourishes came from is anybody's business; they add a strange but easy counterpoint to the austere Tudor arches.  

For some reason its brick-and-bluestone form reminds me of the Model School (above) that architect Edward John Woods designed in Adelaide in 1872. Like the Château, it's after the Roman villa form via the Gothic revival style of the day, and miraculously survives on the corner of Grote and Morphett Streets.

There's constant reshuffling of barrels at this time of year ... ground floor of the Château at vintage ... photo Philip White

As far as winemaking technology went, the Château was a mixture of ancient and modern. Grapes were taken by steam-driven elevators to the destemmers and crushers before falling by gravity to the slate or timber fermenting vats and thence further down to smaller wood. 

The winery could handle 100 tons of fruit per day and held a million gallons. By 1902, exports totalled 80,000 gallons of Château Tanunda brandy and 700,000 gallons of wine at ₤1 per gallon.

Tasting in the smallest room in the building: the old brandy bond storeroom can seat 100 at one long table down the centre ... that's winemaker Stuart Bourne, left, John Geber and daughter Michelle (seated) and general manager Matthew McCulloch leading us through an astounding array of back vintages ... photo Philip White

John Geber's fastidious restoration has seen the top floors converted to tasting and spacious, lofty entertainment areas, while downstairs it's all winemaking apart from the cellar sales shop. The grounds have been exquisitely landscaped and planted, the courtyards cobbled with blue British basalt that came to Australia as ships' ballast. With all the waste concrete and stuff he cleared up, John filled the slope below the winery and made a full-sized cricket oval. Great battles are fought there by ancient cricket tragics, many of them very famous practitioners of the sport.

Caucasian artefact ... teams for a David Hookes Foundation fundraising cricket match, chalked on a piece of old Mintaro slate from a broken fermenter ... photo Philip White

With typical mischief, John's next plan is to build a pizza oven into the base of the omnipresent  chimney which provided exhaust for the boilers which in turn provided the steam to run all the factory's engines and stills. This, he is convinced, will be the world's tallest pizza oven. As it's octagonal, its eight sides should make those pizzas highly popular amongst Taoist Chinese, who revere the bagua with its eight trigrams.

Which leads me to the wine. Holy Bacchus and Pan. This joint's got it covered.

For starters, they make five red bargains exclusively for Dan Murphy's. The cheapest ($15) is the Chorus Tempranillo Garnacha, made after the Rioja style. But there are bargains to be had at the winery: beautiful Riesling ($15); and all manner of reds, blended or straight. There are wines of many varieties over all price ranges, up to the ravishing 100 year old vines Semillon ($49) and the truly wondrous The Everest Old Bush Vine Grenache ($195).

The crowning glory is the 150 Year Old Vines Field Blend, a tantalising bottle of Grenache, Mourvedre and Malbec grown, picked and fermented together from the vineyard David Randall established at his South Rhine Estate east of Springton between 1858 and 1873. This is one of the truly great and rare Australian treasures.

Speaking of vinous treasures, John Geber has every reason to talk. He is a fair dinkum wine king. I bow.

Guests now arrive at the rear of the Château. Only the top floor is evident. It's built into the hill to facilitate easier gravity feed of musts and wine to diminish the need for pumps and pumping. Note the Flemish gable flourishes contrasting the austere Tudor arches.

Barossadeutscher and local historian Don Ross stood on the edge of the Château Tanunda cricket oval in the sunset and taught the best of Australia's wine writers some of his region's history. Don's one of the last remaining speakers of the old language. The first winery in the region was built close by on the flats behind him. The Bethany quarry, in the base of those hills in the distance, was the source of all the stone used in the Château building ... photos Philip White

Grand Barossa Riesling ($20; screw caps) 

2014 - (current vintage) This smells a lot like the old Orlando Ribbon Series Rieslings from the seventies, which were made I think from the vineyards south of Roland Flat on the very recent alluvium of the valley floor and up the gully on Trial Hill Road to the higher country with its 500 million-years-plus rocks. It's soft and creamy to sniff, with that old-fashioned babypowder perfume drifting like a cloud above the creamy lemonbutter and lime below. It seems broad and cosy till you hit the stern authority of its acid, which goes on and on, ensuring happy results in the cellar. The 40% of the fruit that comes from the 1920s vineyards on the recent alluvial flats east of the Château is probably the bit that reminds me of those beloved Orlando wines, some of which lived for decades, corks willing. They make around 100,000 cases of this each year, which must help keep that price down. 80+++ points

2013 - More of that old Orlando style: bathpowder; broad; honey; then in comes that wave of firm natural acid. 80++ points

2010 - Five years have seen the honey bit grow ... this is more relaxed and warmer, even closer to that old Orlando style. It's softer, Riesling for the lover of buttery Chardonnay (which John Geber is). Much more approachable than the previous two. 85+ points

2009 - Even broader and more traditional ... I'd love to see it as a spätlese ... honeycomb/cinder toffee aromas ... like a mouthful of blancmange and soft nougat ... a wee bit short but a delightful drink. 90+ points

2008 - Picked before the big heat spike, this is even more buttery and honeycombed ... it's a lovely chubby friendly wine in perfect balance. 92 points 

Grand Barossa Shiraz ($25; corks) 

2012 - Rich creamy conserve with lots of fatty acids ... soft marshmallow around all those ripe blackberries and part-dried prunes ... good wine for this price 85+ points 

2010 - This seems to be younger, tighter and leaner wine than the 12. It has much tighter focus. 87+ points 

2009 - Too ripe and jammy for me but still juicy and cute. 80 points 

2008 - The cork has left this wine smelling of wet black wood fungus. Cork enthusiasts will probably love it. 75 points 

2007 - More of the above. 70 points

Grand Barossa Cabernet Sauvignon ($25; screwcaps 2012-13; corks 2010-06) 

2013 - Rich, ripe, soft, like a Fifth Growth Bordeaux ... creamy marshmallow over blackcurrant and blackberry ... lovely structure, tannin and acidity ... good value! 85+ points

2012 - beautiful musky perfume adorning the fruit ... alrmingly good wine for $25! ... some pepper ... slender, tight, looong; elegant but forceful ... a really good drink. 92++ points

2010 - Pretty fragrance: musk, violets and lavendar ... lemon and cedar oak ... very much like Michel Dietrich's Cabernet from Ch Haut-Rians on the Garonne at Rions on the Côtes-du-Bordeaux, overlooking Sauternes and Barsac ... even though his model is Merlot-based ... perhaps because this is all Cabernet (presumably) it still seems a tad brash and raw. 92++ points

2009 - Leafy Cabernet and tight tea tin ... green and raw like a Merrill Reynella from the early 80s. 75 points

2008 - Sweet marshmallow and oyster mushrooms ... umami ... clean tight acid pulls it all together. 84+ points

2006 - Wet black fungus from cork spoilage, like a lot of French wine. The staunch acid highlights the lack of primary fruit. 75 points

Discovery Wines - new adventures (mainly screwcaps)

"Above all, the real relevance of discovery is that it cannot happen without some kind of learning experience, and this is the most productive exchange of all between brand and audience."  John Geber

The Three Graces Marsanne Viognier Roussanne 2013 ($24; screw caps) 

Pears poached in ginger ... clean, elegant, delicate, simple. 85 points 

Chorus Tempranillo Garnacha Graciano 2013 ($15; exclusive to Dan Murphy's) 

Raspberry and Morello cherries ... taut Rioja-style tannins ... like most of those wines, it looks a little awkward in this its yoof ... probly need to drink it in Spain! 79++ (?) points 

Newcastle Shiraz Grenache Mourvèdre Carignan Cinsault 2013 ($22; exclusive to Dan Murphy's) 

Oak dominant ... licorice and Morello cherries ... slender ... bit brash and green rather than soft or soulful. 78+ points  

The Château Shiraz Nebbiolo Primitivo 2012  ($30; exclusive to Wine Selectors)

Oak edge obvious ... Morello cherries, raspberry ... slender ... quite powerful aniseed all the way through it ... they think this Primitivo may in fact be the Zinfandel side of that strange family ... a bit raw. 80 points 

The Château Shiraz Primitivo Montepulciano 2013 ($30; exclusive to Wine Selectors) 

As it had been bottled only days, this wine was looking a bit kicked in the head ... but it's really promising, and easily the leader in this bracket ... dark charcuterie meats; raspberry; bitter cherry ... slender - almost skinny - but highy promising ... lovely fine tannin. 86++ points 

Primitivo di Gioia 2014 ($30) 

This was made from one of the strands of Zin/Prim with small berries, each containing one big seed ... delightful aroma! ... bright aniseed; mace; grappa grappa grappa; sweet soft blackstrap licorice and meaty blueberry. 88+++ points

Tasting in the Château Tanunda vineyard in the very old rocks high in the Barossa Ranges, overlooking the Eden Valley ... photo Philip White

100 Year Old Vines

The Château 100 Year Old Vines Semillon ($49; screw caps)

These are made from the precious pink-skinned type of Semillon the Barossadeutschers call the Madiera clone, or Red Semi, which I suspect is the same grape as the old Hunter Valley bushvine white they called Verdielhao, and which I suspect has all gone. It was a favourite of Neville Falkenberg when he was working on the first attempts at the 'White Grange'. Falky and Caj Amadio planted a few acres of it at the Amadio vineyard on the reservoir near Williamstown, which was marketed as the brilliant Red Semi, but because of market and dumb trade resistance to the word Semillon, it's been largely uprooted, which is a terrible pity.

2015 - barrel sample - just fermented to bone dry and served very cold ... lemon, gentle butter ... curds and whey ... bright exciting palate ... highly promising

2014 - really creamy lemonbutter ... crême caramel ... beautiful acidity. 94+ points

2013 - even more butter (white, unsalted) ... some fine white pepper ... slightly lessy and cheesy ... really lovely wine! 95+++ points

2012 - all the above with a tantalising acrid reek of matches and cordite, a little like Tim Knappstein's early Lenswood Semis after the fumé blanc style ... remarkable, beautiful, rare. 95+++ points

The Château 100 Year Old Vines Grenache 2012 ($99; cork)

Grown in the recent alluvial gravels on the Barossa Range piedmont at Vine Vale - very similar to bits of McLaren Vale's Kurrajong Formation - this comes close to being the best Barossa Grenache I've enountered. Like Grenache grown in the Kurrajong, it just pumps the juicy bittersweet pickled black Morello cherries. Just a little too much alcoholic heat in the tail is the only blemish. 94 points 

The Château 100 Year Old Vines Shiraz ($99; cork) 

2013 - Shy; closed; peppery ... bit short and simple ... very very dry; austere. 88++ points

2012 - Similar in style ... peppery; swarf ... simple, raw and short ... Hill of Grace style. 84 points

2010 - More promising: musky topnote; chocolate crême caramel flesh below ... lemony finish. 88 points

2009 - More conventional ... bittersweet Morello cherries ... much more fleshy ... nice tight tannins. 93++ points

2008 - corky; woody; lemony oak ... thin Hill of Grace style. 85 points

Ancient River Red Gums at the Eden Valley vineyard

Rare and distinguished

The Everest Old Bush Vine Grenache ($195; corks)

2012 - Dense: perfect example of the very best of the Barossa Grenache style ... shares the Morello cherry of the best of McLaren Vale, but over a tighter, more austere framework, which I suspect is because of the lower relative humidity of the Barossa, which is not beside the sea like the Vales ... sweet soft middle palate (rarely attained in the Barossa) then she winds up all tight and dry, like Dutch licorice ... leaving, overall, a lovely recollection ... beautiful texture and warmth ... what Max Schubert would call "a mother wine." 94+ points

2010 - More of the same lofty standard, but with aniseed balls in place of the Dutch licorice ... meaty charcuturie and nutty, figgy panforte aromas ... but overall, more jujube and conserve than the McLaren Vale Morello style. 90+ points

2009 - Cork/Brett worries here? Smells of cork dust ... More after the old French/Spanish border style ... old harness aromas building ... at an awkward stage: see-sawing between fresh and aged, then slightly bitter tannins. 88+(?) points

2008 - Cork worries here? Musty barn/hessian/cardboard ... otherwise it's all face cream over iron ... lovely sweet juicy cordial texture. Like an old High Sands with a cork in it. 94++ points

2006 - Smell the ironstone! Rain on rusty barns ... beneath that galvo there's a beautiful rich juicy wine at its peak ... Morello cherries and tight Barossa Grenache style bone china tannin. 93+ points

The Everest Château Cru Shiraz ($195; corks)

2013 - Aha! Here we go! Real Barossa: anise, panforte, slightly peaty ... sweetly scented with musk above; cordial below ... long, lush and fleshy then focussed. 94+++ points

2012 - Spoilt by cork: cardboardy cork dust all over the redcurrants and meaty blueberries ... tight, hard, slightly bitter and tart. 83 (?) points

2010 - Better assimilation happening here ... the wine is mature ... freshly-dressed harness ... softer anise/blackstrap licorice ... sweet, exquisite cordial ... swampy, decaying laurel leaves and mossy earth. 95+ points

2009 - Max Schubert could have made this ... scented, oily Shiraz ... sweaty but not at all acrid ... smooth and sweet; stewed and sensual ... flesh ... still has lovely acid and length. 94+ points

2008 - Even more Maxy - like his Shiraz Ouillade ... leather and licorice ... still quite active and fresh ... meaty capocollo fat ... sweet fruitmince. 93+ points

2005 - This one's falling away: stewy, mature, fluffy, soft ... still amrginally sweet and juicy. 90 and falling (generous?) 

150 Year Old Vines 1858 Field Blend 2013 ($295; cork; only 1066 bottles)

The guff claims this vineyard was planted in 1858, but while David Randall started his remote vineyard then, it actually took him another fifteen years to get it finished. From a good Northamptonshire family, he came to Adelaide in 1845 on The Templar, along with his wife Eliza, her parents, and no less than forty servants and farm labourers. An enlightened and tireless pioneer, he built Corryton Park and Lindsay Park, Glen Devon, and then a winery building beside this wild vineyard in the ancient rocks east of Springton, way out where the metamorphic stuff begins to dominate the geology.

Winemaker Stuart Bourne selected bits of Grenache, Mourvèdre and Malbec which were picked and fermented together.

The wine is tight and edgy, and ready for a good long spell in the dungeon. It has whiffs of acrid cordite and summer dust over a welling syrup of mossy earth, blueberries, cassis and framboise ... it has whiffs of jamón ibérico and other dark charcuterie meats ... unusual but truly beautiful wine! 95+++ points

Current vintages of all above ranges  are available for tasting at the Château, apart from the Field Blend. A small fee is charged to open and pour The Everest series and the 100 Year Old Vines. 

Don Ross delivers his quiet history lecture in the sunset ... that's Don Ross Senior above left, doing his delivery rounds in 1932

1 comment:

glen@gairdinwine.com said...

After reading your comments on the Chateau Tanunda 1858 Field Blend, I am very interested to hear more about your knowledge of the Stonegarden vineyard at Springton, as it recently became my home away from home. Glen Monaghan