“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)





01 April 2015


Grower's cottage almost blended away by lava on Mount Etna, Sicily, the home of Nerello mascalese: Australia doesn't currently have much terroir like this ... photo by Hajotthu

The market's showing interest 
at last in well-blended wine:
Oz had better sharpen its nose

"Only Pinot and Neb, as reds, stand alone. And maybe Nerello mascalese." 

So tweeted reviewer Gary Walsh of the wine-ranking website The Wine Front, a reviews compendium pubished by Campbell Mattinson since 2002. Campbell is also James Halliday's editor.

Our discusion of my 17th March vintage report led to an interchange about where certain varieties grow best or worst which led to blends which are necessary to hide mistakes. At which point Gary named the only three grape varieties he feels are good enough to release as straight varietals without being blended with other varieties: Pinot noir, Nebbiolo and Nerello Mascalese.

That's a big claim to make in 140 characters.

Blending is the parfumerie end, the refined pinnacle of the winemakers' art. Ideally, all the necessary science will have already gone into the base components, leaving the nose of the master blender to whip up a great symphonic painting on the laboratory bench.

But how many of our winemakers are capable of fitting this job description: performing the ultimate aromatic impressionistic expression of their game? 

The Australian Restaurants Directory currently lists 32,000 eateries. Go Study Australia says we have 75,000 chefs. How many of these are great? Genius chefs? Quite a few, no doubt spread across Maccas and Colonel Sadness, but there's only one Cheong, one David Swain, one Tony Bilson, one Nigel Rich, one Duncan Welgemoed. 

While I beg forgiveness of those few dozen really good ones that I've missed from around the country, let's switch to the world of parfumerie, which seems to have a current annual worth of $40 billion. A great parfumier is called a nose, or nez. Out of the thousands of aspirants working in the game, about 50 are recognised.

I can't for the life of me find a reliable indicator of the number of winemakers we have in Australia, but we have about 2,500 wineries. Some have no winemaker, many have a team. How many of these fit the great or genius class? What percentage of them possess the nose of a master parfumier?

Add these factors to the old theorum that blending is unnecessary unless the quality of the result is greater than the sum total of its parts, and the really good blend is starting to look a little unlikely. In fact, most of Australia's blending is accidental. If not mindless.

I grew up in an era when a drink called Hock was the most popular white wine. One favourite was Quelltaler Hock from Clare. It was usually a mixture of Crouchen, Semillon and Riesling, with maybe a couple of lesser sherry varieties. Reds too were made of anything and everything that happened to be available.  Add up all the fifty or so wines currently made by d'Arenberg for an indicator of what went into their famous Red Stripe flagons.

Max Schubert in his little blending room at Magill Estate, after his retirement. He loved conjuring extraordinary wines by blending ordinary commercial ones out of bottle ... photo from A year in the life of Grange by Milton Wordley
Max Schubert was a blender. As he flew home from his famous French trip, designing the blueprint for Grange, he knew it would be Shiraz with a little Cabernet. He once confided to me at Angle Vale that he also used a little of its Grenache now and then to add some roses, but that's not on the records.

The author with two great noses: Wolf Blass and John Glaetzer ... photo Johnny Preece 

Then came Wolf Blass, known for decades as the Master Blender. With John Glaetzer he continued the tradition of blending Cabernet with Shiraz, or vice-versa, an admixture most believed to be an Australian invention. But just as that other claimed Aussie property, Sparkling Burgundy was a copy of early 1800s French blends of Burgundy Pinot with Rhône Shiraz, so the Blass blend was a copy of the top Bordeaux reds of those same days, when the winemakers brought some Rhône Shiraz in to beef up their Cabernets. Our earliest winemakers simply pinched these recipes and brought them, with their cuttings, to Australia.

You didn't have to be a genius nose - it was hardly creative. Blass and Glaetzer, however, ingeniously created a huge wine empire by taking that recipe and fine-tuning it to the market's desires: mainly by applying their brilliant noses.

Then came the horror of the GSM, a lab abbreviation of Grenache, Shiraz and Mataro which the Rosemount marketers turned into a recipe which determined the order of volume of each of those grapes in a blend which for a while looked like it would be Australia's Châteauneuf-du-Pape. More accurately, everybody hoped it would be. Everybody who didn't understand Grenache or indeed Châteauneuf-du-Pape simply followed the Rosemount refinery in. Those who did understand Grenache, and grew it properly, had to have a GSM too, just to please the grocers in the trade. But putting some Shiraz in your Grenache and then a smaller amount of Mataro was considerably different to making a Châteauneuf-du-Pape, which sure is Grenache-dominant, but can by law include up to eighteen varieties, nine of which are white or pink. That requires a nose.

Henri Krug with Monica Jansons at his bench in 1992 ... photo Philip White 

For the blending of white wines, the greatest temple is Champagne Krug in Reims. Henri Krug, now sadly gone from this world, had the best nose I've encountered. With his brother Remi, he would spend months blending their staple Grande Cuvée non-vintage Champagne from hundreds of possible components: wines from many different Villages and vintages, from both steel and old oak. But only three varieties: Chardonnay, Pinot noir and Pinot Meunier.

Remi was the one who regularly made the joke about why vintages are so rarely declared at Krug, while Grande Cuvée is made each year: "Ah, but God makes the vintage, my bother and I blend the Grande Cuvée."

Henri was a great lover of Pinot meunier as a Champagne base wine. I once took him Viv Thomson's favourite: his 1967 Best's Great Western dry red version. I don't think Henri had ever seen a full-bodied red version of meunier before: he was dumbstruck. Smitten. And there it was, coming from Great Western, where it has been introduced in the earliest days of Australian Sparkling Burgundy, but to be blended into an emulation of the sort of Champagne the Krugs make. Uh-huh.

Best's Great Western ... hardly Champagne ... photo from the winery archive

Because most of it's grown in the wrong place, Pinot noir is largely, on the international scene, utter crap. Only a tiny amount of the total is grown in Burgundy and Champagne, where they do such a good job that we automatically try to copy them. Uh-huh.

Gary's second choice of a red that needs no blending is a grape that I relate to Pinot noir. On the French side of the Alps, you have Pinot. Cross the range, and you have Nebbiolo. Their fruits line up: very similar, the biggest difference being the way the tannin in a good Nebbiolo seems to float above the wine like a cloud. In even the greatest Pinot, like La Tâche, the tannin sits smugly in the basement of the wine, just as it does in the most common Shiraz.

Like Pinot in Burgundy, most of the world's Nebbiolo vineyards are not in any place that vaguely resembles alpine Italy. The copyists mainly grow crap.

Such wines should be blended to hide them. Like 95% of Australia's Viognier, which has been parked unattributed in Shiraz for years, just to dispose of it. Neither of these coarse industrial cases are the sorts of wondrous creative blending exercises I started talking about. A truly great nose would not be bothered with such trash base components.

Which leads me to Château Tanunda. The 1850s-60s Randall vineyard east of Springton contains various varieties; winemaker Stuart Bourne simply picked some of its Grenache, Malbec and Mataro at the same time, then co-fermented them and out came the staggeringly grand Château Tanunda 150 Year Old Vines 1858 Field Blend 2013 ($295; cork; only 1066 bottles; 95+++ points).

That, too is hardly the act of a great nose. Risky, sure. Game as hell. Great choice of vineyard. Suddenly field blends are back.

And as for Nerello mascalese, a rare red which grows on the slopes of Mount Etna? We'll have to wait for a new volcano to pop up in our snow country to match that terroir which makes it flourish, or we'd simply better mix it up with something else. As they do with most of what they grow in Sicily.

Blending? Industrially essential to cover most of the ill-researched bloody-minded mistakes made by our vino-industrial complex. Any Blunnies-hi-res jacket type in a hard hat and safety glasses should be able to hide their employers' mistakes along with their own, and smuggle the mixture through the critics onto the shelves.

Blending? Canny exporters are reporting a change of gears in the world marketplace: punters are beginning to accept and show curiosity to blends which they were rightfully suspicious of before. So the market looks like it's willing to step up. Accordingly, Australian blenders better up their act very quickly, or all those buying folks will go back to plan A.

We did this with high alcohol Shiraz, remember.

As for beautiful, ravishing Krug-level things blended deliberately by a great nose? That'll depend on whether there's one in Australia.


Gary Walsh ‏@winefront said...

could probably add Gamay, Teroldego to monos, with Grenache and Shiraz from VERY specific sites on my hasty list too.

And Mencia :)

Best Wines Under $20 ‏@briardpuppy said...

I'll second the Grenache option. When it's good, it's gorgeous.

Sir Mark Gifford @Blue Poles said...

No volcanoes popping up anytime soon - look north to the Cape of York in 23 million years - bring it on Nerello! ;-) ... agree with the sentiment of the article too. Though I find blending of "best" barrels is a worthy skill in itself ... Though admittedly you may not be making the best "wine" but the best varietal character (Wine Show Class 5A)

The Key Report said...

I have said often Philip White is one of Australia’s greatest writers on the subject of wine. Sadly we are forced to read a lot of rubbish in many of the papers and magazines that are published whilst Philip is sidelined MAYBE BECAUSE HE CAN BE DIFFICULT TO DEAL WITH AT TIMES. Go read, “Blending: the pinnacle of the winemakers’ art” at http://indaily.com.au/food-and-wine/2015/04/01/blending-the-pinnacle-of-the-winemakers-art/ Its a good intelligent article and thought provoking.