“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)





28 October 2015


Blue Poles [Number 11, 1952] 1952; enamel and aluminium paint with glass on Belgian linen; OT367; 2.121 x 4.889 metres; signed and dated 1.1., "Jackson Pollock 52"; (originally inscribed with a "3", subsequently painted over with a "2"). National Gallery Of Australia

Making Margaret River Merlot: 
nothing mellow in the madness;
passionate method makes sense 

Had Cabernet sauvignon not been such a tough, easy-to-grow vine, and its wine fairly easy to make, one wonders exactly what Australia would have chosen to plant in its place.

More Shiraz?

There. I've said it.

The point being that too much Australian viticulture has been steered by ease of production. Just as grape farmers tend to first plant the flattest ground with little attention paid its location, chemical composition and geology, so they tend to plant tough, thick-skinned vine types that are easiest to grow, hoping that the marketing division, the wine shows and the wine critics might magically make whatever it is fashionable.

David Wynn, left, with Howard Twelftree and the author, ca 1990 ... photo Adam Wynn
David Wynn was the first winemaker I met who really bothered about which of the better varieties  gave the best flavours in certain geologies at the required altitudes. After years trying Cabernet sauvignon and Shiraz in the conveniently flat and coolish Coonawarra he decided instead to work at Pinot and Chardonnay and climbed up the hills to begin the development of the revolutionary Mountadam in 1969.

He'd drive around the South Mount Lofty Ranges with one eye on the geology map and the other on the altimeter he'd fixed to the dash of his Citroen. There was one bright, stylish dude, believe me.

Tim Markwell, left, with Mark Gifford: straight Cabernet franc next? ... photo Philip White

In the decades since, two accomplished geologists, Mark Gifford and Tim Markwell, grew tired of too many long nights in the dongas of outback mining camps in the Australian desert or Africa and the like, dreaming of the elegant but opulent blends of Pomerol and St Emilion while they sat there in the dust, drinking warm beer. In 2001 they decided to find a spot with the right geology and get on spending too much money finding and buying it and planting vines to make wines in that general Bordeaux blend direction.

Something beyond the angular plainness of pure, raw Cabernet.

Eventually, they drilled enough holes to find a geological profile in Margaret River that suited their goals: iron-rich gravelly loams over clay, with just enough of the latter to hold some moisture, but never too much. They raided their banks, hocked everything, including partners and kids, and planted Merlot, Cabernet franc and Shiraz.

Mark and Tim called at the weekend, and together with the elusive Pike, of Marius Wines on the faultline near Willunga, we took a full suite of their top reds to a very slow lunch at Nigel Rich's exquisite temple of meat, the Elbow Room in McLaren Vale.

Things don't get any better than this.

Being of like minds, there was little convincing to be done either way. We agree that Merlot and its image across most of the west has suffered terribly by the USA's determination that Merlot should be mellow. It can be mossy, sure. Sometimes mushroomy; at its best, often earthy. I love it when it takes on the black Iberian ham/red charcuterie/blood pudding meatiness it can sometimes develop. Short of that, the meaty nature of blueberry will really swell it up. Sometimes it shows satsuma, sometimes prune. But it should hardly be mellow. I like it when its tannins are still a touch granular, before the wine takes on a simple silky sheen: the shiny hyper-filtered and fined character that I fear too often leads to bland, mindless mellow.

We also seem to agree that Cabernet franc is ideally a tighter, more angular variety if not grown too heavily or too ripe. It's like Cabernet with neon. To my synaesthesia it's gunbarrel blue at its best; deep blue being a hue I often find arising from precise tannins like those of the juniper berry. It can have a meaty blueberry twang like Merlot, but often its best contribution to a blend is the ethereal violet and lavendar floral topnotes it can release when it's been grown and made in the happiest, coolest manner.

In the best years, Blue Poles Vineyard makes two sublime wines: the Reserve Merlot, and the Allouran blend. If the wine's not the way they want it, they don't release it.
We first slurped the Merlots.

2007 set the pace for the shape of premium Merlot: "it rises and subsides like a giant Pacific swell composed of prune and satsuma," my notes record, "but it's multi-faceted and granular ... sexy, husky, moody, grainy, brooding ... NOT creamy! Not mellow!" Now, after two days, it's still not slick. In fact, that grainy texture (like an old Bunuel movie) combined with its cracker natural acid, make it almost brusque. But it nevetheless retains that remarkable rise and fall that's so gradual but massive. Not one mellow molecule in sight, but plenty of damp earth and charcuterie - 92+ points.

When I suggested 2008 was more conventional, Mark shot back "'08 was a more conventional vintage." My comment was about its polished smoothness and sheen. 

"Americans could drink it," I dared. Its flavours first opened were along the lines of Bickfords' Essence of Coffee and Chicory (more chicory than coffee) with a rich plum syrup; after two days it's slumped to an even more conventional aged dry red - 85 points - "not yet a curio." On my tight scale, mind you, that's still 8½/10.

2010 was immediately closer in form to the '07, with more granular tea tin tannin and visceral fatty acid. After days open, it's lost much of its primary plummy fruit, but remains an appetising, matte black serpent of a drink, lithe and velvety - 90+ points.

2011, the current release, takes the cake. I reviewed it here in June, with 93+++ points. On opening this time, it immediately confirmed my suggestion: "When it tumbles over the little waterfall of your front teeth it turns your mouth into a very dark pool of swirling mystery. Blackcurrant pressings and juniper tannins well up across the tongue and just sit there. Like for five minutes. They don’t even look at you." It is at once the most elegant and fine of these Merlots, with the best balance and harmony, even with the brash summer-dust prickle of terroir it shows in this its youth. I'd call it 94+ now. It's a mighty Merlot, with not one mellow hint. Yum.

At which point Tim pulled out a 2014 barrel sample which pretty well undressed me at lunch, and has worked away at devouring all my sensories since, getting greedier and more demanding and deserving of attention with each hour. Ooops: finished it. Watch for that one!

The first Allouran, the 2005, was called  Merlot/Cabernet Franc. Typical of the grocers in the wine trade, most found this confronting nomenclaturial complexity impossible to grasp, and therefore,  not unexpectedly, impossible to sell. It's tired and a bit short now, but given its radical nature at birth, remains a pleasing curio.

"I mean we could have made a Petrus," Mark said, "and still they wouldna sold it. They just couldn't handle the idea of a blend. We had to come up with a new name." As I wrote last April, "if you insist on buying 2010s, this Allouran is AU$4,300:00 cheaper than Petrus." Per bottle. Really.

Allouran 2006 was most impressive when first opened. Svelte, lissom, perfumed "as balanced, determined and elegant as Audrey Hepburn - 93++ points." Now I wish I'd drunk it all that evening - it's flopped into its evening chair, and won't be rising. So remove one of those pluses, eh?

2007 Allouran was pure blue. It seemed franc dominant, with gunbarrel blue, Miles Davis Kinda Blue, Joni Mitchell Blue ... even though franc was only 33% of the blend. Now, it's slick, svelte, magically elegant and lithe, its blackcurrant, blueberry and aniseed swimming about my sensories like an electric eel set on just a tingle - 95 points.

2008, the "more conventional vintage," was as meaty and soused with slippery umami as a hotpot of boar's liver cooked with shiitake and oyster fungus. But its tannins were still dusty and dry; never mellow. Even now its primary fruit has fallen, but that slipperiness, acid and tannin maintain its prime sensuality - 92+ points.

Mark reckons 2010 is their "most holistic and complete Allouran philosophically." Freshly-opened, it seemed to leap with ozone, as if lightning had just struck the berry patch. It has blue, it has fur, it has cacao powder tannin, and now, after days, it's almost sickening in its heady sensual wallow - 94++ points.

But 2011? Well, 2011 was a shit year nearly everywhere in Australia apart from Western Australia. Margaret River had none of the terrible rains and moulds and funguses that butchered just about everything ordinary this side of the border. This wine overwhelmed me at the table, and it's simply grown in stature, compression and determination since. It has aniseed, juniper, blackcurrant, soft blackstrap licorice, sarsaparilla, beetroot and blueberry. It has pure cast iron and steely stainless resolve. It has brilliantly-balanced tannins. It's bright and racy and I reckon probably the best such blend I've yet seen in Australia. Try one now, but keep enough to do a bottle every year until at least 2022 - 95 points.

Merlot, when done properly is not mellow, see?

Pollock at work

I don't know if these blokes had the anti-mellow in mind when they named their vineyard. It was a very brave thing to do, naming it after Jackson Pollock's anguished explosion of colour and contrast: the mighty painting which David Wynn and some erudite mates convinced Prime Minister Gough Whitlam to buy on Australia's behalf. People whined about wasting $1.3 million on the work of a drunk. What's it worth now, measured in mere money? $200 million?

How do you value a work which has dazzled and turned on the brains of forty years of Australians?

It sure hasn't done that by being mellow.

With every vintage they choose to release, the impassioned, driven work of these two rock doctors picks closer to the heart of that painting. Their wines are nowhere near as angular and cracked but  they're all visceral and sensual justifications of their presumption.  It's risky, but measured, and driven by thirsty desert visions of the very best of Bordeaux.

Blue Poles Vineyard is not going away. Prepare to be dazzled.

Pole-axed as much as Pollocked: feeling artistically accomplished after a great lunch and revelatory tasting: Elbow Room proprietor/head chef Nigel Rich, Gifford, Markwell and the elusive Pike of Marius Wines ... photo Philip White

No comments: