“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)





10 February 2016


the brides after rain: Yangarra Ironheart Shiraz outside my front door on January 30th; netted to keep the birdies out ... unless otherwise acknowledged all photos©Philip White

Another re-write of extreme: record December HOT; record January WET: fingers crossed

It seems like months ago that we sat around the tables of Fino Willunga for the last time. Proprietors Sharon Romeo and David Swain were off to concentrate on their new business in the Barossa; serendipitously it was the Feast Day of St Vincent, the namesake of our bonnie Gulf, and patron of vignerons, viticulturers and, cough, vinegar makers.

Of course said St Vincent of Saragossa's day, January 22, happens in the winter in the Old World: it's a different kettle of fish in our sunny south. But this was not why the winefolk assembled at that last lunch were nonplussed when I recited the good saint's rhyme: If St Vincent's Day be fine, twill be a lovely year for wine ... 

We'd had that horrid, unnatural-feeling record heatwave in December, and vignerons along the big inland rivers had commenced their vintage the year before its calendar number came up. Even famously cool places like the Yarra Valley were facing their earliest harvest yet. But suddenly it was wet and windy. In some places, depending on the style of vineyard, its ground and its husbandry, the parched vines were gulping up the rain and berries were gorging and splitting. Add the marauding moulds that humidity brings to such exposed wet sugar and few growers felt confident about 2016.

Many had already erected their bird netting, an expensive and tricky job which precludes later tractor access should the crop require a last minute misting of fungicide. Warmer than average nights and twice the normal January rain in some vignobles seemed set for an explosion of botrytis and mildew like we endured in the horrid 2011, when the whole State ran out of spray.

reject muck from 2011

But in my neck of the woods at least, McLaren Vale, the Fleurieu and its South Mount Lofty Ranges, the thundery rains seemed always followed by solid gusty winds which dried wet canopies quickly: winds not wild enough to damage the netting, but strong enough to penetrate the leaves and bunches and make fungicides unnecessary.

This has all been further advantaged by the nature of the crop in the better-tended vineyards: while the number of bunches is high, their set is clean, even and open: there's enough space within the bunch to let that drying air through; the berries tend to be small and thick-skinned. There've been the odd moments of panic in those vineyards where the berries didn't drink enough to burst but swelled sufficiently to make the bunches tight and impenetrable to the healing breezes, but that threat seems to have subsided as this even, moderate warmth settles in with the breezes and the rain holds off.

January 1st: pre-veraison Ironheart Shiraz, after the December heat
If the rain holds off: It's been an interesting time to watch how the different soils and rocks have influenced the crop. The ground is very dry to a great depth in most vignobles. In many places, even that record January rain penetrated only a few inches. The downfalls washed and rinsed the canopies and wet the topsoil only: so little of the water got to the roots that the berries hardly slurped any of it. Many vines were still in atrophy, having shut down in the pre-Christmas heat.

It seemed that in the sandier, rapidly-draining grounds, the water rushed straight past the roots down into the clays which are often beyond the reach of juvenile plantings. Many of those vineyards came through January more like a fresh and invigorated athlete out of the shower than a wastrel who'd drunk too much.

... just to disprove all my theorising: this is the solid terrazzo-like slab ironstone that lies just beneath - only centimetres in some places - the sand in Ironheart ... that water had no place to go but sideways or into the roots, yet the vines show no sign of having had too much to drink ... I hope others have enjoyed the same illogic in their vineyards! 

Apropros St Vincent's homily, there will certainly be some vinegar made this year. Not everybody's come through well. With each year of new, wilder extremes of weather, the quality gap widens between the fruit of beloved, hand-tended vineyards, and those of rote industrial management or worse. The discount bins and enormous virtual winery businesses - those opportunists and sharks with brands but no vineyard or winery of their own - will have quite a lot of very ordinary goonbag plonk to, as they say, move.

Now, everything's changing quickly. The roads and tracks are filling with farmers delivering fruit, and the night air is buzzy with the sounds of the harvesting machines, which look like giant floodlit motherships in the dark.

Take much care when driving in the wine regions these next two months. Tractors come out of anywhere, and chug slowly around those blind corners.

At this time of the year, the roads belong to the locals.

we could use some signs like this in Australia: image © @JMiquelWine

I see fresh young faces in the street: backpackers here to pick and drag hoses and wash floors and tanks; foreigners trying to work out our alien supermarket brands and searching the liquor stores for beers they know. Wandering amateur folks with hippy vans full of surfboards, empty cans and sleeping bags; the more confident-looking professional vendageurs who work vintages in both hemispheres while they have the fitness and curiosity to learn as much as they can before choosing where to settle into their own businesses ...

So. It's fingers crossed; touch wood; trust St Vincent's confounding trickery and work like people possessed. Trust those most who can maintain the thousand-yard stare, and be ready to drink some perfection and quite a lot that's not.

Good luck folks. See you on the other side.

... speaking of The Other Side: everything's spick and span and ready for vintage to hit but check this shiny alien I spotted in the Yangarra winery yesterday: an amphora-shaped stainless steel temperature-controlled egg fermenter/maturation vessel ... what came first? HINT: This is Shiraz outside the winery ... 

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