“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)





05 October 2016


1st October, 2016: Flooding of the Langhorne Creek vignoble, on the estuarine lakes at the mouth of the Murray-Darling, Fleurieu Peninsula, South Australia. Traditionally, 'Larncrk' depended upon annual flooding of the Bremer River for deep soil moisture. Once Premier Dean Brown made possible permits for the vignerons to take water from the adjacent Lake Alexandrina, the region has grown on an enormous industrial scale, but as you see here, can still flood quite impressively, as have many of the winegrowing regions of south-eastern Australia ... photo from Langhorne Creek Winemakers

Floods, eucalypts, grape flavour: remembering the 'minty' reds of 1983 and a drive with The Ferret

It's probably too late in the season for all this water to have much good influence on the flavours of 2017.

If anything, growers will face big trouble when the spring properly arrives and the weather warms and settles: there'll be a huge surge of leaf growth which will cramp canopies and make it hard for any breezes to penetrate that thick green thatch.

Unless there's a lot of fungicide spraying, like too much, vignerons will have to be shoot-thinning and leaf-plucking to admit the drying and healing breezes to the bunches as they form and swell.

As the sousing rains set in across the south east of Oz, Bayer, the new owner of Monsanto, was hard at work teasing the paranoia and pride of grape-farmers, pumping the conscience of the lot of them with full-bore social media advertising of their fungicide, Teldor. 

Drinkers who bother to read the Teldor back label may well hope any growers who use this stuff should advise us of its use on the back labels of their wine, just so's we know. The incessant ads are there right now. It'll be used. Bayer's also going for the strawberry growers.

Botrytis and other moulds aside, these dramatic rains will do one other thing to many vineyards. In some, the fruit will likely be minty with eucalyptol.

In the late 'seventies and early 'eighties a lot of reds from the new cooler climate Victorian regions like Heathcote, Bendigo and the Yarra Valley were sometimes very minty. This excited show judges looking for new aromas and flavours. These wines often came from vineyards in forested regions. Many boring tasting games depended on the drinker identifying these prospective vignobles by their pepper - which usually indicated unripe fruit - or what we called mint or peppermint, which we eventually learned was really eucalyptus.

When those terrible fires had been extinguished on Ash Wednesday, in 1983, leaving 75 dead, there was a teasing belting of rain that came too late to help. Instead, it washed a lot of precious scorched topsoil away from the areas that were burnt. In those that weren't, the water flooded through, picking up gum leaves which it deposited as a thick layer in downstream vineyards. Some of this vegetable gunge was knee-deep when the water went down.

When those '83s were eventually poured, with tasting games like Options one could tease the proponents of those trendy new cool spots of Victoria. If one poured, just for example, a Barossa Shiraz from the flooded slopes of Stockwell, Light Pass or Nuriootpa, it was so stacked with eucalyptol the taster would often imagine it must have come from those forested regions to our south east. In the memories of most, the rich, ripe Shiraz of that north-east Barossa had not previously showed that character so overtly.

Some winemakers were very pleased about their usually blackberry-and-chocolate reds suddenly showing some of the style of the exciting new regions across the border; others regarded it as an alien intrusion and attempted, usually in vain, to dilute and diminish its character by blending or masking it with toasty American oak.

But it was fun to trick pompous old wine buffoons who thought they knew everything. Pass a glass of, say, Elderton Shiraz from Nuriootpa and they tended to sniff that minty eucalypt and say "Bendigo" or "Heathcote".

The first person I met who understood the source of this new aromatic was John "The Ferret" Glaetzer, the master nose and vineyard expert behind the success of Wolf Blass.

The author with Wolf Blass and John "The Ferret" Glaetzer ... photo Johnny "Guitar" Preece
We'd been having a beer in Paulos' pub in Tanunda sometime after the Ash Wednesday reds had begun to appear, when I suggested the source of the "mint" or "peppermint" was in fact eucalyptus.

"Whatterya doing this arvo?" Glaetzer shot back, through a cloud of tobacco. He offered me a seat in his car: he was off to Langhorne Creek to collect ripening bunches for analysis back in his Barossa lab. His was the only company car in the Blass camp with a sunroof: folks in the know joked about him needing it to let the smoke out. I recall a cartoon somebody drew of that Falcon, tearing across the countryside like a steam locomotive.

We laughed and smoked all the way down the Bremer Valley through Harrogate, Kanmantoo and Callington to Larncrk, as he called it, me mystified by the nature of my inclusion in the exercise.

When we got there, we went from vineyard to vineyard. My job was to collect soil samples from beneath the vines he sampled, and take notes of the appearance and aspect of each site, paying particular attention to the number of adjacent red gums.

Back in the lab, he crushed each bunch and put its juice in a numbered glass. The relevant soil samples were lined up in little piles, also numbered, on another clean white bench and an assistant shuffled both lots of samples. We sniffed the glasses for an hour. Most showed the aroma we'd called mint, some overtly.

Then we sniffed the soils. Those with the most obvious mint, or eucalyptus,  generally matched the bunches with the same bouquet, and tended to come from the vineyards my notes showed to have the most red gums surrounding them, or indeed, big ones growing amongst their vines.

From this highly unscientific exercise, we agreed that the eucalyptus in the soil, or in the air, was volatile, so its airborne particles must have settled on the matte blume of the grape skins, where it stayed until skin contact with the fermenting must transferred the aroma into the wine itself. You only needed a few parts per million or trillion or something miniscule to obtain the affect.

"That's where our Jimmy Watsons come from," the Ferret enthused: he'd recently won his boss three Watson trophies in a row; still the record. 

"The show judges can smell it through the fruit and the oak, whether they recognise it or not. They seem to like it."

Recalling the frigid industrial hall in which the Royal Melbourne Wine Show was judged reminds me that sometimes all one could smell in that joint was high volatiles and fresh oak sap; it was so cold that berry fruit was barely perceptible in comparison to such harsh edges.

A few years after those Ash Wednesday floods the eucalypt in the Stockwell/Light Pass/Nuriootpa reds had declined to previous levels, but the young Whitey's hooter never forgot that eucalyptus, for good or bad, was something to look for in the snifters.

For those who live 'down among the gum trees' this aroma is often overlooked: it's the normal background bouquet of great swathes of Australia.Locals breathe it without smelling it until they get home from somewhere else.

Of all South Australian vineyards, it was Glaetzer's Langhorne Creek favourites that tended to exude the aroma regardless of whether or not their source had been flooded during vintage. 

The stuff was in that black muddy ground.

I wouldn't dare suggest that 2017 will smell of gum trees across the board. But I'm willing to bet that if and when this water ever goes down, growers whose vineyards sport a new layer of eucalypt leaves may well find a new mintiness in their reds.

When the 2017 berries grow fat and full, that eucalypt will rise from the ground and settle on their skins, especially when the humidity soars in a summer thunderstorm.

If they're lucky, this might see such winemakers coming home from the Melbourne Show with a Jimmy in the boot.

On the other hand, growers of whites will want none of it. You don't want eucalyptus in your Riesling, Savvy-b or Chardonnay. Or Pinots, for that matter. Please Bacchus, Pan, Huey ... anybody listening ...

One other thing. While these persistent deluges will pump leaf growth and then the 2017 bunches to a discomforting degree, they'll be having a profound influence on the tiny buds already forming deep inside the vine wood for the 2018 vintage.

As the remarkable diaries (1891-2016+) at Kay Brothers' Amery show, it's almost invariably the year after sousing rains that are the greatest producers of flavour. Any grower who can't manage and control this tricky 2017 by finicky shoot-thinning, leaf-plucking and selective bunch-dropping, might console themselves in the hope that my theory delivers the bacon, if not the Big Jim, with their 2018 wine.

Touch wood. But make it seasoned French oak, not red gum.

If the broadacre industrial grapeyards deliver the big yields likely after such extreme rain, and then have access to a surplus of very cheap irrigation water, the Oz discounting liquor duopoly, Coles and Woolworths, will be sure to slurp up anything that sinks to the bottom. 

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