“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)





30 December 2017


Ian Hickinbotham: best of the 1929 vintage ... photo Milton Wordley

Hick joins brilliant rivals and mates Max, Becky, Wynn and Stephen
Ian Hickinbotham, one of Australia's most influential wine scientists, a mentor, inventor and writer, has departed.

Jenny, his daughter, sends this message: 

"I just wanted to let you know that Ian passed away at home on 29th December. He was very peaceful.  Judy and I, with the support of friends and family, cared for him over the last two weeks -  he did not want to go to hospital. 

 "Ian was able to celebrate his 64th wedding anniversary with Judith, family and friends, on 23rd December, so we were all thrilled about that, as was Ian, who had a big smile.  

"We are going to hold a Celebration of Ian's life at the Seagull’s Football Club in Battery Road Williamstown (Melbourne) at 11am on Stephen’s birthday 11th January.  Hope you can come. 

"Would you please let people know." 

While I work out how to reflect on this great man in longer form, for Ian and his deceased son Stephen were profound influences on my life with wine, I recommend you read Milton Wordley's interview with Ian. 

For a good summary of Hick's fascinating autobiography, Australian Plonky, check Kim Brebach's review

To sort some of the folk theory about the "invention" of the bladder pack, check DRINKSTER

Along with highly competitive mates like Ray Beckwith, Max Schubert and David Wynn, Ian Hickinbotham was a vital, incredibly influential cornerstone of the Australian wine of today.

Internationally, it's impossible to measure the impact Hick's work, with Beckwith's newfound knowledge and David Wynn's support, had on the, er, ahem, little matter of malolactic fermentation, just for starters.

Hick, far left, at Roseworthy Agricultural College in the '30s. His father Alan, aka Hick, founded the wine science faculty. That's Seaview founder, Ben Chaffey, in a posher blazer in the foreground. Below, my '82 photo of Stephen 'Hickie' Hickinbotham amongst the Eucalyptus regnans in the Otways, south of the Hickinbotham Family Anakie winery

20 December 2017




When pagans party with the pious: dangerous xxxmess food and drinks

Without seeming too curmudgeonly, it's tricky to decide on the credible Christmas drinks yarn after writing them forty years in a row. 

You have a young lass and her carpenter husband on their way to pay their taxes in Roman-occupied Palestine when she, a virgin, gives birth to the son of god in a stable out the back of a packed pub in Nazareth. 

Or you have something a touch more credible about Siberians eating fly agaric toadstools - Amanita muscaria - to warm up and trip out in the frigid weeks of darkness around the winter solstice.

The author with a fly agaric, consumption of which is threatening to normal health and well-being, and possession of which is illegal in Australia ... photo Leo Davis

Like all good yarns both these legendary seeds grow mighty branches of nonsense to provide the polished bullshitter fabulous opportunities for extrapolation. 

One can start presuming that whoever Jesus' father hired as a ghost writer was instructed to endorse the paying of due tax. This is something the incredibly wealthy churches hot-listed in the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse should be paying like everybody else, at least while they insist on maintaining their pious immunity from the common law and their protection of the money-changers in their extravagant temples. 

Buckle to God by George Grainger Aldridge

As far as the hallucinogenic mushrooms go, it seems reindeer love the polka-dot ones that grow beneath "Christmas" trees and gave Santa his red-and-white attire, while their kidneys conveniently remove the fungi's toxins which make humans feverish and bilious. 

So the best way for those old northerners to enjoy the trip was to drink the reindeers' urine, where the good bits were concentrated. Reindeer with tell-tale red noses are thought to offer the highest quality. 

The fly agaric made reindeer so frisky the hallucinating humans thought the beasts were preparing to fly.  If there were no tripping reindeer handy, it is said a shaman type human would risk the sweats and vomiting and eat the mushrooms so the rest of the group could safely drink his urine. 

While there's not much along the lines of recreational or ritual drinking of your actual piss going down, the purpose of a yuletide drinks column is to suggest lists of superior ethanols to replace that traditional seasonal libation. It's illegal to eat the toadstools, which don't grow in summer anyway. Being the first person to be busted and convicted for possession of psilocybin mushrooms after such adventure was suddenly outlawed here in 1973, I speak with certain experience.

One needs to journey above 60 degrees north to appreciate how small the Arctic is. The Mercator projection maps my generation sat beneath in our post-war schoolrooms stretched Greenland to the size of Africa. The point of geographic north was as long as the Equator. Take a look down on a globe from above the North Pole and you'll get my drift. 

Mercator's ingenious formula for making the spherical world rectangular does this to his head

Those deep northern communities are really quite close to each other. It's easy to see how such ancient yarns, and indeed the yuletide rituals, traversed the icy northern lands with traded furs and fish and were spread by mobs like the Vikings, to eventually be melded into the Jesus story when the Norsemen adopted Christianity

We know that at about the time of this gradual conversion the Vikings were aficionados of four styles of ethanol. 

In his Edda, the Icelandic scholar Snorri Sturluson (1179 – 1241) delineated this neatly with his Tilsagt verse. His book was a primer to teach aspirant writers the arts of addressing kings, and gives various pristine examples of poems and speeches, using the fading legends of the time to fill his templates.

Here are his four couplets, followed by the translations of Anthony Faulkes, who was Professor of Old Icelandic at the University of Birmingham:

Röst gefr ödlingr iastar
- öl virdi esvá – fyrdum. 

The King gives currents of yeast (that is what I adjudge ale to be) to men. 

Thögn fellir brim bragna
- biórr forn er that – horna. 

Men’s patience is dispelled by surf (that is old beer) of horns. 

Máls kann mildingr heilsu
- miödr heitir svá – veita. 

The Prince knows how speech’s salvation (that is what mead is called) is to be given. 

Strúgs kemr í val veiga
- vín kallak that – galli. 

In the choicest of cups comes (this is what I call wine) dignity’s destruction. 

In that brief lesson, Sturluson, who was eventually executed in his Iceland cellar by order of the King of Norway, showed the hopeful spindoctor one classic form of Viking verse by explaining the ethanols of the day.

Hvammur, Dala, West Iceland - memorial pillar at the birthplace of Snorri Sturluson

He covers young frothy ale, then aged lager, honey mead and finally, the big new hit: wine. One could presume this was the ideal order in which these things were served at feasts like Yuletide. Warm up on the ale, grow tetchy on the lager, start talking too much on the mead, and go nuts on the wine. 

As they would have encountered distillation in Byzantium by 900AD, it's likely the Vikings had introduced alcoholic spirits to Iceland by Sturluson's time, so his "wine" may well have been fortified, or even pure brandy. Maybe it was the release of this deep state intelligence that displeased the distant King.

If you wanted to observe the traditional solstice feast today, you'd enter a mate's yurt through the hole in its roof when the snow covered the door, hang a sockful of fly agarics above the fire to dry, ingest them dried or kidney-filtered, sink a few Cooper's Ales, a few hornsful of Mismatch Lagers from Hills brewer Ewan Brewerton, then a big pot of Maxwell's mead - warmed and spiced. Only after that lot would you address the wine. 

To bring the Chrestus into it, have a wine like the one the Italians were used to making. I imagine the young son of the creator of the universe hanging about the back of the officers' mess, watching them ferment it; sneaking a taste. Years later, when his mum whinged about him and the lads arriving at the wedding so late the wine was gone he called the guests to bring the water pots out into the sun. Add some dried grapes from the store. Wait for the wild ferment to kick in. 

In those days, a wedding often lasted a week. When Jesus and his boys finally wandered up that dusty hill, exhausted and thirsty after a night on the plonk on Galilee shore, he delivered his notable irritation "Mother, what am I to do with thee?"

The Virgin Spanking the Baby Jesus ... Max Ernst

The Roman army wouldn't fight without onions and wine. I can think of one former Australian Prime Minister who seemed inspired by this, but by Jesus, those troopers musta stank. In case they'd have to fight beyond the realms of wine culture, they'd make their own with the dried fruit they carried. Today, such wines are called ripasso or amarone. These are made to this day in Valpolicella in northern Italy. 

The best South Australian examples I know are under the Koltz brand, made by Mark Day, just over the hill from me in Blewett Springs, McLaren Vale. Mark loves doing vintage in Valpolicella. His two principal McLaren Vale glories, The Wizard and The Pagan are made from his grapes dried on racks for up to seven weeks. 

So there. Just in case you can't think of how to spend the big birthday of the world's most famous winemaker (apart, perhaps, from Maynard James Keenan, left), there's some inspirational background. Have a lovely day, and guarantee there are no souls left lost on the tundra. Seek 'em out, bring 'em in, give ALL the sleigh keys to Santa, then fill everybody with good cheer ... ka-chink!

CODA: This is a tragic example of the pagan filth hallucinogenic fungi can trigger in a clean Christian brain on the occasion of the Saviour's birthday: from my 1973 diary:  

15 December 2017


trojanpencil@gmail.com is George, above ... lighting a blurry one from my tasting notes of 26th May 2001, below: lazy susan at T-Chow ... I'm certainly no George, but often a sketch is a better reminder to me than fucking page after page of descriptive notes ... like rose A at the cricket? I'll let that go straight through to George ... 


Team Jericho: [what? No Riesling?] Andrew (winemaker) and Kim (graphic artist), standing at rear; seated: Neil (winemaker), Kaye (wine den manager) Steve (husband of Sally) and Sally (accountant) ... photo Philip White

Bring on the visionary wine families. Especially if they have good Riesling

It's always risky to spend too much time wallowing about in past wine recommendations: one's preferences can reveal patterns of prejudice as much as reliability or consistency. 

Take this year that's nearly done. January I sent you first to the hills around Kuitpo for a brace of delightful modern whites, a Fiano and a Fumé, from the Jericho family. Then we scooted to the north end of the same Mount Lofty Ranges to Clare and the Paulett family for a crisp Riesling and a cracker Semillon. Next was the Holmes à Court family's trinity of staunch Vasse Felix Margaret River Chardonnays with the AWOL Peregrine. 

The families of Torzi-Matthews and Tim Freeland then brought three typically rustic marvels from the Hills and Plains: lovely bargains thumbing their noses at those posh Westies. 

A family affair: Frank and Pat Gagliardi's stubborn remnant vineyard on the Adelaide Plains with their Grenache destined for the Torzi-Matthews/Freeland families' delicious Old Plains wines
We toyed with Fox Gordon, which looks like it could be another hills family but turned out to be an invented  brand aimed straight at stray millennials, then went back to Clare and the Sevenhill Jesuits for more crunchy Riesling. 

One month. Five families; one church; Riesling dominant. 

February. The Brooks family's Heirloom: same ranges; three whites; another Riesling. To Coonawarra, for the deep traditional reds of the Zema family. McLaren Vale next, and Italianate reds from the Lloyd and Petrucci families.

still no Riesling: Joe and Michael Petrucci of McLaren Flat ... photo Philip White

Back to Torzi-Matthews Vigna Cantina for, wait for it, a Trebbiano. 

Thence to Ashton Hills - no longer family-owned since the friendly takeover by Wirra Wirra, but surely established by Steve George and the van Rood families - for an exemplary Pinot and another Riesling. 

Paracombe next: the Drogemuller family, for a killer Sauvignon, and yep, another Riesling. 

So we were right through to vintage and nearly everything I had suggested was from a family business and Riesling was easily the most-mentioned variety. Surprised? Not this little white duck. Your correspondent is an unabashed supporter of clever families and Riesling. 

The family thing is longstanding. My earliest days in the game were rich with the lessons one got from winemaking families like the Hill Smiths (Riesling), the Wynns (Riesling), the Tyrrells (uh-huh), Hickinbothams (Riesling), Gramps (Riesling) and the Barrys (you guessed it, Riesling, especially Unca Brian's). 

I spoke of this when introducing traditional family values man Prime Minister John Howard at the opening of the O'Leary Walker winery in Clare, in 2003 (above). Howard had that week been promoting the stock exchange, preaching that he wanted Australians to be the world's biggest holders of stocks and shares. 

At the same time, he'd urged a clamp down on gambling. 

My speech was about how the stock exchange mentality, with its boom-or-bust tendencies and tease of rapid monetary gratification, was never really suited to the eternally slow cycles of the wine business. The two don't fit. 

Consider the great vineyard. You pick a flavour you want, locate the clones, then find the suitable land. You spend a year preparing it. You plant and weed and trellis; in three or four years you get a crop. Three or four years later you're starting to get a properly commercial crop.

You build a winery and make wine and if it's red you cellar it for three years. Ten years later it's beginning to look mature, so you begin to get an idea of whether your site and variety choices had been wise, fifteen or twenty years before. 

Bleached mock orangeperson offers white balance to film crew: that green stripe passing through my head one summer sunrise in 1984 was Colin Gramp's incredible Steingarten Riesling vineyard ... producer/director Gus Howard took this photo while we were making the first ever Australian Wine and Brandy Corporation wine export movie, which I wrote ... but only a great family with a genius could imagine and complete a Steingarten

Like, fashions change. Bloody climate changes. Water runs out. Things catch fire. 

That doesn't seem much like the sort of financial cycle your average buyer of stocks and shares would sensibly tip money on. 

I was able to explain that wine needed families like the Walkers, with three generations of influential fizz makers, trained originally by Edmund Mazure and the Wynn family. Or the O'Learys, whose colonial days began in the Pirramimma Johnstons family's Oakbank Brewery before they became Adelaide Hills vineyard pioneers. 

Riesling kings: Nick Walker, third generation sparkling wine master, with David O'Leary in one of the O'Leary family's beautiful maturing Adelaide Hills vineyards ... photo Philip White ... below: Nick's grandfather Hurtle (centre) and father Norm with David Wynn (left) in the S. Wynn & Co. Romalo cellars at Magill

On the other hand, you have the husks of old family companies being gutted and flayed by stockjocks with haircuts. They are always there, carrion flash Harries peeling away layer after layer of good heritage and provenance provided by one family or another before they'd hit a dud generation who was sick or disinterested or simply not much good at wine, so sold out or lost it.
Seppelts, Penfolds, Lindemans and Hardys come to mind. After a few good generations, most families lose their fizz. 

And if there's any left, eventually, somebody wants to spend the money. 
Like a few years after that photo above was taken in the Steingarten, the Barossa's most famous and revered upland vinegarten, I drove in there to show Victorian winemakers Ron Laughton and Graeme Leith what Riesling was really like. We interrupted the hired executioners, cutting the vines off at das niveau da steins for the latest owners. I told them they were in trouble; we tore down the hill to Orlando in my scary police hemi with the Holleys and its chin on the ground; I stormed into a shocked MD Guenther Prass' office for a brief chat and the gang was called off, halfway through their nefarious work.
That was a close shave. They were gonna cut it all out. Uh-huh. Colin Gramp, and great Riesling, are my friends.  

(I notice Pernod Ricard have not yet recognised my efforts on the back labels of their Steingarten, wherever it comes from now. But I can sleep.)  

Think of the odds against you getting successful generation after generation of superior wine thinkers and managers: in what other business should the familial practitioner be expected to understand soil, geology, climate, farm economics, plant physiology, pest management, biochemistry, modern food manufacture, legal regulation, packaging, transport, marketing, public relations, sales, trade law, gastronomy, risk ... not to mention finance ... you get my drift.

So there's one conundrum: you can't expect endless successive generations to magically inherit the management touch required in the wine business, just as you can't expect the short-term stock investor to get their brain around the achingly slow establishment and development cycles of wine. 

It's all quite confronting, such unlikelihood. Discomfiting.

And yet still we have these true blue Aussie digger families getting their shovels into soil and skins, establishing stuff. Doing the shoe leather. Working people with vision and patience and a desire to make the best damn drink they possibly can. 

Which is where Riesling comes in. Not only is this the wine with the longest life of the whites, but it's one you can make quick after picking, bottle it and get it out there earning income without writing huge cheques to any cooper or cellar storage facility. Just polish that tank up, keep everything clean and get on with it. 

We're very lucky that Riesling is such a right royal breed, offering such early gratification as an austere, dead-honest encapsulation of all that serious wine can be, but one that will certainly last those ten or twenty years it'll take for you to work out whether your choice of site and variety was such a smart idea after all ... In the meantime, another year's grinding down and guess what's in the fridge? Paulett, Vasse Felix, Sevenhill ...

14 December 2017


for originals or commissions you can seek the elusive George Grainger Aldridge at trojanpencil@gmail.com

13 December 2017


Under deep cover: Senator Sam Dastyari impersonates The King at the Parkes Elvis Festival in January ... Sam was not only the first Elvis impersonator to get the job but he was also the youngest person ever to become the secretary of the New South Wales Labor Party, considered a rare thing for a China expert with such an eye for product placement

Fill your glass for the China intrigue: true life spy comics for Christmas 

Yeah, yeah Christmas time, write something nice about what goes with pudding? 

Not this year. This is the year of the spy comics. You can drink nearly anything with a spy comic. Pour yourself a big one. 

Given the great care he takes over surveillance issues, Iranian-born Australian Senator Sam Dastyari is obviously not the sort of person you'd find deliberately hanging out with enemy spooks. But it was hardly breakfast on Monday and already we had the Minister for Immigration, having followed into the fanging throng none other than Linda Burney, calling the poor fellow a "double agent."

Because of his China thing, they're baying about how it's maybe getting closer to the time Sam started to think more or less along the lines of another job of work. Which has pushed him to promise to leave the Senate after Christmas. 

ALP allegiance to mates ain't quite what it was. 

I can't help thinking of David Combe. 

David Combe at 40, by Keith Looby, 1983 - National Portrait Gallery

With the support of new national Labor hero Don Dunstan, Combe, after graduating from the University of Adelaide, became the youngest ever secretary of the Australian Labor Party. That curly-haired boy was soon a supremely influential lobbyist with close entwinements to the government of Bob Hawke. 

Intrigue? Labor'd hardly got over the Khemlani Affair where Whitlam lost government after a botched loans scandal involving the Adelaide developer Gerry Karidis who introduced the Pakistani freelance Tirath Khemlani who looked like he had a pipeline to a great big pile of money in Iraq or somewhere. 

By Whitlam's demise, the election was entwined in rumours about CIA interference to protect Pine Gap from the Unions: it was a total mess. 

After Malcolm Fraser's Liberals had an easy trot, Labor got right back up. 

But no sooner had Combe and his wife got home from an unrelated trip to the USSR in 1982 than ASIO nudged the new PM, Hawke, to warn him that it thought Combe may have been compromised by a soviet citizen with KGB links; Hawke expelled Valery Ivanov, the First Secretary for the USSR Embassy in Canberra, whom Combe quite rightfully knew. The Hope Royal Commission reported that while the Soviets had indeed targeted Combe it found no proof of security threats or intelligence breaches. 

Proper Royal Commission, see? That shits on this Sam gossip lite. Get over it, jerks. 

This great business seemed largely to unfold at the front table of Peter Doyle's Watson's Bay restaurant on Sydney Harbour, where the Hawke cabinet made lunchtime deals, drank buckets of Pike's Clare Riesling and ate Australia's most expensive fish'n'chips. 

I watched it. I lived in the convicts' quarters in Peter's backyard in his old South Head harbourmaster's house, complete with shackle rings in the stone at my bed head. The only rent he'd accept was advice with the wine list and the disposal of the pallets of empties that came out the tail of every mad lunch. He bought a glass grinder. 

Hawkie, of course, was teetotal. He stayed away. But Peter would climb on his favourite wee tender in the mornings after the fishmarket and putter across the harbour with the right bait and tack to pick the PM up and take him to where he knew he would catch a fish or two in the quiet. 

I'd be nose down editing Wine and Spirit across the harbour and Doyle would be on the phone at noon. "Front table. Everyone's in. Got you a chair." Water taxi. Madness. We enjoyed a different level of lobbying. 

After a couple of Trade Commissions (Western Canada and Hong Kong) Combe took over the international side of Southcorp and Penfolds and through the 'nineties carefully led Australia's upmarket charge into the wine export arena. He understood it. He designed it. And he really got China. 

Later, he spent years consulting to the top wine industry outfits and firms. He did huge business.  Deep intelligence helps, see?

Sam is obviously reasonably aware of the power of China. Let's say more than most. Now while he digs in over his mid-morning coffee and I swap posh Chardonnays, I'd just like to remind him that there are wonderful opportunities out there for people who are respected by great governments like China. 

Twenty years back I drew much stinky incoming for suggesting that by now Australia would be using the Murray-Darling water for food and importing its bladder pack grape ethanol - for the Shoppies - from China. While this has yet to occur, it's closer: China seems suddenly to be the world's biggest grape grower. A few years behind in production, its volume of made wine is close to Australia's and ballooning. It has also quite literally barged into the discount bins of London with its Great Wall bottled wines. 

We'd best be out of that. A country with no water can't sell its irrigated wine at the price of bottled water when a litre of wine needs like 1,200 litres of water. 

While it has access to the north half of the Himalaya and there's snow left to melt, China has access to an astonishing array of geologies with endless free water at dial-up altitudes. It can grow very good grapes.

So far, miraculously, the Australian wine industry has managed to stay right out of contentious China issues like Tibet, human rights, press and internet freedom, nuclear war or the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. 

While it depends upon China for so many export millions, and has even learned to use both chopsticks in one hand, the Australian wine sector seems hardly aware that anything could ever possibly go wrong. 

Easier by far for wine exporters to remain bedazzled by their 42 per cent growth there in the last year's trade, reaching $853 million: nearly twice the income taken in Australia's next biggest export market, the USA. 

(Enter topiarised hole in the air the shape of the President. He'll keep everything stable, won't he.) 

One can hardly blame our winemakers for going in so far: politicians push them. But in South Australia in particular the rollover to Chinese investment, in wine, in anything, seems a misunderstood and awkwardly mismarketed alien invasion in itself.  

We haven't even settled how much colonial Australia owes the originals for what we're still stealing from them, yet here we are pant pant panting to get somebody else to take it off our hands. 

China won't be paying the original austral nations any more than it'll be paying Tibet. The Chinese are a mercantile people with some 6,000 years in business. They'll run wine like they run tea.  And of course they remember stuff. Like when the Brits refused to pay them for tea in any currency other than opium and then stole the tea anyway to grow their own in Ceylon. To many Chinese tea merchants, that was only last year.

Since they've been buying châteaux in Bordeaux and bits of Burgundy vineyard, China has a new level of very wine-aware investors and obsessives who no longer need supplies or advice from British Masters of Wine. They won't be naively setting any more triumphant records for great vintages at auction. As owners, Chinese people are learning the true value of things vinous. 

I don't see too many Australians buying châteaux in Bordeaux. 

Of recent Chinese investors in my neck of the woods, on the other hand, there's not been many possessing this unusual awareness and patience. Jeez it's embarrassing begging your bank manager for the money to buy out your brand new Chinese investor so everything can go back to normal and you get some cash flow. There've not been too many top-level Chinese investors is what I mean. 

Not since George and Roland Lau, at least. Not in my blue-eyed colonial ken. They were the first Chinese investors I knew in McLaren Vale. Southern Vales, 1980. Father and son. Elegant and humorous gentlemen both. They bought in. 

Most recently, the taxpayer has bought some expensive casheous  attention from the celebrity Huang Xiaoming who in return  said "South Australia is a place where you can enjoy breath-taking natural scenery, meet the local wildlife, and experience world-class vineyards and food to enjoy the best of Australia." 

Anyway Sam, speaking as wildlife, I sent you a poem about how we've all gotta concentrate on being a better Elvis. 

To that end, I can think of little better than having a chap of your background sitting there wherever you are, dreaming of all that fun David had, increasing his employer's export number from $40 million to $300 million in ten short years. 

We need somebody who really appreciates the finesse and respect required in dealing with China. You speak Mandarin, don't you? 

We used to have Dunstans, Hawkes and Combes. Now we have Sam Dastyari. 

In the USA, Trump's Republicans have Russia. In Australia, everybody has China.

Early Oz wine drive into China: the author with Morgan and Dennis Vice consulting with the mayor of Yangzhou in 2002 ... Mr Zhou, on my right, was a brilliant interpreter

08 December 2017


from a 20-year-old tasting note pad


Black feathers in the rafters: chasing dark angels round the belfry

As the big birthday draws nigh, it seems appropriate to turn to Clare's oldest winery, Sevenhill, established by Austrian Jesuits to make altar wine and provide a retreat, church and school. They bought the land in 1851. Rather thoughtfully, they also built the Sevenhill pub as a sort of retreat from the retreat; a place to which one could retire with a more frivolous libation. Well done on both counts, I say. Nothing wrong with the well-balanced life. 

Sevenhill Inigo Estate Grown Clare Valley Shiraz 2015 ($28; 15.8% alcohol; screw cap) is about as Clare as Clare ever gets: deep and furry and strong. There'd been lots of rain, then a last-minute heatwave ripened everything so quick vintage seemed to finish in a flash. Winemaker Liz Heidenreich and her team had to give those beautiful old Mintaro slate fermenters a total thrashing to give us this surly beauty. 

The seventy-plus years these vines have spent getting their roots into the Sevenhill rocks seem to have built up a head of pressure just for 2015: that intense Shiraz aroma seems to explode out of the bottle, then the glass, then from the drinker's breath. It's a thing of glory and joy. 

I'm sure Vivaldi wrote a Gloria just for the release of wines like this. It seems to leave big angel feathers fluttering down from the rafters. I say big because this is one big brawny fully growed-up angel: there's nothing cherubic about it. While that alcohol number seems steep, it's a lot more honest than the rivals from the region, which rather miraculously all claim to be 14.5%, which can really mean 16%, given the slack in the legislation. It doesn't seem that strong to drink, mind you, like it's not porty, but instead offers that sort of hammered lozenge of concentrated Shiraz as a neat sweetie that sits about the laughing gear for awhile, then it's gone, leaving more of that feathery tannin. 

At this stage the drinker will notice them feathers are black. 

Sevenhill Inigo Estate Grown Clare Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2015 ($28; 15% alcohol; screw cap) is a more genteel critter. It has that meaty aroma of the blueberry dominant; somewhere between the charcuterie and confectioner's musk it's there, laying hints at the field mushrooms, beets and roast meats that would best suit it. 

Then there's the flavours flooding through in a gentle, but persistent wave, hearty and human and as honest as the day is long. Rarely is something so determined to be both raw and sensual in such a rustic unpolished manner. I mean it'll gain a polished sheen with another five or ten years in the crypt but I'd rather enjoy it without the sophistry of age. It's big, but never boisterous. 

Sevenhill St Ignatius Clare Valley Cabernet Merlot Malbec Cabernet Franc 2014 ($45; 14.5% alcohol; screw cap) is already one step closer to heaven: the intelligence of its blending and structure have already got it hoisted way up past the rafters into the belfry. Lookout steeple! 

Oh? They haven't built the steeple yet? Then lookout sky! 

Leaving aside the mystifying notion that this upland ridge in dry old Australia manages to grow beautifully the Riesling of Germany and Austria alongside all these types which are classically the ingredients of great Bordeaux, let's still point out that in 2014 vintage slowed and cooled after thick rain put an end to a burst of threatening heat, giving us mercifully elegant, beautifully aromatic wine like this. 

After its petite, polite perfume, with all those fresh fruiterer's berries and pretty confections wafting through from the lolly shop with the fairy floss next door, the flavours gear up with a touch of all those deep Cabernet greens: the teas and beet leaves. Meaning this wine still has a bit of a juvenile twist in it for now: three or five more years should see all that smooth out and shine over and you'll reach a different altitude again. 

Which is not to say it's not great fun now, chasing that big black angel around the steeple that will sure get built eventually. I mean, look: they extended the pub seventy years back!  Praise the Lord!

... if you're dreaming of a white Christmas, don't forget these crisp treasures:

06 December 2017



Absinthium, herb, barks, roots, rinds? Vermouth guilty on all counts 

Vermouth. Wermut. Wormwood. Artemesia absinthium. Absinthe. Now's there's a revealing thread in the linguistics of intoxicating drinks...  

The business of spicing alcohol is as old as China. Herbs, barks, roots, rinds ... all manner of aromatic flavourants have long been handy to mask the nasty bits of bad spirits as much as to offer ancient natural medicines to fix everything from fleas to gout and boredom. 

Which are some of the things wormwood is reputed to fix. 

Mediæval herbalists, mostly women without men, were often tortured and executed as witches if caught with wormwood. Fortunately, the church of Rome had chilled out by the time Cornish miners sensibly brought it to the English colony of South Australia. Burra, Moonta, Kanmantoo, Callington: all the copper mining settlements had strings of cottages with wormwood hedges by the mid-1800s. They used it to insulate their ceilings to deter flying insects, stuffed it in their mattresses to keep the fleas away and made tea from it for all sorts of gastric, hæmatological and neurological problems. 

They used it at childbirth, for epilepsy and in the absence of viable hops, as a bittering agent in beer.  

Miners would grab a wad of it each morning to cushion their candlewax-coated felt "hard" hats; if there was an accident underground they'd use it rough'n'ready to staunch blood flow and disinfect the wound. 

Usually regarded as the most bitter of herbs, wormwood got a bad rap when its botanical name was used on the powerful spirit - absinthe - that was flavoured with its distillate or its ethanol-steeped oils. Its key ingredient, thujone, was blamed by the French absinthe manufacturers for the diverse ailments suffered by addicts to that drink. 

There was a war coming with prohibitionists in the early 1900s and the French distillers needed a scapegoat ingredient they could live without. 

We now know many of those intoxicated reactions, often fatal, were not so much the result of thujone consumption, but were poisonings caused by treacherous distilling, and the inclusion of lethal shit-cheap alcohols other than ethanol in the finished product. 

One has to consume a ridiculous amount of thujone to be truly endangered. Like a bale of wormwood. You'd be pretty crook. Layin' cable.

In his unmatched bible of plants, their classifications and uses, Mabberly's Plant Book (Cambridge University Press 2009), Professor David J. Mabberly offers this typically crisp summary of the thujone in Artemisia absinthium

"A ketone (thujone - similar to THC in cannabis) medic., disinfectant, pl.-pest control since time of Pliny (AD 77) & absinthe (liqueur harmful prob. due to methanol), digestive used in Pernod 1797 (recipe from a Swiss Dr. Ordinaire) until banned." 

Wormwood also seems likely to become a powerful tool against dieback or deadarm - phytophthera - which is as big a threat to viticulture as the dreaded phylloxera.  

The French outlawed absinthe during the 1900s, instead depending on wormwood-free pastis and anise to shake money from their strong aperitif and digestif ethanols. But since scientists like Mabberly have brought better knowledge of the reality, producers like Pernod have reintroduced very fine absinthe products. 

Vermouth never went away. This wine-based infusion - rather than spirit-based - got its name from the French pronunciation of vermut, the German word for wormwood, the bevvy's primary flavourant. It's been made for centuries in Europe, sweet or dry, red or white, strong or mild. Makers keep the lid on their recipes, but additions of many herbs and spices are all in the mix, from chamomile to coriander, quinine to cardamom and juniper to ginger, with extra bittering agents like nutmeg and citrus rind. 

Also kept well under wraps is the actual wine alchemy. Unfermented grape juice and wine of various stages of oxidation are the host to the herbals; distilled grape spirit is added to stabilise and strengthen the blend. 
A favourite enlightened wine dreamer is Julian Castagna (above) from the north side of the Victorian Alps at Beechworth. With his wife CarolAnn and son Adam, he's been making a ravishing set of dry table wines there for twenty years. 

Recently, he skwoze two brilliant vermouths into the stable. 

These are welcome, venerable mountains in the recent mudflats of craft and noir loungue vermouth. These folks rock.

Castagna Bianco Vermouth Aperitif 2016 ($45; 16.5% alcohol; glass stopper) is "more than 30 biodynamically-grown botanicals blended with the spirit of Beechworth." Its main vinous ingredient is Viognier, which doesn't get much of a chance to show its head through all those bits and pieces that the Castagnas imported or  planted, and which Julian's discovered sniffing and chewing around the bountiful Castagna gardens. 

Jeez the damn thing smells glorious. Only a boofhead would dare to make a stab at its ingredients, but I'll be a foolhardy pointer: its russetty autumnal hue segues to big oozes of gingery marmalade with stuff like nutmeg, juniper and cassia bark getting ready to be sauce. Maybe the Viognier helps with the ginger. It also has fat dumplings cooked in all that sort of aromatic direction with golden syrup. 

The bouquet climbs right out of the glass and occupies the table to a depth of about 200ml. Which fragrance one can easily spoil with a severe chill or too much soda. Don't do it. I like cool cellar temperature; maybe one ice block if the summer's too big. 

As a drink, it elevates to hover above your forehead like a medium-weight Tinkerbell, between dry and savoury-bitter to sweet and gently-stewed. It hints at architectural angularity in its stern acidity and juniper berry/bay leaf tannin, but then there's a wave of just the right depth of that gentle blood orange and slightly pineappley dumpling syrup. It massages the anticipatory senses, stirring hunger and more thirst. It flares one's nostrils in a wolvish way. 

Careful. Never snap at Tink. 

CarolAnn, Alexi, Adam, Julian Castagna and relative hounds

If that wasn't enough trouble, Castagna Classic Dry Vermouth Aperitif 2015 ($45; 17% alcohol; glass stopper) is all the above, turned up a few notches, dried off and aged, with a great deal more velvet and satin, darkness and depth. It's the Bianco's taller dusky sibling in a tux, hair slicked back to match the black patent dancin' pumps with the grosgrain bows. Silk socks. That faint reek of cigarillo. Not quite sinister, but the warning lights are all on. 

Here, that marmalade is more along the lines of the inedibly bitter Laraha orange of Curaçao, which took five hundred years to evolve from the introduced Seville orange, who didn't much like the Caribbean climate. And the golden syrup is replaced by a smidge of treacle. Fortunately, the Laraha zest and rind provide the most complex citrus bouquet, which here seems just very slightly smoked. 

I'm not suggesting that's what's in here, but that's what it's like. Think Campari jam on toast. 

Beneath which those dark hues lie, glowering, in wait. It quickly makes me feel nicely smoked and lacquered, at least. Toasted. You know that acrid gunpowder smell when dried cumin and fenugreek seeds hit the red-hot cast iron? That's the sort of dark hues I'm suggesting, in all this honey and fine citrus syrup. 

I could fall over in it, right on my kisser. Bugger the tango. Floor's so gooey I might as well stay right down, grinning like a lune. 

PS: If you're a guitarist, don't risk your work nails trying to remove this ultra-tight glass stopper with its perfect food grade polymer o-ring. Get a Bat Chain Puller. Crank it. To the tune of I Heard it Through the Grapevine, hum "I blame it on the wormwood."

Breathe that in: herb garden at Castagna