“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)





15 June 2017


Top company: some of the most blissful Syrah/Shiraz/Hermitage I've had this year: as well as the Jericho duet reviewed below, I've skwoze in two Jaboulet La Chappelle Hermitage, so you can see the little chapel on the neck label. Le Vieux Pin Syrah 2010 is as elegant, intense and enjoyable as the others. It's 13.5% alcohol, and it was grown and made in British Columbia in Canada, in the Okanagan Valley. This bottle came from Japan, from my US mate Charles Lawrence, who's currently winemaking at Robe ... Lookout, everybody - here comes Canada! [Not to mention the Jericho family]

The Jericho Family gets it right 

When the first white settlers brought vines to their new Antipodean colony, not many knew, or cared much for the names of the grape varieties. Out of respect and gratitude for the folks who let them take cuttings, they tended often to name the grape after the town or place where they procured it. 

So the French Mourvèdre, or Monastrell, as the Spanish call it, became Mataro because the aspirant Aussies picked it up in that French Mediterranean seaside port, where the grape was called Mourvèdre. 

Adding to that particular confusion is the dreaded root louse, Phylloxera, which killed all the Mataro 'round Mataro before 1910. Folks in that town prickle at our acknowledgement of their input to our wine culture because they don't know that the grape indeed grew well there before the arrival of that terminal disease in the later 1800s. 

1882 map recording the spread of Phylloxera 

They never bothered to replant any. Many of the varieties from Xerez were simply called 'sherry', which was the Cockney docker's attempt at pronouncing the name of that place; Shakespeare's loveable patriot and drunk, Sir John Falstaff, called it 'sherris'.  

It was also common from the start to clump all the varieties of a foreign source region under one umbrella, whether they were white or red. Thus came 'the Bordeaux types' and 'the Rousillon varieties', which was a common blanket term for Muscats (à petits grains and Alexandria), Macabeo, Grenaches (blanc, gris and noir) and Syrah - varieties whose source conditions pretty well guaranteed they'd do at least as well in sunny Oz. 

And so to that last tall, steep hill - the one with a tiny teat of a chapel on its peak - which the Rhone passes as it leaves its gorge to build its great delta all the way down to Marseilles: A returning crusader bunked up there on his way home from bashing Moslems. He was wounded and exhausted but the wine from that vine-covered slope made him feel so good so he stayed there squatting in his adopted hermitage. 

Looking east across the Rhone from the hill above Tournon. That's the Hermitage hill opposite, with its little chapel on the top. Hermitage, Syrah, Shiraz - whatever you call it - was first recorded here. A cross of the red Dureza, from the Ardèche, and Mondeuse blanche from Savoie, it is often believed to be the hot new grape Pliny the Elder witnessed the local Celtic Allobroges vinifying in 77AD. 

Those grapes were called Syrah, a word never seen on the local labels: Hermitage was, and still is the name they used for their best Syrah wine. Like Australians, they tended to acknowledge the variety by naming it after its geographical source. So the smart settlers who brought us those cuttings respectfully called them Hermitage. 

It took a long time for most Australian red freaks to learn of the word Syrah, which they found foreign and tricky to pronounce. How they confused it with Shiraz, the stylish city in Iran/Persia with the most beautifully trippy mosque and only sweet white wine grapes remains lost in some nineteenth century tavern. 

The Nasir-ol-Molk Mosque - مسجد نصیر الملک‎‎ - sometimes called the Pink Mosque, in Shiraz, Persia ... there's no Shiraz in Shiraz ... photo Ayyoubsawiki   

But that's what happened here: for a most of the last century, many thought Hermitage and Shiraz were different varieties. Pretty much the same mob would argue for hours about whether Cabernet was better than Sauvignon.

The styles of wine grown and made in Hermitage and those that come from Australia have evolved quite differently, partly because our terroirs are at the opposite ends of the Earth. Ours are on the oldest big slab of rock on the planet, as opposed to the youthful geology of Europe. 

But the biggest difference is due to the aforementioned Phylloxera. 

Because it has fortuitously kept most of its Phylloxera contained to bits of Victoria, the rest of Australia still has these old varieties growing on their own roots, while the survivors in France are all grafted onto imported North American rootstocks. As brilliant as the post-phylloxera French wine may be, I prefer my Shiraz not filtered through a Glory Vine stump. As would the French.

Glory vine about to shed leaf on my old patio at Yangarra. Originally from the north-east of the USA, this vine has phylloxera-resistent roots, but grows no grapes.

Even Penfolds had to drop its respectful 'Hermitage' from Grange when the French forced an agreement in the international courts that would have us forever abandon the H word in return for export access to their markets in Europe. 

Andrew and Kim Jericho, rear; Neil, Kaye, Steve and Sally, seated ... photos©Philip White  

The Jericho family, led by winemakers Andrew and Neil, make two versions of this variety. One is from the Duck Chase Vineyard at Seaview, McLaren Vale; the other from the Corydon Vineyard in the hills above the McLaren Vale village of Willunga. 

Neither of these vineyards are grafted to rootstocks.

Typical of the haphazard manner we apply to nomenclature, these hills on McLaren Vale's eastern boundary have become known in that same international trade agreement as Adelaide Hills, which is nonsense and misleading. They are bits of the southern part of what Captain Matthew Flinders officially named the Mount Lofty Ranges in 1802. 

It may have long been a skerrick of local patois, but apart from our treaty with France and the EU, Adelaide Hills is not an official Australian geographical nomenclature. 

Jericho McLaren Vale Shiraz 2014 ($38; 13.8% alcohol; cork) grew at two tonnes per acre at 170 metres above the Gulf St Vincent and an hour's walk from it. 

Said Gulf, by the way, was also named by Flinders, after his sponsor the First Lord of the Admiralty, Right Honourable John Jervis, Earl St Vincent, who'd won the title for his good work with Lord Nelson, butchering the Spanish at the Battle of Cape St Vincent in 1797. That Portuguese Cape, the south-westernmost point of the Iberian Peninsula, was named in turn after St Vincent of Saragossa, the patron of vine-dressers, vintners and vinegar-makers. 

St Vincent's thigh bone in the Notre Dam cathedral in Paris

The original owners of these parts, the Kuarna people, called the Gulf Wongayerlo, meaning 'huge water where the Sun disappears.' 

The Duck Chase Vineyard faces south, so it misses the worst of that baking Sun. I'm sure it could produce brilliant red wine vinegar, but there's no hint of that in this glass. 

While much lower in alcohol than nearly all of the gloopy, palate-deadening jam most Ocker plonkies remain determined to make of their Shiraz, this smells ripe, but is much more lively and appetising than most of its rivals: it's more elegantly poised than those dunderheaded forgettables.  

It has a faint dusting of piquant white pepper across its gentle set of dark berries - a character over-ripe fruit loses. There's certainly nothing unripe about the flavours: the wine is more like Shiraz than blackberry jam. It's juicy, fresh, vibrant and sinuous, with oak that's pretty well disappeared into the fruit, and has natural acid that cleans the palate and provokes hunger without being too obvious or imbalanced. 

In essence, this is what more Australian Shiraz should be like: delicious, balanced, appetising and  concentrated but svelte enough to guzzle as much as savour. 

It is, after all, a drink. It won't make any difference to you until you tip it in there. 

On the other hand, the Jericho Adelaide Hills Syrah 2014 ($38; 12.4% alcohol; cork) grew on a north-facing slope 340 metres above the Gulf. Due to the vines getting no irrigation on that very stony, windy hilltop, the hand-pickers could find only 0.4 tonnes in each acre. 

The wine smells a little sooty at first, a character usually arising from toasted barrels. But most will miss this: there's more fun and delight in here than you'll get up a chimney! 

It shows a similar array of black, blue and deep red berries with an almost sinister iron/carbon/gunblue glint. 

Is it close enough to the Hermitage style to justify the Jericho adoption of the Syrah word the French rarely  use on their labels? 

In this bouquet, I find bits of elegance and nature that do remind me of some of the more elegant Hermitage Syrah vintages. It has a lovely Rhone Gorge sweetness to its fragrance, like I would imagine the elusive jet black rose to smell. Somebody has developed a black-ish rose - there's a sample in the Botanic Gardens - but the one I'm imagining here is like steam engine jet black. 

It's the palate that proves the Jericho point: it makes the Duck Chase Seaview Shiraz look very Australian, and riper than indeed it is: even a tad jammy. In contrast, this wine's form, its build and demeanour is strappy, stroppy and belligerent. It's cheeky and svelte, yet still very intense. No jam; not even a dob of conserve. 

Friggin gutsable. 

So there you have two brilliant examples - contrasts, really - to show how far we got off the potable Shiraz track. Most Australian vintners have never produced a Shiraz as low in alcohol as 13.8%. They think gloop is good. Somehow, they simply don't get it. They're scared of modest, gastronomically-appropriate alcohol levels. 

And 12.4%? That'll earn you a disbelieving look of horror. 

Me? Gimme. Wah Hing Tea-smoked duck with the Shiraz. And the Syrah? My mentor, Gerard Jaboulet, the great deceased Hermitage king, once kitted me up with a decanted bottle of his gorgeous '78, and sent me off to his favourite Hermitage country restaurant in pursuit of one dish. It came on a big flat white plate. On that was a layer of pork stock with lentils, fresh-foraged truffles from the nearby Massif, a few slices of thin carrot, and just a couple of tiny shreds of pork belly with a good crunch on their crackling.  

My sensories still tingle at the memory of that sublime epiphany. It would work just as well with either of these lovable whatchermacallems.

You rock you Jerichos!

Productive pre-phylloxera Shiraz on its own roots, planted in Langmeil's Freedom Vineyard in the Barossa in 1843 ... still there! ... photo Doug Coates   

1 comment:

Sam Powrie said...

I often "skwoze" my wine as well Phillip - feels good despite being rather unorthodox. An excellent read btw - I had no idea Hermitage had such origins. Where can this stuff be acquired in our remote exile?