“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)





17 August 2017


Hills Sauvignon of the blanc rank 

One of my favourite Adelaide Hills Sauvignon blanc wines was made by Tim Knappstein about thirty years ago. It was mainly Semillon. 

I suspected at the time that wine was the result of the friendly rivalry extant in Clare between Tim and Michel Dietrich, the Alsatian French winemaker Remy Martin had put in charge of their Quelltaler Estate. That outfit started when Francis Treloar planted a vineyard in 1853. The old winery, later owned by Buring and Sobels, is mothballed at Watervale, which is English for Qelltaler. 

Michel made a cracker wine. He picked the Semillon early to get flinty chalky greenness usually expected of the Sauvignon blanc and let the Sauvignon ripen til it had lost its simple green methoxypyrazine edge then softened it even more in subtle oak before marrying the two wines. It was more like like the serene dry whites of Bordeaux than the woody fumé blanc Sauvignons of the Loire Valley. 

Isobel and Michel Dietrich at Watervale in 1984 ... photo Philip White

Michel had reversed the roles of the varieties in pursuit of elegant complexity rather than grassy simplicity or fashionably overt oak. 

Pure 100% cool region Savvy-b is another thing. I was about to write 'another kettle of fish' but there are rarely any fish in it: too often it's just the old smashed windscreen acid and lawn clippings soaking in cold water. Maybe nettles. Unripe gooseberry. Soursob. Rhubarb. Weeds. Sheep food. And ethanol. 
Australians love it. Sauvignon blanc is our biggest-selling white. Drink enough of it and I reckon you'd start to smell like mutton. New Zealanders grow it. We drink around $350 million worth of their Sauvignon each year. But then about a quarter of us still drink Coke at least once a week, and I notice the Golden Arches and Colonel Sadness are still prolific intrusions along our roadsides. 

The jaundice my jowls show in reaction to the paler Savvies seems to be my physiology turning up the yellow to show the wines an example of proper colour. The Adelaide Hills have become as adept as New Zealand at growing such wine. There are pale ones made with lovely musky florals and rose-and-jasmine scents like the exemplary elegant favourite from Paracombe, but too much of the rest is the sort that brings on my yellow jaundice and the fear of smelling like cold Kiwi mutton fat. 

So it was with certain wariness I opened a box from Matthew Hill Smith. The bottles within had survived the long trip from Brisbane without as much as a cardboard divider: I could hear them clinking against each other. Never a source of confidence, the cardboard box full of loose bottles of Adelaide Hills wine from Queensland. 

Sho nuff, there was the Savvy-b, in one of those frosty-looking bottles designed to give the wine even more of that green water appearance. Mark's Vineyard Adelaide Hills Sauvignon Blanc 2017 ($25; 12% alcohol; screw cap) treads the wire. It is pristine, like a mountain brook fed by a sward of nettles and soursobs. It has a little more texture than actual flavour, which affords it a shard of comfort. It's slightly sweet. 

This is straight-down-the-line lower-priced Kiwi juice in style. It could be top drinking chilled in the tropics, a bit like the juice of the starfruit, Averrhoa carambola. Or in fact the juice of the Kiwi fruit, which is really the Chinese gooseberry, Actinidea chinensis. I can imagine it being cooling and refreshing in the Brisvegas humidity, a perfect partner for your salt'n'pepper squid or a ham-and-pineapple pizza with a little chilli. 

It is what the trade called a grease-cutter back when I was a boy. 

While the Mark's Vineyard Adelaide Hills Pinot Gris 2017 ($25; 13% alcohol; screw cap) is one alcohol bigger I think it's more along the lines of the Italianate grey Pinot - they call it Pinot grigio. It's not much like the more characterful grau/gris ones from Alsace. 

Other than that, it's pretty much of the Savvy-b school, without the grassy bits. There's not much along the lines of your actual Pinot tribe marching through this glass.

To feel a little like I was somewhere on the equator, I used a big tip of the first wine in the hot fish curry I have just cooked, and drank this second wine with it. Not too bad really. No challenges. Clean. Sauvignon blanc, by the way, is my favourite cooking wine in stir fries and asian stews. Its acid works perfectly. 

Mark's Vineyard C3 Adelaide Hills Chardonnay 2016 ($35; 12.9% alcohol; screw cap) smells like a blood orange marmalade with plenty of rind and a little minced ginger. It also has insinuations of honey and butterscotch. The flavours are a smooth segue of the same, and the wine has more texture than the other two. It's still very safe and sound, neat and tidy and unsurprising. The extra tenner buys you a suggestion of oak. Those mobsters in Melbourne shoulda had this with their lobster and kept the Grange for the quiet privacy of the shooting range. 

I made a blend of this Chardonnay with one third Sauvignon and ended up with a Sauvignon blanc I could like ... somewhere toward the lines of those Knappstein/Dietrich blends from a previous life.

A previous life: Tim and Annie Knappstein in the Clare valleys in the late '80s. That's Tim's Boeing Stearman, which was a tidy aerobatics performer

Mark's Vineyard Adelaide Hills Point Eight Shiraz 2016 ($35; 14.9% alcohol; screw cap) is peppery, as rocket and cress can be quite peppery. Behind that piquancy there's a fathom of fresh soft licorice, mulberry and cassis. 

It's quite soft to drink, too: almost fluffy until that pepper reappears in the tail, with timber and the hot miasma you'd expect of a light-bodied wine with this ethanol. There isn't much tannin. 

So there. Four top varieties of the Adelaide Hills. 

To explain a bit of this patriarchal Hill Smith stuff, Wyndham Hill Smith had two sons, Robert and Samuel. Wyndy's brother Mark had Michael and Matthew. When Rob and Sam bought Michael and Matthew and 25 other family members out of the business in a cleverly-planned surprise coup, Michael started Shaw and Smith at Oakbank with Martin Shaw, the son of his mum's twin sister. 

With some of his share of the buyout millions, urged by his sons, Mark planted this vineyard at Woodside. It's actually called Marko's - the company is Marko's Vineyard Pty Ltd. Both Wyndham and Mark are long deceased. 

After some sort of family difference in 2015 Matthew bought Marko's from his mum and brother and now has the wine made somewhere by contract. Matthew no longer drinks alcohol and boasts of being a farmer who doesn't own a tractor. He has sold his Brisbane restaurants. Now he has wine to sell. 

Knappstein sold all his Lenswood and Clare vineyards and winery and now runs the Ripost brand. 

Remy sold Quelltaler to Wolf Blass who changed its name to Eaglehawk. It became Black Opal and then Annie's Lane. 

Karl Sobels' ancient dry-grown Semillon vines in the chalky Quelltaler Karlsfield overlooking Watervale were bulldozed by Vic Patrick when Fosters bought that historic heart of large-scale Clare winemaking and shut it down when they absorbed Mildara-Blass. 

Typical of a Coonawarra bloke, Vic replaced that Semillon, which I thought was the best in Australia, with a forgettable clone of Merlot. 

Michel Dietrich has lived in Bordeaux for thirty years, where he makes lovely inexpensive blends of Semillon and Sauvingon blanc at his 80 hectare Château Haut-Rian winery and vineyards on the Premières Côtes de Bordeaux and Entre-Deux-Mers at Cadillac. He surprised me with a visit a couple of years back. Both he and Isobel were in fine fettle. They love driving across vast extremes of desert. Nowdays, for leisure, they usually drive around north Africa, but hey, it's safer to cruise a renter from Darwin to Adelaide. By Bacchus and Pan it was good to see them!

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