“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)





06 August 2017


Sorting desert Murray Valley claret from sub-tropical Hunter burgundy

They were days of naīve chaos and lies in wine marketing, the early 'eighties.

A new generation of cocky alpha males were pushing aside the old blokes who'd made wine before the war, and a few punk writers were demanding better transparency in the little matter of flogging ethanol disguised as a gastronomic essential.

Perhaps the most memorable exchange this writer recalls was Mark Cashmore's dead honest response when I asked why he'd changed the proprietorial brand name of his Richmond Grove Hunter Valley Pinot Riesling blend to Semillon Chardonnay without any change to the wine's actual composition.

"Pinot Riesling doesn’t mean very much at all. Chardonnay’s not Pinot Chardonnay and I don’t think Riesling in the context of Pinot Riesling means very much," he said. 

"I mean Riesling is Semillon and Pinot is Chardonnay, and we have more Semillon in the wine than Chardonnay, so it should be Semillon Chardonnay."

This was the bloke who launched a wine he called 'White Bordeaux' when Yalumba was toying with the launch of its Y Series, inspired by the great Ygrec of Château d'Yquem. Once challenged by the French in court, he changed it to 'Hunter Valley White Bordeaux.'

That didn't last long.

In May 1982 I Iined up three of the most outspoken and individualistic winemakers in Australia to taste and report on the blended reds of the day in Winestate magazine. 

This was high-level rock'n'roll bombchuckers in the old sherry-soused wine culture that many Australian women developed before their men got back from the Second World War. 

Or didn't get back.

I sat in a fiesty sesh over the snifters which led to a fiery conversation about the future of wine labelling, which I have transcribed below.

Karl Stockhausen was Hunter royalty:  the Lindemans Semillon/Leo Buring Riesling king, one of the very first winemakers to install stainless steel refrigerated tanks in pursuit of fresher, cleaner, more stable white wines. Of course Karl knew his way around the red world, too.

Brian Croser was the firebrand R2 yeast promoter with cheeky new investments in the Clare and Piccadilly Valleys and Coonawarra, all named after the arm-wrestling capitol of California, a chickenshed town called Petaluma.

Wolf Blass, and his shotgun-rider, John Glaetzer were rewriting the recipe book of premium Australian winemaking both red and white, driven in those very early days by Wolf's unswerving faith in the future of fine wine export into the Old World he'd fled as a World War II refugee.

STOCKHAUSEN: I think we should be trying to get away from calling these wines name like 'claret.' We should be more descriptive in our labelling. And I think we're getting there! If you look at the industry as a whole you'll see that we're trying to be more descriptive.

BLASS: I think it's going to be forced on us.

CROSER: I've only got one question about that. So, you can make a claret out of Cabernet and Shiraz and then you can make a burgundy out of Cabernet and Shiraz. Now, if you define claret as being more tannic, more acid, more austere and less rich wine you may find a very good example which is made from Shiraz. Then, you might find a wine that's also Shiraz but it's soft and fruity and it's still called 'claret.'

What does the consumer find out about that style of wine from reading the label?


It's mislabelled, and we're seeing it happen. But then, if you're talking about a St. Henri, the word 'claret' on the label is a pretty good indication of the wine style. See, if they're correctly used, words like 'claret' have a lot of value.

WHITE: What should these softer wines be called?

CROSER: Well, you've got to find a better phrase than 'light dry red' but that's what they are. Light, drinkable red wines. Certainly not claret.

BLASS: I strongly oppose the use of these words 'claret' and 'burgundy.'  Our company won't use them.

I think we have to stick with the EEC and the American regulations for export as well.

But for some of these wines we've looked at, there's nothing wrong with using plain words, like 'red table wine.' Full stop. These wines are combinations of different fruits from different districts, and I reckon 'red table wine' should be accepted as a covering term. Internationally. 'Claret' and 'burgundy' shouldn't come into it at all. We have to forget those terms.

WHITE: There are a lot fewer wines here with those older names than there would have been a few years ago. Don't you think wine marketers are already discarding those names?

STOCKHAUSEN: I think the tendency is to go toward white wines and varietals, so that a class like 'claret' will fall by the wayside regardless of how good they are.

BLASS: I think labeling regulations will be strongly in force by October of this year. You'll have to clearly state, in big letters, the eighty per cent of this and that, on your label. It will be challenged.

There's all this turmoil with journalistic slogans, and we're challenged from the media people for listing grape varieties without their percentages. But I reckon it'll come in automatically before the end of the year. By law. I'm quite sure of it. Automatically you're going to have varietal wines.

WHITE: And you're going to have every public servant in the government trying to get into the Wine Department.

CROSER: But you can't tell what the style of a wine is by the grape variety! Telling the buyer the varieties isn't the answer. Shiraz and Cabernet are the main components of red wines in Australia, but they come up completely differently with different treatments and in different areas. See, they both make 'claret' style wines in Coonawarra. And they both make a 'burgundy' style wine in the Barossa. So what are you telling the public by saying it's a Shiraz-Cabernet or a Cabernet or Shiraz or whatever? What about the style?

STOCKHAUSEN: You can tell them the district as well.

BLASS: And let them make up their minds?

CROSER: That requires a public education.

BLASS: Don't you think this word 'soft' should be used, like 'soft red wine' or 'full-bodied red wine,' or 'classical red wine,' immediately suggesting a production style? But who does that in Europe?


CROSER: Yeah but in Europe there's been a long evolution, and everybody there knows what Bordeaux is about, and everybody knows what to expect of a bottle of Burgundy. They're very consistent styles of wines. But what we're saying is that because we've got so many type areas with climate and soil differences you can't even define a wine by region and variety.

BLASS: Yes, and see, if we're blending, which we are, and there's going to be a lot more of it, we're blending from different regions in as many different states as we wish, and in simple terms these wines could be described as 'soft red table wine from Australia,' or maybe just 'table wine from South Australia' -

CROSER: But there's nothing descriptive in that!

BLASS: ... and now vintage is coming into it as well. You know, we've got to have 95% from one vintage to call it 'vintage wine.' And to call it 'varietal' it has to be at least 80% of one variety, where it used to be fifty-fifty. Now I think the district has to be 100% before you call it a wine from that district.

So if you're going to blend four or five different wines to make a Koonunga Hill or a Jacob's Creek, and this is clear cut: you get these wines in from all over South Australia and you call it 'table wine extraordinaire' or whatever, 'South Australia.'

You couldn't say anything else. Or you might just say 'Jacob's Creek.'

CROSER: But that's got 'claret' on its Bordeaux-style label.

BLASS: I think the law will work all this out.

CROSER: But you might be throwing the baby out with the bathwater, because I think the public understands what 'claret' and 'burgundy' mean as Australian styles. Why are you going to go and confuse the whole issue?

The only reason we're considering changing them is because the French say the words belong to them. I say those words, but in their common usage they've become meaningful Australian words and we should be able to use them if we want.

Why run out and bugger up the marketing of red wine? That's what we're going to do.

Look, even people who don't drink a lot of red say 'I like a burgundy because it's softer and richer,' or 'I like a claret because it's got a lot of guts and body.' That's what they say. And here we are, taking claret and burgundy off the label, and putting Cabernet-Shiraz or Shiraz-Cabernet and that's all the same. People won't know if they're buying a soft red wine or an austere, tannic wine.

BLASS: Well the same sort of thing happened with hock.

CROSER: Yes, but it's called 'riesling.' If you remember, there were very few wines labelled 'hock.' A lot of them were labelled 'riesling-hock' and there's been a transition period. We went from 'hock' to 'riesling-hock' and now it's varietal and 'Rhine Riesling.' There are still riesling styles around. Take Bin 33.

So the public learnt. They had this adjustment period from the acid, light, dry white 'hock' to 'riesling-hock' to 'riesling' and they expect the same wine style.

STOCKHAUSEN: Isn't it better to have certain words -

BLASS: Like 'soft, fruity and - '

STOCKHAUSEN: No, no, no ... why not 'Grange, St Henri, Great Western?' You know, names that people already associate with certain distinctive wine styles?

CROSER: That's great. But you try and be a new winemaker and put a new product on the market. You can't call it 'Karrawirra Grange.' I can't say 'Petaluma Grange,' or 'Petaluma Nyrang.'

WHITE: Are you suggesting it will be impossible for the Australian wine industry, and the public that industry serves, to develop and evolve the same way it has in Europe?

CROSER: No. Europe's a long way ahead, of course, but we'll develop in the same way, although it won't be in our lifetime. It'll take two centuries before we discover which varieties and which styles are best suited to different parts of the country, and before we can adopt an appellation ruling that nothing else can be done in that area. That's all a long, long, way away.

It's inevitable that we'll drop 'claret' and 'burgundy' and that's only through international pressure. That's the only reason.

STOCKHAUSEN: I know it won't be easy, but why can't we do something like the Germans did with their champagne? The French told them they could no longer use the word 'champagne' - it's out!

So at one stage they said 'Oh, alright then, it's sect.'

We may be able to do something like -

CROSER: But 'sect' is so different to 'red wine.' Sect is sparkling dry white made from Sylvaner, Rhine Riesling and Muller-Thurgau with bubbles and a bit of sugar and high acid, and it's very consistent in style. It's really a style unto itself.

I'm surprised that the industry hasn't fought harder for the retention of these terms, because they're a simple marketing tool which has been proven to work. You know, everybody jumps on the band wagon and says 'Well, c'mon, we've gotta get rid of these, the Americans have got rid of 'em!'

It's all pretty dubious.

WHITE: Will we stop using the word 'champagne?'


CROSER: Inevitable. Just as the sun will come up tomorrow.

BLASS: And we should stop using it too. The garbage that we're putting on the market in Australia! We shouldn't call it 'champagne' out of respect!

CROSER: Well once again, Wolf, I disagree with you. People see 'champagne' here as sparking white wine. It has a well-defined connotation. The quality range here is as varied as it in France, so why should we change it?

STOCKHAUSEN: Again, what are we going to do? 'Sparkling white' isn't good. There must be a Term. Make up a word! Somebody must come up with something!

CROSER: Okay. The French are the people who imposed this silly restriction on us, right? Go to France and try to stop them using the word 'jersey' for 'jumper!'

STOCKHAUSEN: But they are clamping down on this use of words which aren't French. They've just outlawed all the English language computer terms like 'hardware' and 'software' and 'memory.' They legislating that French words have to be used rather than these English and American ones. They're creating new French words where they need them.

CROSER: Well here we are in a world which is supposed to be uniting itself in trade and global brotherhood ...

STOCKHAUSEN: They've done the same thing in Germany ...

CROSER: It's heightening nationalism and creating division. I'll bet that if you took the word 'champagne' off every bottle of Australia-made sparkling white wine, people would still be asking for 'champagne' in twenty years' time. They'll always say 'Here, have a glass of champagne.'

WHITE: But people have stopped saying 'two bob' haven't they. That was a much more commonly used term than 'champagne' is.

BLASS: Yes, and anyway, a lot of people just ask for a Seaview or a Great Western.

STOCKHAUSEN: You're getting back to where I was before.

CROSER: Well, what happens if you are Wolf Blass, about to launch his champagne label?

BLASS: Everybody has to start somewhere!

But truly, I think it's the aristocracy in all winemaking, French champagne. You know it. We all know it. It's the pinnacle of the winemakers' art. The standard of 'champagne' making in the Australian wine industry automatically excludes us calling it 'champagne.' It doesn't matter whether it comes from France. If the real thing was coming from China we'd be in the same boat.

CROSER: But you're talking about a quality thing, and surely we should be looking at it as a style thing.

BLASS: Well our standard would have to be improved dramatically before we could put the word 'champagne' on the label. Our $3.99 commercial garbage should never be associated with the word 'champagne.' I strongly oppose it. It should have never happened! It's doing more harm in the long term, because real Champagne makers are falling into the same bucket.

Call it 'sparkling wine!' leave the 'champagne' out of it!

CROSER: Why? The people you're talking about who drink discount Australian sparkling wine recognise 'champagne' as the word that denotes -

BLASS: It gives people a little bit more of a kick of pleasure. It's a word for the social event -

CROSER: So why take the word from them?

BLASS: We should protect words which are used in relation to quality.

WHITE: Let's go and have lunch.

Tasting results: 
best of each class:

Cabernet Shiraz 
Penfolds Bin 389 1978 $7.72 

Shiraz Cabernet 
Mildara Coonawarra 1978 $4.94 

Cabernet Malbec 
Renmano Bin 465 1978 $4.39 

Cabernet Shiraz Malbec 
Mildara Coonawarra 1978 $5.33 

Cabernet Merlot 
Tisdall Mt Helen 1980 $8.50 

Lindemans Langhorne Creek 1978 $3.50 

Lindemans Bin 50 1979 $3.60 

Pinot Shiraz 
Tyrrell's Old Winery 1979 $5.50 

Karrawirra Bin 61 Cabernet Gros Shiraz 1979 $4.44
George Hermit Crabbage by George ... all photos from original B&W portraits to published tear sheets by me apart from my mugshot and Wolfie with his neices

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

that's amazing Whitey ... look at them becoming who they became ... and you