“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 December 2017


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 ...


Unknown said...

Very interesting and thought provoking observations Phillip with some far-reaching implications. I look forward to discussing them sometime with you. To be perfectly honest, my own wine appreciation has never got much beyond trying to understand what there is to like in a decent Riesling! Do you remember those AC Johnson Piramimma Reislings of '81/83? I used to order a glass or two when I first had enough cash to take myself out to dinner! What overwhelming, fantastic wines they were! Sam.

Richard Warland said...

Good on you Whitey.

Elegant prose written about the most elegant of wines.

Australia punches above it's weight with this variety

I keep hearing about a "fake news" Riesling Revolution.... I don't know who believes that but if it keeps prices down, I as a consumer, are very happy!