“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)





20 March 2018


Rolling the bird-netting up from the Ironheart Shiraz, just across my front fence.

Cooler vintage, hot fractal politics in Mount Lofty Ranges and Riverland

On February 15th a subcontractor machine-harvested the big block of industrial vineyard on the flat clay across the track from me. It took two whole nights. Shiraz at what somebody said was 15.5 baumé. In other words 16-plus alcohols. I thought it might have been a bit more. The flavours were cordial sweet and simple. It was clean, but it wasn't very good. Bacchus only knows where that fruit went, if indeed even he knows. Probly jacked with Mega-Purple, sawdust and tartaric and called "Jellifluous" or "China Thing" or something by now. Hungry Dan's Beijing. 

Today is the late afternoon of March 19th and another outfit's rolling up the bird netting on the Ironheart Shiraz, between my cottage on the slope and that vineyard already harvested on the flat. 

The two are only about 100 metres apart, but in comparison, this certified organic and biodynamic fruit on ironstone looks like about a third of the neighbour's yield but it's holding a great deal more complexity and some lovely acid. 

They'll hand-pick it early in the morning of the Equinox, before the birds discover the nets have gone. 

It'll sell for $100 more than the other one. Per bottle. More flavour; lower alcohol.

Which reminds me of the new conservative government lurching into power in the middle of harvest. Pretty good outlook for some winers: Turnbull's Marshall-friendly Feds are stacked up already with $50 million of taxpayers' money that disgraced deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joice left behind for Wine Australia to give away. 

It's to help run export tastings and build extravagent new cellar sales outlets to attract people who drink. 

Riverland "Liberal" politicians Tim Whetstone MP (left) and Senator Anne Ruston with then Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce at Penfolds Grange, Magill. As a sort of inspiration, they chose this posh restaurant and tasting complex to announce their $50 million handout last year ... Barnaby's gone, but the money's now available

On the announcement, they offered special financial encouragement to the Murray-Darling Basin. Whose growers nearly always make a loss. There'll be deconstructed Rubik's Cubes and reconstructed shipping container Tortilla Flats architecture all the way up the lazy river before you know it. 

I was in that Riverland a few weeks back and was surprised to discover many vineyards unpicked as the weather had cooled and greyed and the grapes weren't sweet enough to mine for their sugar. There were plenty of overhead sprinklers irrigating hay for export, however. 

No worries, no worries. Although you could always worry about global warming-denying conspiracy theorists. 

This morning I read Henry Crawford, big Riverland grapegrower, defending his beloved region in Wine Business Monthly

"It's as if the climate change debate is a massive conspiracy from the Tasmanian Government to get everyone to move or invest there," he writes. "I agree with Jeffery [Grossett]: SA wine is better than ever and I think we have a very sunny future, pun intended." 

The author, left with publisher/photographer Milton Wordley, Riverland grapegrower Henry Crawford, Wine Business Monthly editor/publisher Anthony Madigan and Penfolds chief winemaker Peter Gago on the day Henry won his $4000 Collector's Edition of A year in the life of Grange. Milton and I made this multi international awards winner and donated this one as first prize to WBM's photo competition, December 2014 ... Peter donated the wine ... photo Jamie Sachs

Everything seems to be going well for Henry, who believes that as things get hotter he needs less water: 

"Production wise we are growing more tonnes on a per hectare basis than ever before, our costs per hectare are lower than ever, and it's worth noting warmer, drier seasons reduce disease risk (less sprays and chemical) and the early harvests reduce water consumption," he wrote, before suggesting the world loves premium warm climate Barossa. 

Which, like Grossett's, I suggest is generally a different sort of a drink to Henry's River. The Winemakers Federation of Australia records 82 to 94 per cent of the Riverland crop from 2012 to 2015 being grown and disposed of at a loss. In the same years the Barossa figures show 28 to 50 per cent loss; McLaren Vale 27 to 34 per cent loss. 

This is where a thing called "quality" comes into the account. 

Hey Henry, in the same years, Tasmania was 99 to 100 per cent profitable. Ask Stefano Lubiana. When did he leave the Riverland for Tasmania? Thirty years back? Is he happy? 

Among other things, Peter Lehmann used to say "It's a beautiful vintage Whitey, but nowhere near as good as the next one." 

So far, it seems that this particular year could be even better than next year. 

I've not heard him recommending Henry's River in return but Jeff Grossett's raving about Clare Riesling; I called David O'Leary from O'Leary-Walker for another opinion. Yep. Almost smug. "Pretty good," he said. "Like 2008." 

Of Petaluma's Clare Riesling, chief winemaker Andrew Hardy was similarly verbose. "Spectacular," he said. At Paracombe, atop the Torrens Gorge in the Adelaide Hills, Ben Drogemuller guardedly gurgled with similar glee. "Lower Baumés, better flavours," he said, also agreeing with Hardy and O'Leary that Chardonnay, whether for still wine or fizz, was also of very high quality. 

Pinot fizzbase is deadly, too: perfumed and crunchy. 

Everyone, from one end of these ranges to another, is raving about the intensity of the reds. Like the colour. O'Leary reckons it reminds him of Elvis. "Everything's got this dark sheen," he said. 

"Wash my mouth out Whitey, but even the Merlot's almost jet black." 

Cabernet is a slightly different business this year: the bunches are generally light-weight, with small berries and lots of stalk. Even in the cooler spots, it's been ripening early. That variety's heartland, Coonawarra, was shot with frost on 3rd and 4th of November. Much of it never recovered. Those fortunate enough to have overhead irrigation, like Petaluma's Coonawarra Evans Block, survived, however. 

"We had to bunch-thin in the end," Hardy chuckled. 

Ironheart Shiraz under the nets on February 12th: nowhere near ready

We could all tell right from the start that 2018 Shiraz was ON. Colour, flavour, intensity, balance ... it set up really well early and the good bits I've seen from around the Ranges have gorgeous perfumes. 

Like this fruit from over my front fence has thick, but softening skins, beautiful pulp, incredible swoony flavours, and pips as ripe, tannic and brittle as old walnuts. 

As picked this morning: the left-hand bunch grew on the western side of the vine where it got a little more afternoon sunlight through the dapple so is slightly riper than the right-hander, which came from the same vine but its cooler morning light side

I regularly quote Penfolds' chief winemaker Peter Gago's claim that for twenty vintages in a row he's had to recalibrate his definition of the term "extreme." I'd add one homily: as that climate chaos intensifies, the quality gap between the fruit of mindless mechanical chemo-industrial and hands-on intensive gardening grows ever wider. 

When things get wierd, you don't get nearly so much luck. The camo bleaches and blows away. You need more than global warming or a smartarse label made up by somebody with a haircut. 

If the wine that's crossed my desk since Christmas is any indicator, that quality gap's becoming a bloody scary bottomless chasm as the shelves take on a more chaotic and confusing display than ever. So the mis-named Liberal gubmnts of this nation and now this state of South Australia hand out $50 million of our hard-earned to ethanol producers regardless, it seems, of the quality or profitability of their produce. Feeling a bit short with the readies? Drop a bit of a line to Wine Australia. Thanks Barnaby Joyce and his former shotgun rider, Riverland Senator Anne Ruston for helping shake our dosh out for whoever gets it. 

That'll be seasoned by one honey of a Royal Commission inquiring into the mismanagement of, and outright theft of Murray-Darling water - on their shift. 

Water is a significant gastronomic item. 

Thanks St Jay Weatherill for that benediction. Watch very closely.

Earlier-picked PF - preservative-free - Shiraz draining from a fermenter into a basket for pressing ... photos by Philip White, except where they're obviously not

18 March 2018


The State Library reminds me that today is John Horrock's 200th birthday. A remarkable young man from Picton, Lancashire, he settled in the Clare Valleys and died terribly there in Penwortham after a disastrous expedition to the far north. This image is a selfie by the colonial artist S. T. Gill, who's put himself in the centre between Bernard Kilroy, Horrocks and Harry the Camel. I don't know whether Harry was the camel Horrocks had executed after the incident in which he shot part of his face off.

The cottage in which he died is intact and well-kept for people to visit.

Horrocks was one of the buccaneering boyos from wealthy English families who were common among the first white occupiers of these vast tracts of other peoples' country. He "brought with him a family servant, a blacksmith, a shepherd, four merino rams, sheepdogs, tools, sufficient clothing for five years, and a church bell." You can read more of John Chittleborough's biography here.

This amazing book below, based on the letters and diaries of many women of the day who ran large households and estates, some vast, for their industrialist husbands, is a good feeding-ground for anybody interested in where such individuals came from.

16 March 2018


for originals, signed copies and commissions George Grainger Aldridge is sometimes at trojanpencil@gmail.com bless him. He's painting the Trezona Range today:

His giant Flinders Granges, famous while it hung in The Exeter, is happily hung meanwhile in the home of a lucky expat Brit Grange freak in Singapore 

It's a treat to visit George's studio ... this day he'd hung a portrait from an appreciative  pupil more famous for street art while the mentor worked on more Flinders


Don't say I never recommend Cabernet Merlot mixtures ...

I dunno how close it was to the end of the 'seventies when one blistering summer day I crept into the dark cool at Stanley Wine Co. at Clare to find there suppin' red in the gloom Mick Knappstein and Brian Barry. They already looked like old men through my brash peepers. It was real slow and quiet. 

Stanley Leasingham Cabernet Malbec had spent a decade securing its place as a respected modern dry red of Ferrari V6 quality. One can't ever taste those wines fresh again, like the condition at which point they were bottled and sold, but it's tempting to try to redraw their memory through their place in history. Those new-style, leaner, cleaner Mick and Tim Knappstein reds must have worn more sappy oak than common nowdays, but I still recall them seen to be elegant, intense, polished delights for the table. Like you'd never turn a glass of that stuff down. 

In more than a doffing of the hat to the venerable Mick Knappstein, Tony and Lita Brady invited him to be the guest speaker at the centenary of that special high temple of Cabernet sauvignon blended with Malbec, Wendouree, in 1995. His brief, very important speech was kindly recorded and shared by my colleague Tim White. Recalling former winemaker there, Roly Birks, then deceased, Mick said he "was a very honest winemaker, in as much as you knew what he did. You’d see on the head of his vats ... so many buckets of Mataro, many buckets of Shiraz, or even Malbec. He blended his wines at the crusher ... It always had at the head of the vats what the additions were. If the grapes were very ripe it would say how much water went in. Now you know, not many winemakers would do that... He was honest!"

Merlot is a much more recent addition to the Clare blenders' bench. This early-ripening red, also of Bordeaux, was allegedly named by the French for the Merle, the black bird which devours the Merlot first at vintage. Preferring the more traditional varieties, I was derisive of Merlot's intrusion into Clare during the Hardy's and Fosters invasions of twenty years back. 

Time to see what's happened. A bottle of Mr. Mick by Tim Adams Clare Valley Cabernet Merlot 2014 ($17; 14% alcohol; screw cap) is commonly available at Hungry Dan's for at least $2 short of this maker's recommended retail. A bottle of it stood glowering on my desk until I realised I'd got well below the label in no time at all. Like it's a snaky, shiny, sinister whip of a thing whose genetics presage its pierced punk countenance. 

Four years of age is a damn good start. No brash American oak is another delight - there's still a braw sappy chin on it, but this is all old French. Intensely olivine Clare fruit is another bull's eye. Long velvety juniper-style tannins are the Cyclops one in the middle. 

Like the best of the leanest, longest-sighted, stoic reds of Clare this is one you drink standing or sitting up straight. It's the lean dry air opposite of the soulful squish of the higher maritime humidity of McLaren Vale. 

It's probably a bit sweeter than the best of the region's Cabernet Malbec blends too but hey, some rock has harmonies. 

Greek food please. Haloumi, kalamata, fetta, greens. Loukaniko. Or Calabrian coast ... go further for the best spaghetti vongole ... like in season, the cockles off that beach as served straight up in the broth at Goolwa's Cafe Bombora away down three or four hours south of Clare where those billion-year-old ranges finally dive into the Great Southern Ocean.

15 March 2018


Seaford Heights ... the gateway to McLaren Vale

McLaren Vale candidates agree despite three-way election fractals

We had a meeting of interested residents of McLaren Vale in the Boccé Club. The big hall quickly filled. Folks came from McLaren Flat, Blewett Spings (below), Willunga and their surrounds and the suburbs along the coast. 

The three major candidates for the Seat of Mawson  - Sitting ALP Member Leon Bignell, Liberal candidate Andy Gilfillan, and the SA Best/Xenophon candidate Hazel Wainwright - had agreed to sit onstage with the Onkaparinga Mayor, Lorraine Rosenberg. I led them through a brisk agenda of planning issues for an hour, then they took questions from the floor for another hour. 

There was no biffo. Rarely have I seen a public meeting where people came so early, in spite of vintage getting its throttle to the floor. Many of the longstanding sage identities and Vales venerable were prominent. 

Considering the fractal nature of this election, with three gangs loose in the yard instead of the old duopoly, it was encouraging to see how the candidates agreed on several critical issues. 

Glenthorne Farm (above), the 200 hectare nuclear radiation and health research station on O'Halloran Hill is neither within the seat of Mawson or the official boundary of McLaren Vale as delineated in the McLaren Vale Character Preservation (McLaren Vale) Act 2012. But it does lie within the official, internationally-gazetted Geographical Indications boundary of the region, and as such, is seen by many in the south as their last bastion of fresh green country in a relentless onslaught of suburbia. 

In 2001 this former defence and CSIRO property was gifted by a Liberal state government   to the University of Adelaide which agreed to preserve and  conserve it and use it for agriculture, horticulture, oenology, viticulture, buffer zones and for community recreation while University project research, education and winemaking continued there. Contrary to the highly specific deed, the University has long sought to subdivide the land for quick cash. It has never really attempted to conform to the Deed, which repeatedly states that urban development is not only forbidden but even thinking about or planning it is a breach of the Deed.  

All three candidates were adamant that there be no housing subdivision on Glenthorne should they take power. Both Labor and Liberal have discussion briefs on the internet, in the hope of reaching some community agreement about possible uses for the site. The Libs plan includes a shooting range and gun club; Labor wants a mini farm so local kids can learn those older, gentler  agricultural crafts. 

Neither lot will say what's wrong with the conditions of the current deed other than to suggest the University is the wrong owner: Bignell made no bones about taking the farm back from the University and getting straight on with establishing the country's primary collection of vine cultivars for starters. 

Another issue which had locals concerned was the 150 suite five-star resort Richard Hamilton plans to instal on his Hut Block Vineyard (above) between The Salopian Inn and Wirra Wirra. An hotel with two restaurants, a café, an indoor swimming pool, a gymnasium, a day spa, conference facilities and a two-story carpark would make a huge impact on the aspect of that agricultural precinct well outside the surveyed town boundary. 

All three candidates agreed that the Hut Block is the wrong site; the Mayor explained the developer has been advised to re-apply as the initial application did not conform to the restrictions in the protective legislation. Ultimately the decision could be hand-balled to the Planning Minister John Rau, who's also the attorney-general and deputy Premier. 

Bignell claimed he would have little trouble convincing his colleague the development was needed but should conform to the Preservation legislation and therefore be constructed within the town boundary instead of being imposed on prime agricultural land. 

Which led to some intense discussion about the look of the towns as they fill. If the government's exemplar development, the droll, hyperintense housing now covering Seaford Heights (above) is any guide to what we can expect, lord have mercy on our poor souls. (See that row of little windows? That's the back of a row of bargain rental huts. Two-high; no yards. Facing nor'west.)

This in turn led to repeated discussion about forming a regional residents' association as many folk agreed there was a communications gap between governments and citizens, and planners extant could sure use some more forceful guidance about their ratepayers' preferences for the look and feel of their townships. 

The politics of water in the McLaren Vale region aren't quite equal to the treacherous scandals unfolding in the Murray-Darling Basin, but they nevertheless maintain their own provincial air. As the irrigating vignerons of the vignoble use recycled water from the intensive housing along the coast, there are contentious issues to address about storing more of this water in a major dam, so more growers have ready access to it. Not to mention those who'd like to make some money out of it. 

Local wine businessmen wanted to build this on Bowering Hill, the last place along the coast where the vines can actually grow down to the sea. Those friends of the Willunga Basin who spent years fighting to save those Bowering coastal slopes from development are adamant it should be anywhere but there. 

There's talk of waterproofing old sand quarries elsewhere for this storage; even putting the water into the aquifers for pumping during the summer. Watch this space. Bignell insisted the best site is near the current storage, on the inferior black  clay west of the Aldinga airport. 

There was some discussion about the local roadways and whether or not the newly-widened Main South Road needed an overpass at Tatachilla Road - maybe - and then popular calls to have the railways extended further into the vignoble. Back where they used to be. 

Gotta take the old bus out for a bit of a run every two or three years ... must remember to change that flag

Another unresolved mess is the region's burgeoning mountains of plastic waste: builders and winemakers create hectares of it. Since China no longer accepts the world's junk it seems we're just stacking plastic into old quarries that bleed straight into the aquifer and then the sea. Another one for the new Residents' Association to address once this election's done and vintage is in the tank. 

As convenor and moderator of this gathering, I was probably too busy on the night to best evaluate the participants' performances, but I gotta say Kangaroo Islander Andy Gilfillan is a good honest soul, successful organic farmer, and ernestly well-intentioned. Good bloke. 

Hazel Wainwright, graphic designer and Onkaparinga councillor seems a little unsure of how she fits across two tiers of government but she's certainly not the only one in the rookie Xenophon cabal to face that learning curve. Her self-assuredness and sheer energy might get her there. 

These folks sat in contrast to Bignell, who was polished and practised in comparison, and took the agenda quite forcefully, dealing deftly with issues, as he does. He knows how to make the most of his huge advantages as Minister, Cabinet Member and long-term holder of the seat with deep local knowledge. 

I can't comment on whether as a resident of McLaren Vale, former dairy farmer's kid Bignell looks more at home campaigning on Kangaroo Island than Andy, son of Island sheep farmer and former Democrat politician Ian Gilfillan appears when he faces such a roomful of eager souls in this northern extreme of what has become a most intriguing electorate.

Similarly, I can't imagine how Hazel Wainwright would frame her will to the rugged determination of the Islanders. I have my suspicions.

There were six Islanders there, mind you. Andy and Ian, and then Shadow Attorney General Vicki Chapman and her friends. Obviously a valuable property, the seat of Mawson. Dam on the rocks, darling? 


10 March 2018


Coffee. Open the kitchen blinds. I couldn't stay inside when I saw the dust of the pickers driving in at first light today. They picked a third swathe of the Yangarra High Sands Grenache next door. Very fit specialists these people, highly selective and quick. 

These grapes will emerge in the Old Vine Grenache.

When it got too warm in the late morning, like too hot for good humans to be moving fresh-cut (ouch) fruit around in the sun they retired. They'll be back in the cool of dawn. 

My neighbour Bernard Smart planted these vines in 1946. They've never been irrigated, and although they never had much more then sulphur before, they've had no conventional industrial poison since Yangarra's conversion began to fully licensed biodynamic and organic management almost a decade ago.

These are highly resilient plants and consistent producers of modest amounts of beautiful fruit. You can't get these flavours anywhere else. 

I love the way the Grenache leaves feel as thick as chamois. Without the prophylactic skein of petrochem, the plant seems to stack on more protective lignin over years, making it tougher with thicker-skinned fruit.

This high dune is wind-blown sand (æolean, not marine), deposted in the last few thousand years. It varies in depth and was known to move, as dunes do when bare, in the block next door in 1947-8. 

Below that is a layer of ferruginous clay. Then there's ironstone, and below that coarse Maslin sand (Eocene Epoch 34-56 million years ago) all the way down to the 500+ million year rocks beneath. 

The old vine roots have gone straight down to the clay, where they feed and drink. Perfect.

 Here's Bernard and Mary Smart with Yangarra boss Peter Fraser ... below that Bernard and their son Wayne in the priceless Grenache Bernard's grandfather planted in the same sort of sand - although shallow - on the top of the higher ridge to the north. 

The hotrod Grenache makers of the south queue for their tonne of Bernard's grapes. And so they friggin should. 

[PS to Bernard:sell 10% of your fruit at Grange prices. You might sell that bit first.]

09 March 2018


Out my back door: pickers in Yangarra's High Sands Grenache, harvesting fruit like this:

Once it's been through the destemmer and grape sorter, which removes all the bugs that were hiding in the bunches as well as the stalks, petiols and leaves, it comes out like caviar, ready to go straight in the fermenter. Yangarra doesn't use the crusher much.

I've rarely seen such a calm, steady vintage. Here's some of the early-pick PF - preservative free - Shiraz draining from a fermenter into a basket press:

photos by Philip White



Big family show rethinks available flavours on the wine mixing deck

As a wine family name, Byrne might not ring too many bells unless you live in the Riverland. 

These enterprising folk now have around 400 ha of vines there and some in Clare. With Brit consultant Philip Reedman MW they now have eighteen brands and nearly eighty wines from some vineyards I've never before heard of and a few others. 

While headquartered in suburban Norwood, nowhere in the vast website does it explain where the wines are made, but I'm sure their winemakers, Reedman and former Penfolds man Peter Gajewski, know their way around many sub-contracting establishments that can help. 

Sidney Wilcox Old Vine Zibibbo 2016 ($25; 14% alcohol; screw cap) is White Muscat of Alexandria from forty-plus-year-old Riverland vines. When I was a kid this variety commonly sold as spatlese lexia; it was usually made quite sweet. This one's fairly dry, made like many of the dry-ish muscat family ones popular in the UK, but they're usually cheaper than this, and maybe they're not made quite so carefully. 

It smells vaguely like a sweaty orange picker eating musk sticks. Its flavours are tight and austere, and like the labeling, they're sufficiently adult to afford no embarrassment about variety or source, even though the wine is hardly a challenging gastronomic pinnacle. 

That orange juice/rind only insinuated in the bouquet is more prominent in the firm aftertaste, which hovers between appetising and abrupt, depending upon one's preferences in orange pickers, depth of thirst, and epicurean wisdom. The wine is much better than its price. 

Antiquarian Rare Field White 2016 ($59; 14% alcohol; screw cap) is Riverland Muscadelle, Chenin Blanc, Colombard and Semillon from one vineyard, all picked together and co-fermented with wild yeasts. It has a hint of that human I met in the Zibibbo, but here it's fresher and less laboured, maybe just less concerned. The other three varieties help focus it, but in reality, it smells like none of them: that buttery, waxed orange whiff is more a regional muscaty character than a precise reflection of these other varieties, although that clean lineal wax may be the Chenin. 

It also has a neat whiff of dusty hemp sack about it: I suspect this is the bit many will call "mineral". 

In other ways, it reminds me of the ripe fruit of prickly pear. Which is delicious. A touch of old French barrel seems to put it in a sort of Chardonnay from a hot-year-in-Macon mode. 

In the 'seventies and 'eighties, master benchmen Wolf Blass and John Glaetzer fastidiously blended varieties like these to make Wolf Blass Classic Dry White, as Wolf thought good Chardonnay was beyond the grasp of most winemakers, who grew it for the wrong reasons in all the wrong places without understanding its chilly source in Burgundy. No fool, that Wolf. 

Antiquarian Clare Valley Semillon Riesling 2017 ($59; 13.5% alcohol; compound cork) is another co-fermented business, aged in old French barrels. It has the most alluring, moody, lime marmalade and butter bouquet, complex and comforting. While it has equal proportions of both varieties, the Semillon dominates the aroma, but the Riesling is never far beneath that. 

As a drink, the enjoyment can really only arrive when you stop worrying about what's in it. In the conventional sense, it's a better wine overall than the previous pair, but it comes from a place better suited to premium viticulture, and I'll bet my arse the yields per hectare are much lower here than up the River. 

If anything, this wine takes me back to the rustic, faintly sweet white blends of d'Arenberg in the early '70s  when d'Arry was beginning to forget about brandy and make more white wine. Blending, mainly, by what was available and habit more than design. Even D'Arry's Riesling was usually around one-third Frontignac muscat. 

Antiquarian Clare Valley Pinot Noir Shiraz 2016 ($59; 14.5% alcohol; screw cap) is another surprise. Pinot? In Clare? 

I suppose any region that grows such good - if freakish - Riesling should at least have a go at Pinot, which comes from a slightly warmer place in the Burgundy vs Rhineland sense. And then, if you consider the pre-war days, when a great deal of Burgundy's Pinot was bolstered by a dash of Shiraz from the Algerian edge of the Sahara or the sunny south-of-France, you have to ask why not? 

The aroma is tight and black. Deadly nightshade. Juniper. Old leather harness. Christmas cake with plenty of currants and nutmeg. I want to say it has an acrid, piquant edge a bit like dry cardamon pods, but maybe that's just dreaming. It does have a pretty topnote, like a dusting of confectioner's sugar. 

In the flavour department, I must say I can't see much hint of the nine - count 'em: nine - clones of Pinot, but this is a more presentable form of ripe Clare Shiraz than many. And that says something: in Burgundy they added Shiraz - Syrah - to Pinot to give it strength and body; in Clare, these folks have replaced some of the excess strength and body typical of ripe Shiraz with the more elegant Pinot noir. 

It's a good wine in the bistro/brasserie sense. But, like the others, it's a bit too bloody spendy for that atmosphere, where one realises too late that bottle prices are double to keep the sommelier paid. 

These blends, while a welcome change as much as a curtsy to many forgotten wines from the past, seem on the face of them to be mixtures of convenience as much as examples of the parfumier's art. I'm not suggesting this outfit's following d'Arenberg's epiphany by putting amorphous bladder pack or flagon blends in posh glass for $60 the pop, but they might find the curiosity that pushes punters into the first bottle may not be sufficient to convince many to make a second purchase. 

At least somebody's having a brave think about what to do with all that droll arid/desert fruit from the Riverland, whether they're game to put the region's name on the label or not. 

I'd like to revisit these four bottles in five years, then have a look at what the Byrnes have decided to change. I'll be keen to see whether any Clare or Riverland connoisseurs are drinking them in the local  restaurants and pubs.


08 March 2018


Thanks Ronak Gopaldas for this image

07 March 2018



Better routes to flavour all forgotten or ignored: but they're there if you look!

Surely Australia's foodbowl, the Murray-Darling Basin, can produce better long-term flavours? Er, profits?

It was a damn fine thing to go for a bit of a drive last week, after a long stretch of a poverty of health had precluded it. Not that I drive on the public road. Incapable of framing my will to the law, I sensibly removed my license from myself thirty years ago.   

Instead, this time Stephen Forbes took me on a 24 hour conversation about the Murray River, mainly. Very handy, having a botanist of his stature at the wheel when you're out looking at nature and food you can grow. I owe you, cobber. 

Perhaps on my account more than his, it was more about the Murray River and drinks. 

Through my teens in the dusty edge-of-the Mallee rainshadow country at Kanmantoo we'd go swimming in the river at Murray Bridge after the hellish heatwave bus ride home from school at Mount Barker. 

C'mon youse: Mum, six kids, in the car, seventeen miles, straight in the River. We'd slop around in there for hours, swimming over to the other bank and up stream around the bridge pylons. You could catch the odd Murray cod and freshwater cray and even see underwater until the cheese factory pumped so much junk into the river you could only catch redfin on cheddar. 

No-one ever swallowed. I never saw that lazy River as a source of drink until somebody put the first tetra-pack orange juice on my school menu in the Hills and suddenly we were all on the bus for a social studies and geography excursion to study the new citrus industry booming away up there across the desert in the irrigated Riverland. 

Clever marketing those people. Somebody musta got to the teachers. 

Since then I grew up so far I grew down and discovered the wines of the River starting with Stones Green Ginger Wine made under license for the London owners by Angoves. Perfect pop for the macho hillbilly not yet ready for raw spurruts. 

Next step up the gastronomic ladder was sweet sherry rotgut, then dry and oloroso and I was ready for the red, although by then the River had lost me to premiums like McLaren Vale's Seaview and the Barossa's Kaiser Stuhl. 

So after my long absence from our biggest valley, there we traversed the vignobles en route to it ... McLaren Vale, the Adelaide Plains, Greenock and the Barossa Nord, then Riverland after the long slide outa Truro and down Accommodation Hill - very slippery during vintage mind you - across the saltbush flats where venerable librarian (ret.) Valmai Hankel still farms horses when she's not bustin her bones. Call in for an arid hamburger on a stick at the Blanchetown (no relation) roadhouse where Winestate publisher Peter Simic started out and thence we fell seriously into vine country at Waikerie. 

The tankfarms close to the roadways are much cleaner and more food grade than the Heath Robinson trainwrecks of my youth. 

In fact the roadside refineries of the River often seem much more polished and tidy than the big ones I see tipped today around McLaren Vale.

Most of the Riverland vineyards look happy and lush and very ready to be picked if they've not already had the pleasure. 

Given the enraged sanctimony South Australia shows the Murray Darling Basin Authority as Premier Weatherill launches his Royal Commission into water use, abuse, waste and sheer broadacre theft, I was surprised to see farmers there using overhead irrigation to grow baling hay. Can't blame them I suppose. Nobody seems to want the old mentality over-irrigated Navel orange product, and if the freshest figures supplied by the appropriate body, the Winemakers' Federation of Australia (WFA), are much to go by, you'd have to be pretty smart and scarce to make money selling grapes.

According to the WFA , if we start at the wine region closest to the Murray Mouth, Langhorne Creek (above), about 70 per cent of its winegrapes were grown and sold at a loss in the vintages 2012-2015. 

Head upstream. The Riverland hangs between 84 and 94 per cent grown at a loss. Next you hit the Murray-Darling/Swan Hill area with 78 to 89 per cent losers. 

Riverina, home of the hallowed Yellowtail and seat of  the Hon Michael McCormack, the rookie who's just taken disgraced Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce's job ... the entire Riverina's wine grape crop's pretty much straight 98 per cent grown at a loss. 

Call that an export triumph? Expert water management? 

One would hope that Premier Weatherill's Royal Commission inquiring into the boofheadedness of the Murray-Darling Authority and the huge accounts of criminal theft of water on its shift would ask some questions about whether this precious scarcity is best spent growing ridiculously cheap ethanol to start with. (A lot of that wine's sold more cheaply than bottled water.) 

Food could be good as an alternative, if only they'd learn about better, more concentrated flavour than they expect us to look for in their ethanol. 

Or citrus products, for that matter. That OJ we trooped across the desert to adore as kids seems to have withered. The orchards have diminished. The Big Orange is locked and rusting and waiting for UFOs. Maybe these Riverlanders should learn to turn the tap off before the flavour's all washed away. 

The citrus secrets were under their noses all along. There at the end of the road we hit orange heaven in a working nursery laboratory. Like one of the best in the world. The whole exercise was to visit the 88 year old Riverland citrus researchers/writers and propagators, Ian Tolley OAM and his wife and colleague Noelle, AM. 

The flavours that flicked from Ian's slender blade covered rare citrus types from Gondwanaland to Japonica to Seville. I had no idea. In the nurseries they came from hundreds of potted, grafted specimens; in the kitchen from bowls of soaking diced dainties in the fridge. 

It was mind-blowing. I smelled a wider range of aromas there in the Tolley citrus than you'd find in the local wine industry. Why didn't the rest of the locals take closer notice? Like all those citrus growers now wondering whether to plant some Barbera grapes or something else from the Barbary Coast? Maybe because, until very recently, Ian and Noelle had been far too busy on scientific R&D to write their incredible book, Commonsense Citrus - A Handy Guide to Propagation and Planting

You like lemon or lime in your gin? Juice in your vodka? Juice without ethanol? You have to know this book. Think you know anything about marmalade? Want to keep a favourite ancient lemon strain alive? Plant an orchard? You know now. 

All the time we were there in the vast sweeps of ox-bows, billabongs, meanders and full-bore bloody swamps we sweepingly, glibly call the Riverland, I wondered how many names the original owners of this country used for its myriad nooks and crannies. You never see these places, feel their difference from fast cars or boats you didn't make yourself from the side of a tree. You can't really learn their feel through a pair of boots. The phone don't tell you. 

Maybe we'd do better if we took our boots and our poison spray hoods off, got down and looked a lot more closely at this arid ground and honoured it more. 

Got closer to a River you can drink. 

Two days later, sunset: away back at the Murray estuary and the lakes and Coorong at its mouth, all this became even more raw and obvious as I watched the ashes of my friend Ian Chance drift ever so slowly toward the Great Southern Ocean from his home landing at Clayton Bay. He'd been really crook. 

A mellow bottle of Langhorne Creek Cabernet at sunset put all that in a holding pattern for awhile. That's enough River research for one week.

This photo, the mud and Ian Tolley photographed by Philip White ... part of the White tribe photographed overlooking the Murray Mallee by Pastor Jimmy White ... all California orange crate art by Ben Sakoguchi