“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)





12 January 2018



A brilliant sensory show:  Caravaggio's Velvet Underground Syrah epiphany 

It's over twenty years since biodynamic pioneers Julian and Carolann Castagna began work on their wine estate on the north side of the Victorian Alps near Beechworth. Granite country. Their first Shiraz, the 1999, promptly cleaned up my 2001 Top 100, emerging as clear winner out of the thousands of bottles opened for that exercise at The Advertiser

Castagna repeated the victory for the next few years, even winning once with a radical Shiraz rosé. In the years since, with input from their son Adam, the Castagnas have gradually worked away at building a suite of deliberately characterful wines of all hues, from the brace of vermouths I reviewed here in December, through a set of hearty pales - they're not really whites as we knew them - through the La Chiave, which is usually about as good as Australia gets with Sangiovese; the crossover Un Segreto Sangiovese-Shiraz blend; the always ravishing Genesis Syrah, and now, as if the court needed another monarch, a right royal Nebbiolo. 

Julian Castagna in the kitchen; Carolann on the veranda

Tasting this collection is more like taking a stroll through a religious art exhibition than your usual cellar-door slog: while hardly a job of your actual work it is an annual experience as overwhelming as it is anticipated. Few wine makers fire the old Whitey's olfactories with such a tremor of reverence. 

Castagna held back his Nebbiolo for all those decades. It wasn't the way he wanted it, so rather than awarding it the full-blown Castagna label he hid the wine in blends in their secondary Adam's Rib line. Now, finally, in such limited volume it was all gone before I even got to it, we have this rather spiritual experience he's called Castagna Barbarossa, a cheeky reflection of barbary rouge more than a piss-take of our big Lutheran valley. 

This wine is what gave me the exhibition metaphor: the damn thing is as much a smudge of blood-stained ecstacy as a drink. As with the finest Italianate takes on this ancient, wild variety, there's a gentle wash of something approaching raspberry and redcurrant, rose petals and floral musk, which seems to coincidentally bring with it a cloud, an insinuative wisp of tannin that occupies the heavens rather than the wine's animal earth. 

It's the best Italianate rapture in my holy book. 

Which leaves me looking the Shiraz square in the frame. The Castagna Genesis Beechworth Syrah 2015 ($75; 13.5% alcohol; DIAM compound cork) justifies anything you can round up in the reverence and trepidation sector. Every sensory innuendo already tickled turned up to choir size, but with the volume held deliciously back. No need to yell when your message is this confident and rich, so steeped in gastronomic lore and atmosphere. 

The light is coming down through the goddam stained glass, I tell you. The hall is full of perfume. The whiffs of starched linen, lavendar, court shoes polished to within an inch of their lives. Vases aloft, busting with flowers like fireworks. Sunday morning, the Velvet Underground version. 

And flavour? Eh? Form? Nah. If you can't afford the force of this Caravaggio epiphany, don't ask. Leave it to the starving atheists who love the thrill of spiritual risk. 

Food? This holy blood don't need no biscuits. 

Best, finest Shiraz I've had a in a loooong time.

cheese platter at Castagna ... photos Philip White

10 January 2018


150 five star bedrooms right next door? Council returns plan to sender

First, this image rocked in from the McMurtrie family, whose beautiful vineyard borders the proposed Hut Block resort development on Richard Hamilton's Leconfield Hut Block vineyard in McLaren Vale.

Coincidentally, in response to my query, this explanatory note kindly came at the same time from the Onkaparinga Council:

"Council initially notified development application 145/2797/2017 as an ‘integrated development’, which we considered to be a merit form of development (that is, neither complying nor non-complying under the Development Plan).

"This assessment of the classification was done after consultation with Council’s specialist planning lawyers.

"Following the initial notification period we subsequently sought ancillary legal advice which provided a better context that the application is more suited towards a non-complying form of development, as it includes ‘tourist accommodation’ (which is prescribed in the primary production zone non-complying list).

"The application will therefore undergo a second round of category 3 public notification, this time as a non-complying proposal.

"In either notification period (being the initial or this proposed subsequent process), representations could be made by anybody during the public notification period, and also request to be heard by the Council Assessment Panel (CAP). Importantly representations made under the initial category 3 public notification process will need to resubmit under the second round of category 3 public notification in order to be formally considered as part of the assessment process. The primary difference between a merit and non-complying application is that the applicant for a non-complying proposal has no appeal rights against a decision to refuse an application, whereas the applicant for a merit proposal does have appeal rights against any decision made by the CAP. Representors have appeal rights against any decision in either scenario.

"Should the CAP decide to approve the non-complying application, concurrence (agreement) is still required from the State Commission Assessment Panel (SCAP), before the applicant can be satisfied they have secured planning approval.

"As noted above however, representors have appeal rights should the SCAP provide concurrence. Appeal rights are available to the Environment, Resources and Development Court.

"We are currently awaiting further information from the applicant before proceeding to undertake category 3 public notification again. The application will be heard before the CAP at a date yet to be scheduled.

"Comments can be attributed to Alison Hancock, Director Corporate and City Services."


The Leconfield Hut Block slope from the Wirra Wirra boundary on McMurtrie Road, McLaren Vale ... just over that hill fester the malignant houses

Nobody looks through this smoke: time for some big village thinking

During the California bushfires, it was too easy to be judgemental of a famous photo taken of big American men in cargo pants and loafers, casually playing golf while the mountain next door burned down. 

I thought of this on Sunday, sitting in the shade with an exquisite wood-oven pizza and a glass of cold Greco at Sellick's Hill Wines. There we were in the vineyard on the piedmont, looking down over the McLaren Vale vignoble, which was draped in bushfire haze. A queue of water-bombers buzzed over us on their trips to refill at the Aldinga airport before heading back along that beautiful coast to dump it on the Carrickalinga fire. 

These little inconveniences are best left to the experts. Lunch was good. 

McLaren Vale: south into the Willunga Embayment across Blewett Springs ... photo Philip White

Gazing over the bonnie embayment I call home, I couldn't help wondering about the experts in charge of the place. Those responsible for planning its future. Its style; its look; its purpose. 

Like there in the gentle hollow below us lay that contentious airport, desperately essential on days like that, but otherwise busy with light planes coming from the bush for a service and annoying enough to drive good winemaking neighbours like Suzanna Fernandez and Duncan Ferguson to sell their highly-regarded Cascabel winery and vineyards and move to Tasmania. 

The vineyards, like Cascabel, produce remarkable fruit on the Kurrajong Formation, complex rubble washed down across the Willunga Fault from the mountains which have nearly worn away. The wines of Rudderless, Sellicks Hill, Cradle of Hills, Danshie's Rise, Battle of Bosworth, Marius, Noon's, The Hedonist, and Gemtree come largely from this fine higher ground. Wineries further away, like Penfolds, Coriole and Stephen Pannell seek it out: Penfolds and Coriole have planted new vineyards there near Willunga. 

Publican Doug Govan's pot of gold: in his Rudderless vineyard behind The Victory Hotel

Below that narrow strip of geology lies what I call The Wok: around that airport in the basin of hard black cracking clay there are many vineyards growing fruit which is so hard to sell it's often left unpicked. 

Then the growers can't afford to prune or spray, so their tangled vineyards work as incubators for various funguses and bugs that spread to better vineyards on higher ground. 

That hollow must have been a lush swampy bushland teeming with life before it was cleared. There's a great example of that pristine world miraculously left in the Aldinga Scrub at the coast, which people love to live beside, and walk in. It's packed with birds, echidnas and roos. I've often thought that the scrub should be encouraged to regrow in a band across that hard clay basin, all the way up past the airport to the Willunga township. 

Let the swamps reoccur, open the watercourses and plant trees. Pay the landowners to repurpose their ground, or simply buy it from them. Spread at various sites through this new growth a string of micro-villages could be built. Imagine a circle of two or three story terrace houses facing into a common garden in the bush. Vehicle access would be outside, as it is at the far-sighted rammed earth village the visionary Ian Collett built at Willunga. Beneath the verandas in the courtyard could be a coffee shop, an eatery, a haircutter, a bakery ... little villagey businesses. Bike trails. Discrete laneways. 

Bacchus knows, if there's no room to build a new resort within the town boundaries of McLaren Vale, McLaren Flat, or Willunga - or at the beach, dammit - you might even hide one in your new bushland. 

In 2000 the escarpment was bald: from McLaren Vale - Trott's View (Wakefield Press; Brooks, White, Campbell, Wordley, Reid, Brice, Algra)

There are some damned fine tree-planters in McLaren Vale. Witness the reforestation of the escarpment. When we began work, three writers, four photographers and a printer/designer, on the book McLaren Vale - Trott's View at the turn of the millenium, there was hardly a tree on that range of what Trotty called "those gentle feminine folds". 

To compare those bare photographs to today's vista is pretty much black-and-white: the hills face is now healthy with reforestation, done mainly by volunteers and understanding landowners. 

nascent reforestaration of the Willunga Escarpment from the Currant Shed, McLaren Flat, 2013 ... photo Philip White

The bushfires are partly the result of climate change. As the Californians know all too well: things are getting hotter. Inland vignobles are discovering this all too quickly: vineyard dressing, water resources, the grape varieties chosen are all matters of reactive flux and contention. 

While McLaren Vale sits right on the tempering Gulf St Vincent, and its vineyards take recycled water from the seaside suburbia, it would seem likely that this district may have a smoother future than hotter, drier regions. But those vineyards in The Wok will always struggle. If the vignoble is to remain at its current vast scale, smart growers will be forced to look at planting the higher, damper, cooler ground of that largely reforested escarpment to survive. 

These are very big changes. They need visionary planners. We need to talk. 

It's now six years since the Barossa and McLaren Vale Character Preservation legislations were passed. In those years, it seems few folks have actually done much planning other than environmentally-aware locals reacting to developers keen to test the limits of these admirable and essential laws. 

So far, these instances have been minor, but they're continual. And now we have, in this region at least, the first real Big One: a perfect example of how the legislations, in their determination to stop inappropriate development of such prime and famous agricultural land to keep it alluring to tourists, may have set tourism against the very agriculture, the viticulture, the nuts-and-berries wine culture that attracts the visitors in the first place. 

If you leave the McLaren Vale township and take a left onto McMurtrie Road at The Salopian Inn, you're into seriously valuable vineyard country. Along this road you find the refined and hospitable tasting cellars of Primo Estate, Hugh Hamilton, Mitolo and Wirra Wirra. These tasteful businesses are hardly a blight. 

But close to Salopian, where the busy bike trail crosses McMurtrie Road, lies the respected Hut Block of Hugh Hamilton's brother, Richard, the surgeon who owns Leconfield Wines. 

Before Christmas, an application was lodged with the pro-development Onkaparinga Council to build a resort on this gentle, but dominant slope (foreground vineyard above).

This will include 150 five-star hotel rooms, two restaurants, a café, an indoor swimming pool, a gymnasium, a day spa, conference facilities and a two-story carpark. As this prime vineyard block runs right through to the back side of the big Serafino winery/conference/restaurant/motel complex on the township's boundary, the proposal would push the built form of McLaren Vale a significant distance into the vineyards the Character Preservation legislation was intended to protect. 

The Character Preservation laws were largely triggered by the development of Seaford Heights, an ugly gutter-to-gutter suburb at the west end of McLaren Vale's main street. The locals didn't want it, and mounted an ongoing campaign to stop it, including the much-publicised Tractor Action, when farmers blocked the roads with their machinery. When Planning Minister John Rau - also the Attorney-General - came to town (below) to tell us the devlopment would go ahead, the approval seemed generally regarded as a down payment, a loss in exchange for the major win: the legislation which we presumed would prevent anything like this from ever happening again. 

Now we have this new 'tourism' proposal at the other end of the village, again outside its surveyed boundary. The developers have since withdrawn their initial sketchy plan; council has advised there'll be a new application made. They're determined. 

So there sat your writer, eating pizza, drinking wine, looking across The Wok at this site in the highly profitable vineyards around the village. I wasn't playing golf in the face of the fire, but I became very aware that far too many of us have been eating, drinking and golfing, thinking the job was all done, while we should have been addressing the long-term future of the district we love. 

It seems stuff of such weight can't be left to the experts.

05 January 2018


photos by Philip White, crofter in Yangarra Ironheart


Signing up: the McMurtrie family, grape-growing neighbours to the proposed resort and original colonial pioneers of McLaren Vale, have begun work on their campaign material to oppose the residential development of premium Primary-Zone agricultural land.  The Hut Block proposal is outside the boundary of but adjacent to the McLaren Vale township. Just as Seaview Heights adds an ill-planned, intensely-built suburb on one end of the Main Street, this extends the other end further into Primary Zoned country on McMurtrie Road.

Richard Hamilton: False start for huge resort on Leconfield's Hut Block 

Plans for a major resort on prime McLaren Vale agricultural land hit a hiccup before Christmas when Onkaparinga Council planners appeared to suggest the developer admitted the plan was non-complying and would re-reapply for renotification in the new year. 

"The application will be re-notified as non-complying in due course," Team Leader (Planning) Steve Tilbrook advised stakeholders. So the application will not yet be presented to the Council's Assessment Panel. Drinkster awaits clarification from council planners and press officers - key players are still on leave. 

The resort plan included 150 five-star rooms, a conference centre, two restaurants, a café, cellar door, meeting rooms, indoor swimming pool,  gymnasium, a day spa and a two-storey carpark.

Looking east, from above The Salopian Inn, along McMurtrie Road across the Hut Block site (foreground). That's the new Mitolo restaurant complex centre rear; on the right are entrances to the Hugh Hamilton and Primo Estate tasting cellars, hidden from the road.

While it is commonly felt the McLaren Vale region lacks a conference-scale five-star resort, many argue such a development should be within the boundaries of the existing town plans.

The Hut Block Vineyard site is 40-50 minutes from the city of Adelaide. It's on McMurtrie Road, opposite Hugh Hamilton's cellars and Primo Estate, between The Salopian and the turnoff to Wirra Wirra at Strout Road. 

The construction would cover that spectacular rise right through to the back of Serafino on McLaren Flat Road, between the bicycle/hiking track and the new Mitolo restaurant and tasting room.

From above the junction of the bicycle/hiking track and McMurtrie Road, looking north. That's the Serafino winery/resort/restaurant/motel complex at top left; the Hut Block is that central swathe of vineyard

Whatever form development number 145/2797/2017 eventually chooses to take, it looks like being the first major challenge so far for the McLaren Vale and Barossa Character Preservation Legislations. 

In this case, the battle is whether, within the confines of the act, tourism is more significant than agriculture. 

Are the visitors and their money more important than the agriculture which attracts them? 

It shapes up very much like the battle over the priceless site at Seaview Heights, where government decided intense suburban dormitoria was more important than agriculture.

Last time the farmers of McLaren Vale took some Tractor Action, they lost the battle against the horrid Seaview Heights suburb but were rewarded with the Character Preservation Legislations, the very character of which is now under threat.

In Question Time in the South Australian House of Assembly in November, local member Leon Bignell, the Minister for Agriculture and Tourism said (of a nearby piece of land) "What we have done with that is lock that land in forever, or until both houses of parliament agree that gutter-to-gutter housing is better than what we have on those lands at the moment  ... on those lands we have prime agricultural production and we have fantastic tourist activity, as well. 

"Since we introduced these character preservation rules around McLaren Vale and the Barossa, the price of land for vineyards has gone up significantly." 

Not up far enough, it seems, for Hut Block owner Dr Richard Hamilton, who is rumoured to hope to sell the vineyard once the development approvals are secure. 

Locals report groups of Chinese gentlemen inspecting and photographing the site. 

East across Hut Block: Mitolo and Wirra Wirra, centre rear

"Leconfield's wines are based on a simple philosophy – great wines are crafted from great vineyards," Hamilton's spiel runs. 

"By retaining control and ownership of our estate, we are able to ensure the health of the vines, and continuity of fruit quality." 

The famous Hut Block's current sales blurbs include repetitions of lines like "second highest pointed Cab at the 2017 McLaren Vale wine show" ... "some of the oldest vines in the region. Beautiful and delicious!" ... "the vineyard contains our oldest vines, the 120 year old Centurion Shiraz, dry grown and planted in 1892. These vines are amongst the oldest in McLaren Vale." 

While the development is not gutter-to-gutter - the big box stuff on the initial drawings leaves no room for gutters - it represents the single biggest intrusion of the messy McLaren Vale township onto scarce premium Primary Production-zoned land since the building of the simply atrocious Seaford Heights at the other end of the street.

We thought then that enough was enough ... photo from McLaren Vale - Trott's View (photographed by Algra, Brice, Reid and Wordley, edited by White, Wakefield Press 2007)

03 January 2018


Looking across the young bush vine Grenache: the Supermoon was furtive last night (8:54PM), but to me it was still the real beginning of 2018. I don't mind a soft start. The season has been intermittent, with the odd quite hot spell followed by cool and often damp periods, fortunately followed in turn by drying breezy weather.