“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)





31 January 2018


Yalumba's Y Series: a clean slice through the modern white shelf

The cool old family image of Yalumba is a coveted advantage on today's crowded shelf. One expects it to do a bit better than its rivals. Which I see it does below the $15 per bottle zone. 

Bottled wine under $20 is our biggest-selling sector after the bladder pack: on the other hand, those fabulous expensive glories that captivate columns like this are really a tiny part of the whole, which is what you generally expect of the best of anything. 

At the bottom of this jellifluous pyramid, the bladder pack sector is shrinking slowly, as more of that wine goes into cheapo bottles. Which is probably the sort of behaviour you'd expect of the worst of anything. 

When Keith Richards told a Finnish reporter in 1988 "The ratio of good stuff to bad stuff doesn't change: ninety-seven bad; three good" he was speaking of music but I've always found that a handy rule in this wine racket. 

Anything launched at a recommended retail of $15 in broadacre volumes like these are likely to be discounted. The Y is not too hard to find around - even below - the $10 mark. Can anything in that price bracket be at least cool and fairly good, even if it misses catching the fancy three per cent train? 

Well, sort of. 

I thought a good scouring of this famous five was deserved. Five sound well-regarded wines for a tenner apiece on discount. A cross-section of the hottest blondes. And typical of that cool the old family can sometimes ooze, these Ys are very modern. All are made with wild yeast ferments, which are the sorts of things that could eventually lead to dissolute fads like orange wine if you're not careful. Such a notion in a price bracket like this would have been outrageous just a few years ago. 

Yalumba The Y Series Barossa Riesling 2017 
($15; 12% alcohol; screw cap) 

Delicately fragrant, this baby, with an aromatic texture like the pale creamy flesh of the magnolia petal with the odd stray waft of jasmine ... 

That creamy thing is the key: this is not your simply austere lemon and lime juice Riesling. Maybe the acid is firm and limy, but this is a more sensual and gentle than most of our upland Rieslings. Its perfumes seem more fatty than herbal. Maybe that's the wild ferment. The texture of yeast lees. 

The label contradicts me. "Orange blossom and citrus fragrances complement refreshing flavours of lemonade," it says. Damn. So I go back in the glass. Maybe there's a tweak of smoky rind, like when Mum would put the mandarin peel on the woodfire stove to ease that hot croft of the smell of the six men she managed.  But overall, it's creamy, like cosmetics, like rambutan, ly-chee, or that lovely runny egg and vanilla custard the Chinese pinched from the Portuguese. 

Then there's that solid slab of acid in the basement. It is a Riesling, after all. To me this seems more Germanic than typically Australian. More precisely, it reminds me of the Rieslings of Pfalz, or some from over the border in Alsace. But I doubt that you'll find many Rieslings of this calibre anywhere at a price like this. 

Yalumba The Y Series South Australia Sauvignon Blanc 2017 
($15; 11.5% alcohol; screw cap) 

This time that wild yeast has whipped up an aroma like bienenstich: more than the mown green grass and gooseberry edge usually at the front of your Sauvignon blanc, this winemaking pushes toward the creamier, yeastier aromatic style of the Riesling. It's kind of homely. 

But then, just as Riesling's acid must shove its stubborn head up eventually, so too we see the blonde Sauvignon poke its thorny tips through here. Just consider them wrapped so they don't cut your lips. 

When you start pursuing spritely alcohols this low, the winemaker must be smart about wrapping those acids in something. Too much of today's Savvy-b has acid as crunchy as a smashed windscreen. The wild yeast seems to have taken some of that edge off this wine. And that softening leesy cream sure beats sugar. 

There are a few winemakers attempting these more cushioned Sauvignons at sensibly modest alcohols like this, but I don't know many good ones pursuing such modest prices. 

Yalumba The Y Series South Australia Pinot Grigio 2017 
($15; 12.5% alcohol; screw cap) 

"Don't plant Pinot gris (or grigio) anywhere you can't grow good Pinot noir" has been my tiresome mantra since Kath Quealy began her impassioned grigio/gris/grey campaign on the Mornington Peninsula in the early 'nineties. She was the pioneer. You can grow good Pinot noir down there. 

The grey Pinot is a mutation of Pinot noir. Their DNA is so close grape doctors think the colour of the skin is the only physiological difference. 

"They gotta have the right amount of slime," Quealy sagely advised me of her attitude to the new grey aliens. 

This particular one doesn't seem to bring too much good Pinot noir to mind. Like I doubt that if you tracked down its vineyards you'd find any memorable Pinot noir growing there. 

Neither does this wine, in spite of its wild ferment, have much slime. I imagine you could find quite a few Pinots grigio/grey/gris from many places, at prices and quality like this. Mainstream. 

Yalumba The Y Series South Australia Viognier 2017 
($15; 13.5% alcohol; screw cap) 

Closer to the target style, this wine's made the best job of that wild yeast, being scary plush with the sort of folds of flesh that got a lot of baroque artists deep in it. Like you could lay this wine on with a trowel. 

It is delightfully, calmly creamy to breathe, like slimy white peach slices in sabayon. Maybe a clove, a sprinkle of fresh-ground nutmeg. Just one fleeting zephyr of Mum's mandarin peel. Dried apricot soaking in water before it goes in the crown of a hearty struselkuchen. But mainly folds and folds of steamed white flesh-dough. 

The Birth of The Milky Way - Peter Paul Rubens 1637-7 (detail)

More than the above trio, this delight slides very smoothly from aroma to flavour to exhalation: one doesn't have to think up a new vocabulary for each step. 

And it all adds up to Viognier. 

Critically, the one bit of Viognier that so few Australian winemakers cope with - its dry phenolic tannin - is really well displayed here, providing a crisp macro focus to all that carnal pulchritude. It tidies up the mess. I don't know of any other Viognier of this quality at anything near this price. 

Yalumba The Y Series South Australia Chardonnay 2015 
($15; 13% alcohol; screw cap) 

I haven't said it yet, but most of the time the words 'South Australia' appear in place of 'Barossa' or 'Clare' or 'McLaren Vale' on a South Australian wine label, it usually means 'Riverland.' As Chardonnay and Pinot come from Burgundy, where it snows, it would seem unlikely that even if irrigated, the red sandy dirt of our hot desert could produce flavours similar to those French ones we presume our growers were intending to emulate. This wine does not smell or taste like Burgundy. Stylistically, it fits somewhere between the Riesling and the Pinot grigio, but with a fair shade of the Sauvignon. The Riverland tends to do this with the various white grapes: they can very quickly start to look the same. 

The Riesling is obviously not from the Riverland. And it didn't make me think of lemonade. That, and the Viognier are the ones to pick from this bunch. Especially at ten bucks each. 

To push even further into cool hipster territory, these wines are all 'vegan friendly,' whatever that means. I can't begin to imagine how vegans handle drinking all those trillions of poor little wild yeasts while they're still alive. The yeasts, I mean. If they're dead, you'd think that would be even more challenging. Not to mention what the poor bloody yeasts think of the deal.

But then, sensibly, for consistency's sake, these Ys have been filtered ... 

A certain signature cool: Yalumba's Signature Cellar set up for a tasting ... Yalumba photos by Philip White

30 January 2018


Two glorious traditional pet nats, 
one of them made from grapes

Pet nat, eh? 

When the French insisted through international trade law that Australia cease using terms like 'methode Champenoise' our marketers decided to call fizz made after the recipe of the sparkling winemakers of the Champagne region 'methode traditionelle.' 

Most people meanwhile seemed happy to keep calling the stuff 'champers' or 'fizz' and got on with drinking it. 

When makers of the new fashion pre-industrial unfined and unfiltered styles of wine began to copy the recipe the French name 'petillant naturelle' they called it 'pet nat' from the start. 

What they meant was 'bottle-fermented', with naturally-formed CO2  bubbles trapped in the bottle, like Cooper's Ale. Cloudy, not often fine. 

Perhaps our most accomplished cider-maker, Warwick Billings, sent me a bottle of his new Lobo Bodicea cider, appropriately made in a champagne-style bottle with a crown seal. 

"Sparkling cider in bottles pre-dated champagne," he says in a note, "this is one more sweet pet nat in the current talk, but without some of the distractions." 

Lobo Bodicea Cider ($15 750ml.; 6% alcohol; crown seal) is what Warwick calls "a little less fiesty than anticipated," reflecting on how infernally tricky it is hoping the yeast and sugar you leave working together in your sealed bottle produce a product that doesn't explode but stays politely fizzy. 

The damn thing smells disarmingly of, you guessed it, apples. Live, bright, fresh apples of the ancient traditional cider types which all but vanished as everybody hit the drive-in fridge and slurped up the sweet low IQ stuff made from excess Granny Smiths and the other two or three droll types you get in the supermarket. 

Lenswood apple grower Michael Stafford with Lobo cider-maker Warwick Billings 

Warwick has worked long and hard with grower Michael Stafford to cultivate some of the ancient varieties long used in the cider groves of old England: the result gives a healthy gingery top edge to the bouquet; the lower tones are autumnal and mature. I recall apples Mum and Nan preserved in the Fowlers Vacola that smelled like this, back in the Gippsland mountains in the 'fifties. The sacks of them stored in our old wood grange smelled like this, as did a jar of them opened after about six month's maturation. 

I want to pour fresh Jersey cream on it. 

The flavours are more modest than that character-filled aroma. More refined and tight. The sweetness has been well-managed to balance and fill the palate without overwhelming, so the cider finishes real neat and tidy and even dry-ish. And those bubbles are more lazy and caressing than feisty. 

"Following on from Christmas drinking," Warwick says of his homeland, "there is a solid tradition of post-Christmas wassailing in England, where the cider-makers and cider-lovers gather to celebrate and encourage a good harvest in the coming year: some cider-soaked toast in the branches of the trees, a bit of shotgun action to scare the bad spirits away, and some poetry and song." 

This is a real good drink, "bottled without sulphites, or anything else." Yum. 

Castagna Beechworth Pet-Nat Allegro 2017
($45; 12.5% alcohol; crown seal) 

"I made a pet nat," Julian Castagna giggled. 

Of course he did. From biodynamic Shiraz rosé. 

It smells like roses. Like nougat and turkish delight. Like maraschino cherries. Red currants. One little shave of curaçao peel. 

The wine has considerable weight. Like it seems heavy on the palate. Like some kind of burnished liquid gold. Then a cheeky, gentle, persistent fizz lifts that weight and turns the gravity off. Joy bounces off the top of your mouth, but  the good feels go straight on up through the mixing deck. It's magic. 

Unlike most of these bottle-fermented sparkling wines, this one is neither cloudy nor explosive. But it gives more Sgt. Pepper's Magical Mystery Tour per sip than nearly everything else I know. 

Natural? Like that moody, more wintry Lobo, this wine is the work of methodical, respectful, natural-born genius with an acute scientific curiosity. Genius? Sure. If it wasn't there'd be a helluva lot more of it.

Julian Castagna by Warwick Wood

24 January 2018


One of the canals of Sète, 'The Venice of the Languedoc' on the Mediterranean near Montpellier ... photo © www.tomcorser.com

À la recherche du temps perdu: good times can still roll if you're smart

It's all too human that good people are often driven apart by shared grief. The depth and savagery of the loss eventually become so confounding and crippling that we each need to take grief alone to the wilderness before we can afford to publicly live with it. Sometimes this takes years. Decades. Lifetimes. 

A couple of weeks back at a splendid luncheon at the Broderick family's Basket Range vineyard and winery I met Léa Bru, from the north-west Mediterranean town, Sète. It's next to Frontignan, near Montpellier. 

Long way from the Languedoc: the view from the Basket Range winery in the Adelaide Hills, source of intense, elegant blends of the Bordelaise varieties ... photo Philip White
Léa, who is the opposite of grief, brought a scrumptious octopus pie she'd made to her homeport recipe. Even before we'd broached its crust I was tripped to that proud seaside town, reminding me of a comrade, Francois Henri, who retired there after leaving his eventual chairmanship of Champagne Krug, and another, Dennis de Muth, who'd worked with Francois in Remy Australie through the 'eighties and loved to visit his old boss in France. They were best mates. With Clare and Ingrid, they'd hire a boat and hit the canals. 

Other determined trenchermen, Colin Richardson (left) and Stephen Tracey, also worked with them. Once we'd met, we formed lifelong friendships. We were bad. They sold distinguished products like Remy Martin, Krug, Paul Jaboulet, Charles Heidsieck, Quelltaler Estate and Blue Pyrenees Estate. Francois, Colin and Stephen are long dead; in the grief I lost track of Dennis. 

That handsome pie Léa made took me to those old cobbers via Sète, through the bottles of Basket Range, Craneford, Wendouree and whatnot before us; glories all. Long table fellowship in a breezy dappled shade. We were in Manet mode. Those bright Hills memories kept my brain bouncing for a week. 

The author with Stephen Tracey, on our way home from our last grand lunch together ... he was dying of cancer ... photo Milton Wordley

I wondered what had become of Dennis. Then I saw a newspiece on the ABC website: Syrian refugee lands dream job with Sydney silversmith company. Ping! Dennis had pursued the sacremental and ceremonial silverware business when he'd got as far away from the brutal new wine game as he could. The genteel, respectful, well-humoured days had gone in what their eventual Remy-Blass partner, the domineering Wolf Blass, called "essential industry ratchnalization." 

This yarn about the Syrian refugee landing the dream silversmith job had a whiff of Dennis de Muth about it. Sure enough, there he was in the story. Not only had he got into the sacramental silver business, but he'd bought and expanded Australia's last traditional manufacturing silversmith, W. J. Sanders. Amongst their many wonders, apart from a glittering line in wine chalices, the Sanders website provides videos of them making the Melbourne Cup and the Australian Men's Open Tennis trophy. I whizzed them an e-mail; Dennis called straight back. 

"Philip," he said, "you know all that respect we learnt in those days: the true worth of great things, their history, their provenance, their inner value? The high ideals of grand old families? Those are the ideals I've always applied to this old business we bought. Avo Bayramian is a master. He brings generations of silversmithing knowledge. His skills will spread to all our apprentices." 

Krug delivery truck in the '80s

I didn't ask whether W. J. Sanders provides any wine trophies to the industry Dennis escaped, but I imagine a crew of great craftsfolk accustomed to making Melbourne Cups, Australian Open trophies and chalices for Jesus' blood could produce a beauty that don't leak if the wine show authorities could scratch some style together and fill the old fountain pen up with chequebook blue. 

It's not gratuitous or demented bullshit about good old days I'm chewing over here. Since I first met these gentlemen and the wineries they worked for I have watched through sickening swings of boom to bust, from ecstacy to exhaustion; we have watched the industrialisation of the old Australian wine business. 

As the takeovers and bulldozers and vast irrigation networks boomed through those 'eighties, 'nineties and 'noughties, spitting out whoever got in the way, we saw even more savagery and grief in the retail world. This should have come as no surprise. When we invited leading political journalist and Canberra liquor stores owner Richard Farmer to address the Sydney Wine Press Club in June 1984 he began "Fellow drug peddlers..." and went on "I think we should dwell on the thought of what happens to this industry when we get chainstores taking over and applying chainsaw marketing techniques which cut down on the number of brands on the shelves ... 

"If you think there’s a bit of a scurry to get your goods on the shelf now, I think you should start worrying about the scurry that’ll happen when Coles and Woolworths control a great portion of the Australian Wine Industry." 

While the number of wineries increased tenfold by 2013, when Coles and Woolworths really began to take over as very few believed they could, there was a decline in the number of brands that survived their discounting. Now, even they themselves attempt to add texture and range to their shelves by making their own wine and hiring somebody with a haircut to think up names. Those big barns contain a lot more acres of bogus brands than any range of distinguished flavours. 

This change was not confined to Australia, of course. As the wine market truly transnationalised, the family that owned Remy Martin lost control. Krug was absorbed by Louis Vuitton Möet Hennessey. Remy Blass disappeared into Mildara Blass which disappeared into what is now Treasury. Or Adsteam or Southcorp or Fosters or whatever it was at the time. Quelltaler became Eaglehawk then Black Opal then Annie's Lane to be shut by Foster's and now be bought by Warren Randall's Seppeltsfield. 

Warren Randall in his mid-'eighties days winemaking at Seppelts' Great Western, where he became famous for his discovery of a yeast that made sparkling wine disgorgement easier and cheaper but it tasted horrid ... photo Philip White

Warren's making an increasing amount of Treasury's outsourced bulk wine under contract so Treasury faces less of the ignonimity of employing your actual winemakers and further distances itself from growers who want to buy socks for their kids to wear to school. 

So you have the supermarkets making their own wine while the likes of Treasury increasingly pay somebody else to make theirs in the hope the supermarkets who'll sell it for them eventually price it fairly against the wines the supermarkets make for themselves. Eh? 

All this mentality's international. And now in reaction to decades of mindless, greedy "ratchionalization" of ownership, management, manufacture, flavour and quality, we have the latest manifestation of how the fashion and business cycles of wine and music follow each other. Unplugged music has been followed by wines that were at first unoaked, then unfiltered, unfined, unfinished and now as unmade as perfectly natural vinegar. 

Most of this reactionary profusion seems to be marketed with line drawing labels like the naive stuff I put in my diary when I was seventeen. 

While all that edification actually edified, we encouraged global warming to the point where now, few great vignobles have much faith in their ability to  maintain the styles of wine they've always grown and made. There's chaos as people search for new varieties; more fractal mess as these new breeds propagate and winemakers try to learn what to do with them, even before they're shredded and shattered and shelved by that great wrecking machine outlined above. 

In other words, it's a total bloody mess of a drug-peddling business. 

Oh, the endless grief it bares. I suppose one could always become an æsthete, draw on the long dark robes  and retreat for life in a cell deep below W. J. Sanders, to meditate on the ways all those beautiful trophies influence the flavours of wine. Research. For tippling the tinctures, there's gotta be a return to the personal grail eventually. Everybody should carry their own. There's also something warm and comforting about the notion of a solid gold W. J. Sanders spittoon.

19 January 2018


STOP PRESS: from the field telephone of trojanpencil@gmail.com George Grainger Aldridge, who appears to be dreaming of shearing sheds again ... it is that time of year ... often, however, he strays too far north.


Orbiting well beyond raspberry: Jericho joins the blush flush 

There's an inventive resurgence of fine rosé underway in Oz this summer. Over the holiday, I saw impressive, thoughtfully-built wines from many who've moved on from the simple raspberry cordial sweeties often made from straight Grenache. Which is a waste of good Grenache. Unless you design a beauty like my landlord's Yangarra, which was grown to be rosé, and made to maximise those many parts of Grenache which aren't like raspberry cordial, ending up with a delightfully viscous dry whit-ish biodynamic wine made in big egg-shaped ceramic fermenters. 

Paracombe released a beauty made from Tempranillo and Malbec, and of course that crusty old master Castagna came up with another exquisite Genesis, always made biodynamically from Shiraz. There's your king. 

Other memorables? Of the Grenache school, but venturing one textural step away from the lollypop stuff into drier adult territory came Sevenhill Inigo, Pauletts and La Bise (with Tempranillo). 

Changes in approach go well beyond testing new varieties. The making methods are venturing well beyond the old squash em and leave em on skins overnight sort of thing. The old factory rosés made from run-off removed to concentrate other, bigger reds, not to mention whitish wines stained pink by the admixture of a dash of bigger red are now joined by lovelies made with wild yeasts and barrels, and maybe the odd ceramic egg fermenter. 

The wines are no longer side products. 

Given my prejudices, the Yangarra and Castagna wines are exemplary, but they've been joined by a new beauty at the front of the Casa Blanca fridge: Jericho Adelaide Hills Rosé 2017 ($27; 13.5% alcohol; screw cap), a fitting new addition to the popular Jericho suite. It's a delicious blend of Pinot noir, Pinot gris and the rare (for Oz) Pinot meunier, which I suspect has given the wine much of its glorious feeling, as it does in champagnes like Krug. 

First, there are no really overt cordial raspberries. I mean the fragrances surround raspberry, but they leave a void there where you'd expect it to be. I see insinuations of pale cherry, red currant, forest strawberry, pink grapefruit, blood orange, jackfruit - even a thought of passionfruit. Then there's that dry reek of burlap superphosphate sack adding a grain of piqancy to the top note, just to ensure those nostrils are properly open. It's a glorious sensual wallow: a long long way past raspberries. It even brings a hint of crème caramel. 

And that texture's everything I suspected it could be given its ingredients, especially that fleshy, meaty meunier. It has a certain viscous grace that's slightly sneaky, which is an olfactory descriptor I don't recall ever before using on a glass of wine. I mean solicitous, in a courtly sort of way. As if it needed any help getting into you. It may seem obvious but smoked salmon is the gear. With those very tiny capers. Join the chaise.

The Girl on the Couch 1930 Pang Xunqin 1906-1985

17 January 2018


trojanpencil@gmail.com is George Grainger Aldridge 


Pairing nightmares: what to drink with the very big mushrooms

It wasn't exactly the outer regions of the newsworld that interrupted my mad nocturnal work. I mean it was Hawaii. The Very Big Burglar Alarm had gone off. Incoming. Check the browser. Okay I have friends from there. Are they there? The faces scan briskly across the eyelid cinema with the notion of calling but without even reason that's discarded and my stop watch goes automatically on. 

While finding it wry that the warning made no mention of things nuclear but only the goddam rocket my personal inbuilt nuclear clock starts whirring somewhere at the fusion of my meat and my electricity and it tells me "Okay Son, say they have five or ten minutes presume no safety margin damn what does safety mean now five or ten minutes in lieu of announcement from the golf course presume the fiend has already fondled the football so reaction business already engaged" meaning she's on. 

The thoughts didn't go ultra slow-mo like, say falling off a motorbike at two bloody hundred but they were both urgent and distant. As if taken from some secret protocol file opened for the first and last time in the face of oblivion they were to be followed and observed without question. Like the target menus available to the President when they open the nuclear football. 

So what did I do? I broke the protocol. I fired off the questions. Tick tick tick. How far across the sparkling blue Pacific full of water bottles is that thing now? How far have Trump's rocket's got? Will he finish the hole? Has he done a line? How long is the gap before China and the Russkies fly? 

I didn't get a drink. I got into bed. The Australian targets would still be on Cold War settings so the Weapons Research Establishment will be a goner. The airforce base. No more Adelaide Plains wines. Old Plains Grenache. Maybe they've added the shipyard at the Port. If they're accurate I'll see it from here. Probly even wasted one on Woomera. 

The Alice? Our secret Trump base is now a hole clear through to - gets out of bed to check the antipodes of Pine Gap: it's near the Açores, mid-Atlantic; gets back under the duvet - clear through to somewhere a bit south-west of Ilha das Flores; they grow Verdelho there; was that where Frank Potts picked up his Langhorne Creek clone on his long sail south? 

And it's not even five o'clock. 

Howard Twelftree in the middle, champagne lunch at Neddy's, early eighties ... wine industry: always too many men ... photo Milton Wordley

My good friend Howard Twelftree, who wrote Australia's best restaurant criticism for decades as John McGrath in The Adelaide Review, had once worked in the Commonwealth Health Department and had access to a vast number of pharmaceuticals they would test for release in Australia. His End of the World cabinet contained a dazzling array of these last minute medications with an unopened can of Players King Size Plain but he died suddenly at his desk years ago with his new phone in his hand and the cabinet unopened. I never heard where the contents went when they found him and cleaned his stuff out but there I was thinking of that cabinet well before I started crossing great wines off my list. Wines I also don't have. 

It's a couple of years since I last wrote of the most appropriate drinks for the end of time. This time it was for real. Suddenly, after two pots of heartstarter coffee the bad news hit so there I was back in bed in the dark, waiting for the flash. Think harder Philip. First, I thought of a glass of Krug. 

No such luck. Not on writer's wages. Didn't even think of other fizz. Brain went straight to the best Riesling in the house. Uh-huh. All gone at Christmas. Maybe I should clean my teeth? Don't be silly Philip. No thought of sensible rehydration nor getting water from the tap before the power goes off. Start whirring through the reds. Stupid to start decanting old ones. High Sands Grenache from across the back fence? Not a bottle in the house. The Castagna reds still there on the desk? Uh-huh. Only dregs open for a week. 

Since that strange night I've marvelled at how quickly the selfish brain turned to whisky. First, the 1994 Highland Park. Not a drop in that bottle. Second, the Abelour A'Bunagh Matured in Oloroso Sherry Butts at Full Cask Strength? That's up there on the empties shelf, too. And not a drop of Hellyer's Road Tassie 10 year old ... 

Should I even bother getting back out of bed? By the time the BBC crackled something about false alarm I was embarrassed that I was better prepared for bushfire or blackout - even hangover - than your actual nuclear war. Not that it would be long enough to be a proper war. It'd be a minor cracker night in a minor galaxy in a minor run-of-the-mill part of the universe. A spark of death where Whitey wrote of intoxicating drinks for his mates before the ants took over. 

Or so he thinks. 

In reality, there he was, still alive but numb in the cot. Since Sunday morning, when this typical fluke of human survival occurred, my ruminations have been sobering as they've peeled the infant simplicity of the mind facing termination. First, it quickly decided that all other humans were asleep or too far away for me to be of any assistance at all. While it seemed to rapidly exhaust its first burst of curiosity, it quickly became accepting of a very big unknown. Then, it wanted fizzy drink: the best there is. Third, it considered austerity and the Riesling of Polish Hill. Red barely entered the flickering menu. Instead, in lieu of comrade Twelftree's emergency supplies, it presented alluring images of three very strong liquors that are built to be sipped, not sunk. Had there been any in the bottles, I can't even say whether I'd savour it or schlück it. 

More typical of this typically human awkwardness is the manner in which the mind has processed it all. I'm pretty sure I first became aware of this particular threat of Armageddon when my radio woke me with the news that there had been a false alarm in Hawaii. All this reaction about drinks spilled out in the first few microseconds of wakefulness. I hadn't heard the warning, but its cancellation. I hadn't even been up working. There were no two pots of coffee. I am writing about the way I have been recollecting something that didn't happen in the order my waking brain instantly preferred. 

So I still don't know what I'd do when the big mushrooms grow. I did seriously consider going out to sit on the veranda to watch the black northern sky explode. Like, you'd never see anything like that again. Which is a bit like the Australian surfer I heard interviewed in Hawaii. When he got the doomsday message, he said, he walked "down the beach, to see if I could see anything." 

One thing I know: my thirsty brain is probably not the best thing to trust when recollecting the way I'd react to the protocols listed in that top secret envelope if indeed even that exists anywhere in this strange psyche. 

Here, sister, peel a tinnie.

bottom three photographs by Philip White

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."