“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)


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16 March 2017

APOLOGIES, BUT DRINKSTER'S RESTING

The DRINKSTER is mainly confined to the royal cot for awhile, after a nasty malfunction in the dark gizzard. Saved by Flinders Medical Center's remarkable Intensive Care Unit. Recuperating well, but no writing for awhile here or on InDaily. Be back soon with a real long report on McLaren Vale Grenache, its history, its nature and its current state. 

After the smooth professional assistance of the Jennifer Lynch at the McLaren Vale Grape Wine and Tourism Association and the cool crew at Hardy's Tintara, I tasted over 100 of them, including Grenache-dominant blends, a few weeks back in the luxurious Eileen Hardy Room at Tintara. I'll let you know when it's about to lob; hoping for an initial summary on Tuesday's InDaily. We'll see.



09 March 2017

ASHTON HILLS: TWO LUSH BEAUTIES

Three into two does go: Stephen George, Wirra Wirra MD Andrew Kay and winemaker Paul Smith at Ashton Hills, celebratng their new union last year ... photo©Philip White

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Hills music of harmony and flesh 
by PHILIP WHITE 

Sitting here with Double J's Joni Mitchell tribute hanging in the air like wondrous translucent curtains, recalling her music draped over the years through which I watched Stephen George and Peta Van Rood build their brave Ashton Hills wine business on a chill piny ridge across the valley from Mount Lofty ... damn they were lean, sweet and desperate years. How we argued and laughed across those tables! 

Peta died eight quick years ago. Steve has a new partner and a new life and is content now to work there as a vineyard manager for Wirra Wirra since selling them the outfit in 2015.

He was tired of being a businessman.

All these things well up as I take deep draughts of the new Ashton Hills Estate Riesling 2016 ($30; 13% alcohol; screw cap), delighted to see the label credits Steve as co-winemaker with Wirra's Paul Smith. They are similarly sensitive and determined souls.

Steve says it's rare that the vineyard doesn't get a little botrytis, which is part of the explanation for his Riesling being much more Germanic than those austere ones from the Eden, Clare and Polish Valleys. You'd be one tough bastard to take deep draughts of those. 

They're too crunchy for big gulps

I mean, sure, this is a dry wine with a fine acid chassis, but it's plusher, lusher and more creamy than those and dammit it feels like the lavish swathes of harmony and unison Joni would overlay on her tracks, using her own voice, often just to guide the guitar or horn players. 

Because she can't read music or write charts, she'd sing all the parts she wanted the other musicians to play and have somebody transcribe them. Then, at the last minute, she'd often leave some of those guide tracks of her voices in there with the ensemble work the musos played from the charts.

If this wine is any guide to what we can expect from Messrs George and Smith, it seems we'll be singing Ashton Rieslings as smartly-formed and performed as those layers of Ms Mitchell's voice.

I could drink a case of you.

And I could drink a case or two, too, of the similarly plush and harmonious Ashton Hills Reserve Pinot Noir 2015 ($70; 14.5% alcohol; screw cap), which is all Stephen's work. Not to push Joni's Blue album too hard - that's impossible - blue is the colour here. Deep, deep blue.

Put very simply, this is the best Pinot I've seen from South Australia. Maybe from the whole big ol' country. I don't think Tassie has produced one this provocative and comforting, yet that's where all the other Pinophiles seem to be headed. You need more than cold weather to make wines like this. You need passion and persistence and decades and money.

Since breaking ground there in 1982, Stephen has tried at least 25 clones of Pinot, gradually discarding and replacing the duds. Now he's down to his five favourites.

From the first breath, this is a deep and mellow dream, perfectly seamless and fleshy beneath its gently piquant oak. I could go on about all manner of fruits but that would only deflect the mind from the gloriously sensual wallow of a thing it is.

I've long thought that Pinot is like Riesling, with its acid at the wheel and whatever layers of cuddle the back seat, or the vineyard affords. With these two wines, I rest my case. They make the sublime pair.

Peta would love it. I love it. You'll love it. Promise. Joni'd love it.


By the time we got to Woodstock we were half a million strong: Marching to stop the Vietnam war. Sometimes we did it twice a week. It got real violent when the cops went nuts. But it worked. That's the fierce Peta, smack dab in the middle ... photo©Leo Davis


ANOTHER GREAT SEATTLELITE BEER


VINTAGE '17: FIRST GRAPES ARRIVE

Fruit from the new vintage began arriving at Yangarra Estate today. The crew usually starts the year processing grapes for other McLaren Vale folks where ripening occurs earlier than on Yangarra's own vineyards. This is Corrina Wright's Olivers' Taranga Mencia coming out of the basket press. Mencia's from north-western Spain originally. Until her newish plantings establish deeper roots, Corrina picks it early each year and makes rosé. The livid pink sample I tried from the fermenter this morning tasted just like watermelon. Its texture was surprisingly viscous for such early picked fruit, indicating the finished wine will better handle the sort of extreme chill too many restaurants inflict on pinks and whites.

Oliver's Taranga Shiraz coming through the grape-sorting machine, which removes everything other than your actual berries from the mix. In the past, all sorts of greeblies and vegetation went into the ferments. These clean stalks will go off to the mulch heap ...

... while these babies will go into the fermenter:


Winemaker Charlie Seppelt checking the temperature of a fermenter of Doug Govan's Rudderless Malbec. Man it smelt so sweet and floral!

Meanwhile, the main fermenting hall awaits the onslaught to come ... rock'n'roll!

all photos©Philip White

08 March 2017

REDEFINING EXTREME: VINTAGE 2017

baby bush vine Grenache: the berries are beginning to raisin before they're quite ripe and the leaves are already going autumnal ... photo©Philip White

The leaves are turning yellow 
by PHILIP WHITE

"Nine mile skid on a ten mile ride, hot as a pistol but cool inside," The Grateful Dead sang a mere 45 years ago in He's Gone. 

So far, in my neck of the woods at least, vintage 2017 has been like that.

Now, sick of the jitters, some vignerons are wishing the whole damn thing was over and gone.

I hear of vineyards in bits of New Zealand, and odd bits of Australia, like the highish cool of Canberra, picking fruit that's pretty much ideal. They've started harvest in the Southern Flinders; Clare and the Barossa will begin to kick in properly next week. Same in McLaren Vale. If we're lucky.

As predicted here away back when the bunches had first set, the yields are high right through the Ranges, making many of the big commercial grape-growers smack their lips: there's an international shortage of good quality fruit these strange days.

I was at Tintara in McLaren Vale when winemaker Paul Carpenter quietly announced their first truckloads had just arrived. Chardonnay. Paul seemed, how you say, a tad underplussed. The Vales is hardly the best spot for Chardonnay, which originates in continental Burgundy.

Where it snows.

Not snow but hail in November in the semi-arid Riverland ... photos Steve Nitschke

Carps, like all the others round here, was more keenly awaiting the ripening of Shiraz, and then Grenache, varieties originally sourced close to the temperate, maritime Mediterranean coast. Sunshine-and-lavendar land, like the Fleurieu.

Touch wood. Bacchus knows, South Australians hardly need reminding of what a long strange trip it's been.

Since the grapes came off last vintage, and the sheep went in to turn the weeds to fertiliser pellets and make many fat jumping babies, returning the smart viticulturer an income where others find themselves writing fat cheques to Big Petrochem for their poison herbicides, well, since then ...

The summer of '16 was warm-to-hot, and led to record warmth in autumn. Temperatures were fairly normal during winter, then came a very cool spring. It's confounding. Like we had the coolest year overall since 2012, and yet the state's mean mininum was the seventh warmest on record: 0.73 ᵒC above average. The mean maximum ended up 0.43ᵒC above average, yet we had the coolest days overall since the dreaded 2011 when we had the wettest vintage on record and everything went mouldy with mildews and botrytis.

Wet? 2016 was Adelaide's second wettest year since records began.

The Onkaparinga at Clarendon in September: the South Mount Lofty Ranges were full of water ... photo Mick Wordley
 
Not to mention that friggin wind. I spent my childhood just below the snowline in the mountains of east Victoria, but I can remember no winter and spring as utterly, viciously threatening as that bastard. It was sinister. Overlooking the little matter of a few torrid blackouts - pylons can be rebuilt in a few quick months -  thunderstorms and winds ripped out tens of thousands of trees, including a huge proportion of our stock of mature, centuries-old red gums.

One can only wonder what weather these ranges will see in the few centuries it takes to replace those.

Since then, temperatures have been close to 'normal' across most of the wine-growing regions, maybe a tad cooler, which had the vignerons quietly confident.

sunshower at Yangarra ... photo©Philip White

But all that water since last vintage saw vines everywhere stack on huge amounts of foliage. Too much, really: out-of-balance vines, with over-the-top ratios of leaf surface to total juice, often produce wines that taste green and astringent, like leaves and their petiols, or stalks. Include the machine harvester factor, which invariably means leaves are picked and go into the hoppers with the fruit, and this flavour magnifies.

On the other hand, smart growers were on top of this: hand-plucking or mechanically hedging excess foliage and shoots, leaving neat hedgerows of vines instead of the more common sprawling mess that you'd have trouble driving a tractor through.

If you can't get a tractor in there easily, there's little chance of the odd drying breeze killing off aggro moulds, meaning you'll need that chequebook again to pay for more poisonous spray, naïvely hoping the stuff can actually penetrate that forest of leaf you've let grow.

Sheesh. Who'd be a grape-farmer?

I reported before that the trellised vineyards around Casa Blanca have all been neatly hedged: the Ironheart Shiraz across my front fence had three passes of deft leaf-pluckers through before the bird netting went up a couple of weeks back.

the veils go up on Ironheart ... photo©Philip White

Since the grapes coloured, we've had breezy, warm-to-hot sunny days, and ideally cool nights, often a tad damp with dew or gentle misty rain, slowing everything down. Nice. While some younger players have been saying the vintage is late, they should really be delighted that it's closer to 'normal' or traditional timing, after global warming brought on a string of much earlier crops.

As Peter Gago, Penfolds' boss winemaker has said after most of the last fifteen vintages, it's another year when he's had to redefine his meaning of 'extreme.'

Like in the second week of February, nine sites in this state had their highest temperature on record. Since then, some of them have recorded their coldest February temperature on record. It's nuts.

Anyway, as I said, for those with the vision to spend money on human vine-dressers rather than petrochemicals, everything looked pretty good. The biggest crisis I could see in these vineyards was the newly-released model of the calicivirus would be killing the hares that live here. There are no rabbits, and the hares rarely damage the vines unless they're starving. Which they're not.

there are many of them living in here but the hares don't do much damage: 1946 High Sands bush vine Grenache ... photo©Philip White

I like having a few hares about: they are gentle, modest beasts. I had a bit of Twitter with local viticulturer Ben Lacey when I complained about the poor things dying from internal bleeding from the calici's cutely-named rabbit haemorrhagic disease, suggesting hares were fairly harmless, gentle critters.

Ben retorted that in his vineyards they chew irrigation drippers off their lines and eat the shoots of baby vines as they protrude through the top of their grow-tubes; I retorted that the worst thing they do round here is eat my chillies, and I can't blame them for that. Although I'd love to try a properly jugged one with its belly full of Carolina Reapers.

Ben caught another Tweet I'd innocently let fly on Saturday. That cursed summer flu had locked me cowering in the hut for a week, so it was a delight to step outside to hang my laundered sheets and discover the air was redolent with the heady sweetness of chamomile flowers. It seemed almost as sensual and swoony as lilac wine.

"Probably the smell of all the leaves turning yellow," Ben responded. I shot back a contrary suggestion that there was no yellowing here, and no chamomile. But being sufficiently colourblind to find green very tricky, a pang of doubt sent me back out to check. Yep. The yellowing has begun.

A drive around the Vales reveals these autumnal hues magnifying daily, well before most of the fruit properly ripens. It's the same through the whole of the Mount Lofty Ranges, right up to where they become the Southern Flinders.

So the current cause for wino angst is this: if the leaves continue to pale, will they be able to continue the photosynthesis required to get those grapes through to an ideal condition for picking? 

Vintage 2017 could well be remembered as a ten mile skid on a nine mile ride.

We'll know in a few short weeks.

storm damage in the Riverland ... photo©Leon Bignell

The Grateful Dead European Tour 1972 album cover art by Stanley Mouse ... we're all bozos on this bus!

07 March 2017

HERE SINCE 1832: TREBBIANO


Vigna Cantina Barossa Valley Trebbiano 2016 
($25; 12.5% alcohol; screw cap) 

Trebbiano. First time I knowingly encountered it was at Rémy Martin's Blue Pyrenees Estate, a big vineyard those brave French built in Victoria's chill Pyrenees in the 'sixties to make better brandy than the blistering Murray Darling Basin generally did. 

To the big wine families there, the brandy still tended to be the slops bucket. Real treasures like Angoves Seven Star were a very small part of the whole scene.

As the Martins did at home in Cognac, they called the variety Ugni blanc in Victoria.

In those days, such notions of cool climate viticulture were simply alien. The French exercise was like a Mars colony in the upland bush. 

But thanks to Gough Whitlam and then Malcolm Fraser, extreme tax and general political madness buggered the brandy biz, so the Trebbiano they'd planted very well was gradually replaced with reds like Shiraz and Cabernet. And then Merlot. And Chardonnay.

Damn.

When you hang your hooter over this glass you can see why Trebbi was chosen for brandy production. Even at this modest alcohol, the wine smells a bit like cognac. It's the sort of ferny/mossy/sweaty/gamy/linalool reek my grandfather exuded when he'd come in wearing his woollen grandpa's undershirt after clearing forest bracken in the Strezlecki Ranges summer. Like while the sweat in the wool was still fresh, before anything went rancid.

Not to be too gender-specific, sometimes my grandmother smelled like this, too.

Being of high natural acidity, which this wine has, sure and persistent, and quite spongy/fluffy texture, which is a contrast right there, all this may well drown the reader in confusion. But I doubt this will happen so thoroughly to the drinker, who will quickly realise that of all the newly-imported white varieties that end in O, this is pretty much the most distinctive.

While winemakers were queuing up waiting for all those imports to edge through quarantine, which takes years, this stubborn baby was here all along. James Busby introduced it in Sydney Town 1832, when it was called White hermitage.

To this day, it produces about a third of all Italy's white, perhaps emerging in its finest form in Soave, where it's blended with Garganega, which seems to be its grandfather if DNA is not fake news.

In this Torzi-Matthews Vigna Cantina form, it's best to think Italian. Antipasto is obvious, but I'd also be thinking of a mighty mussel broth with real crunchy bread and whackings of Paris Creek butter, then a pecorino pepato to finish the bottle.

Wolf Blass used Trebbiano to great effect in his Classic Dry White, his determined effort to prove that Chardonnay was largely bullshit. When I tasted all Wolf's whites released to date with him in September 1982, he announced "What is happening with Chardonnay in this country is paralleled only by the stupidity of the red wine manufacturing in the late 'sixties.

"I think the Chardonnay belongs in Champagne," he continued. 

"There's very few companies who can make good Chardonnay. Those should specialise. But at the moment every company, in every region and in every state, is trying to bring a Chardonnay out ... in a couple of years Chardonnay is just a joke ... "

And then, to twist his dagger in the gizzards of the worst wine wankers of the day, he finished "If Chardonnay of sufficient quantity and quality becomes available, we may replace the Tokay in the Classic Dry White with it."

The Classic Dry White blending varied from year-to-year, depending on the available fruit and the paramount assemblage skills of Wolfie and his genius off-sider, John "The Ferret" Glaetzer. From its launch in 1974, it variously contained Sauvignon blanc, Riesling, Tokay (Muscadelle), Crouchen, Colombard and Sylvaner. Every release from that to the '82 won gold medals. But on that day, of the older wines, like pre-'81, the 1975 model was easily the best, for what I called "its fresh, youthful fruit and remarkable balance."

That one was unique because it was not a blend. It was 100% Trebbiano.

And I suspect it came from the same 100+ year-old vineyard as this wine, in the æolian sands at the north of Koonunga. Which is not too far from that vast glittering refinery now called Wolf Blass Bilyara.



Trying in vain to retire: me with the 80-year-old Wolfie and The Ferret at Doug Lehmann's wake in 2014 ... photo©Johnny 'Guitar' Preece