Achieving the divinity

First published

In April 1779 Dr Johnson said: "Claret is the liquor for boys; port for men; but he who aspires to be a hero drinks brandy." Sadly I will never make a hero. Heroics with brandy do terrible things to the brain and spirit, and I found out early, life is easier if one avoids any wine that is fortified. It is a pity that the most beautiful drinks have to contain alcohol, for it is the taste that is important, not what it does to the brain. Dr Johnson on that same day in 1779 said: "A man who exposes himself when intoxicated has not the art of getting drunk."

So it is easier to be artful if the percentage of alcohol is not high. Your gentle chardonnay or riesling may contain 11 to 12 per cent, your sherry 17 per cent, your port 18 to 20 and your whisky or brandy 40 per cent.

The 11th commandment should be - keep away from all spirits. The most beautiful, the most exquisitely versatile drink is champagne. It is the one drink that can be enjoyed for morning tea, for afternoon tea, for a celebration at midnight. It goes beautifully with chicken sandwiches, it is wonderful with strawberries, superb with caviar or even bread and butter and Vegemite. It is the perfect aperitif before dinner and I once attended a dinner in France where champagne was served with every course, different champagnes admittedly, but champagne for all that.

Leonard Paul Evans, Australia's leading advocate for wine drinking believes deeply in champagne. His most innocent and beautiful custom is this. He has always cherished old friends, and upon seeing them again he has a custom, an inflexible rule. No matter whether it be 10 am or 10 pm, he opens a very good bottle of champagne.

An English wine critic once claimed that one should clean one's teeth with a little light riesling. champagne, of course, would be better. There is something about the delicacy of the bubbles, something about the color, something about the pure vivacity of champagne that immediately lifts the spirits. Australians always have had a taste for champagne. In the days when Victoria was rich with gold, enormous quantities of quality champagne were imported from France. My son, David Dunstan, in his excellent book Better Than Pommard records that the instant wealth generated by the gold discoveries of the 1850s dramatically increased the demand for consumer goods and particularly Champagne. There are stories of the Diggers ordering half dozen cases at a time, and piling fifty empty bottles in a corner and smashing them with a shovel. Skittle players also loved their champers, the bottles made beautiful skittle pins.

Australian tastes were splendid indeed. When Melbourne opened its grand new Town Hall in 1870, Mayor Samuel Amess staged a huge banquet. David Dunstan reports that he ordered 100 cases of Roederer, Moet, Cliquot and Krug at his own expense. There were lesser illustrious brands to feed the punch.

Mr R.E.N. Twopeny, a famous Australian commentator, wrote in 1881:

"Like their American cousins the Australians are of the opinion that there is no liquid worthy to be mentioned by the side of 'champagne.' It requires some education to acquire a taste for claret. To the uninitiated sherry and port are chiefly palatable for their spirituousness; but everyone is born with a taste for champagne... No merchant or lawyer whose income is over 500 pounds a year dare give a party without champagne. It is Champagne which gives ton."

Mr Twopeny went on to say that when a man had made a lucky speculation, or had just received a large order, it was absolutely essential that he treat his friends to a bottle of champagne.

One wonders what Mr Twopeny would have thought about ton in Australia a century later. Michael Broadbent, the celebrated English wine authority, says that very few wines that carry les grandes marques of Champagne are without the allure, panache and wonder that has been the story of this sparkling wine for three centuries. And he adds: "By and large, only those who foolishly treat bar ladies in the Place Pigalle to champagne will come across the raw, appley bubbly of the worst sort."

Not so in Australia. You don't even have to look for bar ladies. The worst sort is everywhere. Mass production has taken over. Some companies have managed to get "champagne" down as low as $3.60 a bottle. It has became the cheap way to entertain. Serve only "champagne". Best description for it would be carbonated fizz. It is cheaper than serving complex drinks, whisky, gin and tonic, cocktails. It is cheaper even than beer.

The public relations firms discovered it in the 1970s, anyone who had something to sell, whether it was a book, a motor car, or a new detergent, held a party, promising "champagne". A particular ploy was the "champagne breakfast", the theory being that if you could not get people at other times of the day you could always get them at breakfast. So the choice was champagne or orange juice, with a recommendation of a blend of the two. So it was possible to ruin the orange juice or make bad champagne taste even worse.

Champagne indeed. No wonder the French took action all around the world. It was necessary to make sure that only the products from the champagne district of France should be allowed to use the magical word champagne.

So when did our passion for sparkling wine begin? It would have been February 1960. Colin Preece, a gentle kindly character, and one of Australia's greatest winemakers, was in charge at Seppelts Great Western. Great Western is an old mining town halfway between Stawell and Ararat in Victoria. It was called Great Western because this was the extremity of the diggings. Not a big town, it would be accurate to say, one burp and you are through.

Colin Preece took me on a grand tour of the cellars, which were and still are, one of the astonishing sights of the country; a series of underground tunnels like the catacombs of Rome. He explained how Joseph Best bought the land in 1865 and planted out a vineyard.

The soft granite was ideal for tunnelling. There were plenty of gold miners about, gold miners who never found gold, diggers who were very good at digging. Miners always called tunnels "drives', so drives they became at Great Western. Best died suddenly aged 57 and Hans Irvine, a Ballarat business man with an ambition to make champagne, bought the vineyard, 22 acres of vines, for 22,000 pounds. Irvine's ambition was to make not just good sparkling wine, but champagne as good as could be purchased in France. The year was 1887.

The drives down below were quite eerie, spacious, yet dimly lit. The The walls were black, not clammy, but covered with a bacterial mould, soft and hairy to the touch like a cocker spaniel. The drives went on and on, scemingly into infinity. The feeling began to dawn, how easily one could get lost. Colin Preece said, be comforted. The temperature never varied, not too cold and not hot and after all, I was surrounded by one and half million bottles.

Colin said there were some very good stories about Hans Irvine, some of them perhaps a little apochryphal. Irvine had a good sense of public relations so he was always inviting the famous and the rich. He named his drives after distinguished visitors. There was the Lady Somers Drive, a Lord Hopetoun Drive in honour of the Governor-General and a splendid drive named after Nellie Melba.

He said Dame Nellie made two visits, once in 1902 and again in 1929. The legendary tale was that she refused to visit in 1902 unless they gave her bath in champagne. Colin was a trifle sceptical about the Dame Nellie tale. Prima donnas were hardly tiny in 1902 and he estimated that if Dame Nellie were to have a decent bath she would have needed at least 180 bottles.

There was another story about Lord Hopetoun. Colin Preece said he entertained the Governor-General in the same vintage year of 1902. His guest was so distinguished they had the bath enamelled for the occasion. Regrettably by the time His Excellency took his bath, the enamel had not set. It was a grave emergency and Hans Irvine had to send to Ararat for medication to repair the damage and unstick his behind. The Ararat chemist was proud of its good work, and even in 1960 it boasted a sign that it was under Vice-Regal patronage.

Hans Irvine sold out to Seppelts in 1918 and it has been Seppelts Great Western ever since. Yes, Colin Preece explained, there were over five kilometres of underground drives. In the dim light we could see a myriad of bottles on their riddling racks, all angled at A5 degrees go that the sediment seeped down to the neck ready for disgorging after the secondary fermentation. We met Jack Floyd, who at the time was chief shaker. It was his job to give each bottle a quarter turn of 90 degrees. Again like the hamburger and hot cake makers of California there was brilliance in the hand movement. He went through the racks jiggling a bottle with either hand, at amazing speed. He admitted that he shook 25,000 bottles a day, but had done 30,000 on a good day. He had been doing it for 30 years so he reckoned he had riddled 225 million bottles.

Apart from his skill as a winemaker Colin Preece had another claim to fame. For many years he was permanent president of the Great Western Racing Club. Now the Great Western meeting takes place on the Queen's Birthday Weekend. It is not one of those meetings that is reported by the metropolitan newspapers, nor does it make the TAB lists, but it is one of the oldest in the country and it goes right back to 1877. It was going down fast when Colin Preece took it in hand in 1933. He thought: "Wouldn't it be nice if there were champagne at the races?" So he installed a champagne bar, a rare innovation at that time.

The club did not receive the best of the champagne, instead it received the rejects, the bottles that carried a little sediment or maybe a tattered label, but the bar price was splendid, sixpence a glass. From then on the club moved into a gallop, and the Great Western meeting became the great social occasion of the Western District. Great Western gave prizes, two bottles of champagne for each race and for the last race, the Champagne Stakes, there was a whole case of Great Western. After long experience at country race meetings one can say this is the most eminently practical prize given in Victoria.

The races, of course, are charming. The horses run on a dirt track through the trees, kicking up clouds of dust. And, as they pass a great old gnarled tree at the turn you would swear this was a plot for an Australian Western, and they were filming a scene from The Man From Snowy River. As they come down the straight the hooves beat with an enormous effect on the hard earth and the dust clouds sweep across leaving a thin film on your champagne.

The last time I was there 12,000 people were present. That was not the official figure, 8000 paid to come through the gate. However 12,000 champagne glasses had been sold before lunch. You see, it is not easy to seal off Great Western, and right through the early hours, creatures had infiltrated through the undergrowth like the Viet Cong. So the festive scene was great. Sometimes at a Great Western race meeting so many champagne corks are popping it sounds like artillery fire in the 1812 Overture, and one has to tread carefully returning to one's car. It is so easy to break an ankle on a champagne bottle.

There were many visits back to the races and to the Great Western Vineyards. One year I went there with Len Evans, Christopher Daniel of the Wine & Brandy Producers' Association and the much loved wine writer, Frank Doherty. Colin Preece had retired and now Les Francis was the manager. Les was a strong personality and someone not to be moved even by the ebullience of Len Evans. He took us on a grand tour and we missed hardly a centimetre of the five kilometres of drives. Finally he stationed us in front of the vast disgorging machine and gave us a talk on champagne methods going right back to the day when Dom Perignon allegedly invented the sparkling wine back in 1670. Len, unquestionably the most soulfully dedicated and experienced champagne drinker in the Southern Hemisphere, believed the present company already was soundly informed of champagne methods. Furthermore, it was a hot January morning and it had been a omg thirsty walk. He started a little chant:

"How dry we are...How dry we are."

Les was not to be deterred. "You must appreciate that the bubbles do not get there of their own accord. There has to be a secondary fermentation. Therefore..."

"How dry we are...How dry we are."

Les, not even by a twitch of his nose, gave an indication that he heard the Evans plea. He became more determined than ever and gave the most complete dissertation on champagne manufacture ever given to a touring party.

"You must appreciate that the quality of the champagne depends on the length of time spent on the lees. Some makers give the wine only six months. Not here. We believe two years should be the..."

Len's cry became louder: "HOW DRY WE ARE."

Les after going right through to the end, even giving an elaborate description of Seppelts methods for putting on labels and capsules, finally declared the lecture closed and took us to the tasting room. The battle was worth it. Les brought out a superb Great Western, 10 years old, dating back to the great days of Colin Preece.

So was born a reverend devotion to the sparkling product almost akin to the 17th century fervour of Brother Dom Perignon. When Andrew Hickinbotham planted out our vines in 1988 he put in two clones of pinot noir, MV6 and Mariafeldt. The Mariafeldt grapes were quite different to the MV6, the bunches were much larger and more prolific. Kathleen Quealey was our wine driving instructor. She was taking us right through to the P plate stage, telling us at every point what to do next. She said: "Do you realise Mariafeldt is the classic champagne clone. They use it in France. Why don't you make some?"

"Surely we couldn't."

"Of course you could."

The beautiful thing about the wine business is the number of people who are prepared to share their knowledge. There is something about wine drinking that creates humanity and generosity of spirit. Go to any winemaker and it is amazing how he or she is prepared to impart secrets. Our son David went to Greg Gallagher, senior winemaker at Taltarni, and painstakingly he wrote a recipe. It was even more complete than anything produced by Mrs Beeton.

I won't suggest that it was not unnerving. Mr Gallagher was infinitely patient. Sometimes I was on the telephone to him, long distance, six times a day. How could you add that much sugar, 24 grams a litre? For 200 litres that was 4800 grams and then more sugar had to go in with the yeast.

My memories went back to a time when I was 12 years old. My bedroom was in the attic of a large house built in 1890. I made my ginger beer in a stone demijohn and added sugar exactly according to the recipe. A week later the demijohn exploded, and while my mother was having an afternoon tea party, ginger beer flooded down through the plaster ceiling of the sitting room. A great stain spread across the ceiling then the flow descended to the sandwiches and cream cakes on the auto tray. The memory lingers of the awful damage to the ceiling to say nothing of what happened to the cream cakes. My popularity rating was low for several weeks. So at every second during my champagne production I thought of that ginger beer and the possibility of 260 bottles exploding one after another. We were careful this time. The bottles did not go in an attic, David placed them in racks under his house.

We picked our Mariafeldt grapes in late April, two weeks before we picked the pinot for our still table wines. Greg Gallagher said to get them at 10 or 11 baume, when they were just a bit acid, crisp and rather tart on the tongue. They should never be fully ripe as with table grapes. We also went to Peter and Sue Harris, who have 30 acres of vines at Merricks and pleaded with them for some baskets of chardonnay. Chardonnay adds a little depth and we wanted a 70 to 30 pinot chardonnay blend.

We have already explained that the basket press with the great worm screw and handle is an instrument for galley slaves. The recipe told us to put whole bunches of grapes into the basket, then squeeze gently to get only the free run of juice. Grapes are extraordinarily resilient creatures. Even though we put them through several times, and the slaves on the end of the oar, David and his sons, Jack, Sam, and Tom, pulled with all their strength, many of the grapes did not burst. Finally Marie, boys, everybody, we hand squeezed the grapes, then put them into the press. Don't let anyone ever suggest winemaking is not labour intensive.

We followed all Mr Gallagher's instructions. That is we racked three times. Racking meant running all the wine out of one barrel into another, cleaning out the sediment, sterilizing, then running it back into the original barrel. Every time you do this you lose some wine. We were left with a six-inch gap in the top of the barrel. I had terrors that the wine would oxidise and turn into vinegar. What to do? I filled it up with bottles of pinot noir from the 1991 vintage, and so the "champagne" turned pink.

Colour is one of the fascinating mysteries of winemaking. It is easy to make white wine from red grapes. Wine turns red only if fermented with the red skins. So if the base material for sparkling wine contains only the free run juice, it is never rosy and pink unless you deliberately make it so.

Finally the time came for conducting the secondary fermentation, adding the sugar and the yeast. It was absolutely necessary to take over the kitchen, the kitchen sink, the kitchen scales, kitchen wooden spoon and many other instruments. Marie was infinitely patient. As mentioned earlier, before having anything to do with wine production, first find an incredibly understanding wife. So I set up a 25 litre beer making tank on the kitchen sink, and used this for the yeast culture. What about the bubbles? Greg Gallagher said to keep pumping air bubbles through the yeast.

So I found an electric gadget down in our black hole. Every house has a black hole full of ill-fated gadgets used for former crazes. Well, in the black hole along with various toasters, coffee makers, juice extractors etc., there was a little pump which put bubbles through an aquarium tank. This was perfect for the job. So the yeast culture bubbled. We added the yeast to the base wine and bottled. We bought 200 champagne bottles from the recycling merchant, but my mathematics were faulty. I thought we would need 250 bottles, but the actual number was 262. So on bottling eve We were looking in fashionable dustbins, looking in recycling bags and for the last three bottles we even went to a party and urged some very good friends to drink up their Yellowglen as quickly as possible because we needed their empties. All those bottles had to be put into nearly boiling water and their labels removed.

And that's another thing. Back in the 60s when we did our home bottling, labels came off so easily. Wine companies attached their labels with simple paste. In the 1990s they use complex adhesives and no bottle gives up its labels without a struggle. They have to be removed with a scraper and the final blobs of adhesive and paper removed with steel wool.

And so we bottled. The bottling was a delicate operation. We had to put both tubes from a mono pump into the tank so that the lees were in a constant state of turbulence and an even amount went into every bottle. Then we fixed on the crown seas. Every champagne bottle has a lip and it takes a crown seal slightly larger than a beer bottle.

God bless crown seals. Unquestionably it is the most efficient device for sealing a bottle ever invented. The clever inventor was William Painter in Baltimore and the year was 1892. Before that all beer bottles, any cordials like ginger beer or lemonade required tie down corks. Champagne, of course, required them throughout the entire methode champenoise process.

On 12 April 1903 there was an invitation by the Crown Corporation to a demonstration at the Rowland's factory in Sydney. A report appeared in the Australian Brewers' Journal:

"The system of corking bottles is both cheap and simple. The cork consists of a small metal cap, lined with cork, which is fastened automatically over the mouth of the bottle by machine pressure. Among the advantages claimed are that it is cheaper than the old system, and in no way injurious. By means of a small metal hook which can be carried on a key ring, or fastened on a wall the seal can easily be removed."

By 1913 the big breweries were using nothing else and the colourful old bottles with the tie down corks had disappeared forever. Champagne would remain perfect if, like beer or Coca-Cola, it continued right through to the customer with a crown seal, but as told in another chapter, what would happen to the beautiful romance? It would lose "Ze pop."

It is the agony of waiting that finally sends you crazy. Human beings have a gestation period of nine months. For champagne it is similar to a baby elephant or a dinosaur, you need to wait 18 months or two years. Then there is the problem of getting it disgorged, for us it was the old story of being too little. This was a typical conversation.

"How much do you have?"

"Oh... um... about two hundred and sixty"

"Two hundred and sixty cases?"

"No two hundred and sixty bottles."


There was a long pause of disinterest. Yes, they would do it, provided we delivered the bottles upside down, already riddled. This was almost an impossible task. What would happen to the bottles after we had delivered them over 80 kilometres of bumpy roads? Again the people in the wine industry are wonderful. Darren Kelly of Kellybrook in the Yarra Valley said: "Why don't you do it yourself, by hand? I have been doing it for 20 years. Come over and I'll show you how." And he did.

Ian McKenzie, chief winemaker at Seppelts, gave David a riddling rack, a beautiful thing. We loved it at first sight. It must have been 100 years old, all exquisitely carved so that it would hold 10 dozen bottles at the right angle. Then Ian Home, the man who launched Yellowglen, showed how bottles should be riddled correctly.

First there is the "rummaging". You shake the bottle as if it were making a cocktail for your girlfriend. This breaks up the lees into a perfect cloud, then you put the bottles into the rack so that they hang just past the horizontal. Mark the bottles with a piece of chalk and each day give them a quarter turn. After four days tip them to 45 degrees, and every day give another quarter turn. After 10 to 12 days the lees should be right down inside the crown seal and the wine perfectly clear.

He said at Yellowglen they invented a tmachine to do this, an apple barrel which would hold 60 bottles.It worked at all the appropriate angles. At first it was not Satisfactory, it did not get the wine clear and they couldn't understand why. Suddenly came the inspired thought, the machine was too smooth. The human hand always save a bit of a jerk when it riddled. So they put in a kink which made the machine jerk too. Problem solved. Eventually they had riddling down to four days.

I bought a hand corker and Rocco Tallarida, vigneron of Boneo Plains wines and master maker of wine equipment, modified it himself, so that it would drive in the corks to precisely the right distance.

The next problem was a gadget to put on the muselet, the little wire cage that ties the cork down to the bottle. Darren Kelly said: "All the companies have a machine to do this. But you would probably be up for about $16,000. What you need is a tie spinner, that's a gadget they used one time for putting wire seals onto grain bags."

He explained that it was a handle with a hook on a spring. Pull the handle out and the hook would spin like a top. I spent a month touring hardware stores, and every kind of firm that dealt in agricultural equipment. "No, haven't seen one of those in years."

Finally after trying all the fancy places, I just dropped in to our local store, six kilometres up the road, Red Hill Timber and Hardware. It took five minutes just to explain what I wanted. The character behind the counter began to laugh.

"What's so funny?

"Well yes," he replied, "we do have one of those. It's on the wall over there. Just ten minutes ago the boss came in and said, What do you keep that for? You won't sell it in 40 years.' Now I'm going to stick it right up him."

The tie twister cost $48 and was made in Germany. It was the perfect tool for the job. My first disgorging day was a never-to-be forgotten experience. It was important to freeze the necks so that the lees came out in one neat lump. Neck freezers cost another $16,000, so what to do? Make a brine solution out of crushed ice and salt in the laundry sink or use the kitchen deep freeze. I used the family refrigerator, bottles held upside down for two hours in empty milk cartons.

"Be careful," said Darren. "Bottles have been known to explode, use gloves and safety glasses." I dressed up in wet weather gear and looking like the moon man went into action. There was a terrible feeling of apprehension. What if there's no fizz at all? What if it hasn't worked? What do you do with 260 bottles that are undrinkable? Both Darren Kelly and Greg Gallagher had explained the correct procedure for disgorging. First you need an old fashioned bottle opener, one which will take the large champagne crown seal. Not easy to find. Hold the bottle upside down, left hand underneath to operate the bottle opener. Raise the bottle very slowly until it is at the angle of an artillery howitzer, then, just when the air bubble hits the crown seal, ZAP! I did that and there was an explosion, pink stuff went on my glasses and all down my plastic jacket. But, my God, it was there, the wine was alive. At least 25 per cent of that first bottle went on the ground, but like making pancakes or pizzas one learns to improve one's technique, 25 per cent came down to ten or five per cent. Lost wine had to be replaced with sparkling pinot from another bottle. Then the wine had to be liquered.

This is another fascinating business. Sparkling wine, after it has gone through its secondary fermentation, is bone dry. Some people like it that way, but their tastes are rare. The French call it nature or sauvage, because it can be a little savage on the tongue. Winemakers, like mother with her scones, have their own recipes. Under advice from Ian Home, Darren and others, we mixed up a liqueur of just over five grams of sugar per bottle with a whisper of cognac, mixed with chardonnay. This we put into each bottle before corking with a 10 cc pipette, delicately, slowly, with the bottle at angle or the wine goes into a frenzy of fizzing and you lose another 10 per cent.

Finally the cork is in and wired down. Sampling our first very own bottle of sparkling pinot, again was like winning the Melbourne Cup. All the family who helped, Marie, David, Paula, and children came together and we poured it in to the best glasses. It was faintly pink, and fizzed with perfect little bubbles rising to the surface. It was a moment of magic. As we told you, cellar palate, is a dangerous thing, but we thought our sparkling pinot was a complete triumph. We were inspired, we made 750 bottles in 1993 and a thousand in 1994.

We cannot by law call it champagne and I don't think we would want to. We call it Sparkling Chloe. It is a hand operation and like all sparkling wine, labour intensive. This is why we are driven to fury when we observe the strange custom of using champagne bottles like garden hoses. Yes, they are still doing it. In a 1993 Sheffield Shield match, the Victorian team when it defeated New South Wales, sprayed themselves all over with champagne.

The technique is to get a beautiful bottle of champagne, shake it as if it were tomato sauce, remove the cork, put your thumb over the top then squirt it at your captain, your fast bowler, your triumphant leg spinner and your top scoring batsman. This inane, vulgar, unsightly, incredibly wasteful practice began with the Grand Prix racing drivers. The disease moved on to the motor cyclists, basketball players, bicyclists, tennis players...I wouldn't be surprised if they did it now at Board meetings, when BHP, Woolworths or Coles Myer had a good dividend or an outstanding float, very likely they squirt each other with champagne.

No please, this sparkling wine, invented by the venerable monk, Dom Perignon, is a gift from God, it deserves always to be nosed first for its bouquet, savoured gently in the mouth then delivered to the stomach, nowhere else.

Follow onto the next chapter, The money demon