Columns secured on the grapevine

First published

Columnists try to be so clever. Desperately they try to analyse the interests of the public, to write columns which will reach the greatest number of people. Yet it is very hard to stop one's own idiosyncrasies, fads, prejudices, quirks, hates and loves from showing through.

Looking back over the years I note it is quite remarkable the number of columns there have been on cricket, acroplanes, gardening, girls, and most particularly, wine. There have been columns and columns on wine and, it must be admitted, the Editor has borne it all most manfully.

The column has not really missed a wine judging or tasting at the Royal Agricultural Show in ten years. I have picked up a few points. Wine does not have a bonzer smell — it has a splendid nose or a fine bouquet. One does not drink or quaff wine, one 'looks' at it. To gain the really exquisite style of the connoisseur one should take the flat base of the stemmed glass between finger and thumb, hold it out at arm's length, raise it to the light and murmur 'Good colour'. Next give the glass a quick twiddle in a clockwise direction and then put your nose right into the glass. Close the eyes, take out your nose and give a sigh. Repeat this process several times; it looks very good indeed. Next take a very small sip, roll it around your mouth and smack your lips a little. Even click your tongue. Repeat this, too, several times, then sit back and look confident. You know all about that damned wine there is to know.

To be quite honest I have always wanted to be a wine snob. It has been my dream to stand before an eminent wine and food gathering, one of those societies where they mask the bottles, and to pick up a glass, put my nose into it, pause for a moment, then with unbelievable accuracy, state the vintage, the year, the grape, the vineyard and perhaps even point out casually that the grapes came from - the east end of the northern paddock and they were picked at 3.30 p.m. on the second Tuesday in March.

There are clever people who can do this sort of thing, but I am not one of them. The more I drink the less I know. Only the other day I described a white wine as a Hunter River, a gentle little thing of no great distinction of very innocent years. Glory be, the host had spent a fortune in providing a grand Rhine Riesling which dated back to 1956. My comments quite destroyed his palate for at least ten minutes.

So at wine gatherings it is better to stick to safe remarks. 'It's a well-balanced wine.' (It's sure to be balanced somehow or other.) 'It leaves a noble aftertaste on the palate.' (Good wine usually does.) 'The winemaster is to be congratulated for an excellent choice with this dish.' (The winemaster will love you forever for that.)

'I would say it was a South Australian claret about six years old.' (Devilish risky, but if it's a large gathering it is unlikely that they - will be able to afford either imported wine or wine that is very old. Then you have the laws of probability on your side — the bulk of our wine is produced in South Australia.)

But, maybe, like me if you cannot be brilliant you still enjoy your wine. In Australia there is a big advantage — like milk, it is untaxed. No doubt this thought would distress many people. There is tax on rum, whisky, beer, gin, brandy, vodka and all the rest. Every time a beer drinker takes a sip out of his glass he knows that he is working for his country, helping to build a road or finance a jet. Wine drinkers don't have this satisfaction and we miss it.

Twenty or thirty years from now, those of us who are still alive will inevitably look back upon the 'sixties as the good old days. Almost certainly, never again in Australia will wine be so cheap. The population will grow, more of our winemakers will switch to the rewards of wool, wheat and beef. And some genius in Canberra will suddenly discover that here is a taxation possibility he had overlooked.

But one thing I noticed while writing columns on the wine societies: there is a small Australian army of home bottlers. They buy their wine in bulk direct from the vineyard or the dealers. One little group, for example, owns its own hogshead which it despatches by rail to vineyards all around Victoria and South Australia. The group has bottling parties regularly on Saturday afternoons and all help in the washing, the corking, and the labelling. Finally, late in the afternoon, they slowly disperse. Slowly is the operative word. A hogshead holds 524 imperial gallons, which produces 315 bottles. So it is a fascinating sight to see these respectable, suburban husbands, trundling back to their own houses with wheelbarrows loaded with bottles.

Of course, once a home bottler starts going in for hogsheads he has to know what he is about. A cask of such dimensions takes real skill in handling and a mistake can be calamitous, particularly if you are landed with 315 bottles you don't like. So often it is better to be more modest and make a humble purchase like an 18-gallon or even a ten. The cost per bottle usually works out around twenty-five cents for good wine, which in Australia is decidedly cheaper than beer.

Some regular bottlers put away all their yearly purchases and never drink a bottle younger than five years. Some like to drink half in one year and put away half, thereby building up a cellar. Others who haven't the space, or simply cannot stand the tantalizing thought of bottles sitting unopened in the cupboard, get rid of it at all speed.

There's no question that for most storage is the problem. Yet home bottlers can be ingenious. Some buy old wardrobes and fit them out with racks, some stack them under beds. I have one friend who has loosened all the floor boards of his house. Every time he lifts some boards he puts a box of wine underneath. At the last count he had stored away 800 bottles for future drinking. Then nothing can quite equal the vanity of the home bottler. They develop a pride in their own bottling which can only be equalled by the housewife who bottles her own marmalade. One famous Melburnian home bottler, in his early days, bottled his wine in beer bottles. He thought his 1952 shiraz was of such vast quality there was no bottle in a restaurant cellar to equal it. So he took his own bottles to the august Florentino restaurant and handed his dusty, well-corked beer bottle to the wine waiter.

It was a scene to remember. The wine waiter took the bottle between finger and thumb as if he were holding a dead rat. Of course, when buying wine it is important to know what is coming forth each year and the wineabout is perhaps the most intriguing journey that one can undertake in Australia. Most vineyards sell wine on the premises, and are only too happy to greet. Those who are seriously interested. It must be confessed that wineabouts have produced a goodly number of vintage columns.

Before my first wineabout, one of the old hands took me aside and gave a word of warning. Said he: 'The people in the wine industry are the most charming in the world, and what's even more dangerous, utterly dedicated. They'll get you down there in the cool, heady atmosphere of their cellars. You'll be surrounded by big oak casks, containing thousands of gallons of wine. The air will be laden with this marvellous bouquet.

'Gently the vigneron will bring out his tender moselles, his hocks, his clarets, his ports. You'll taste every one, and soon you'lll be completely under the spell of the place. Before you know where you are, you'll be ordering gallons and gallons, and dozens and dozens. Buy a few bottles at each place, no more, then wait until you get home. In the cold, clinical atmosphere of your kitchen you will be surprised how different the wines taste. Make your orders then.'

For a proper wineabout one really needs several weeks, a chauffeur who is a total abstainer and a well-sprung trailer to carry samples. It is tactful to avoid the summer crushing months. Calling on a vigneron during early March is like dropping in for a yarn with your favourite accountant on 30 June. What's more, you should adopt a rule: 'never on Sunday'. The vigneron is entitled to his day of rest.

Wineabouts usually start with a visit to the north-east and the Rutherglen area. This is Victoria's biggest wine growing area. In the lovely days of the eighteen-eighties it had over 30,000 acres under vine, it was producing 600,000 gallons a year, and winning gold medals all over Europe. It was Australia's top-producing area, and there was a beautiful optimism about it all. Then phylloxera struck, the black death of the vine. After 1901 things were never the same again. From 30,000 acres then, now there are less than 3,000.

There are still ten wine producers in the district, names like Chambers, Gayfer's, Bullers, Gehrig, C. H. Morris & Sons, Sutherland Smith, Lindemans over the Murray and, of course, the big Seppelts winery in the heart of Rutherglen. It is a district which produces very fine dry reds and utterly marvellous muscats and tokays. Indeed there are few wine judges who dispute the statement that Rutherglen produces the best muscat in the world.

The area is alive with good column stories. On the way from Wodonga, six miles from Rutherglen, one sees two large mansions, of a type that really belong in Melbourne's Toorak. One is Fairfield, the original homestead of the Morris family, whose cellars, it is said, could store up to 500,000 gallons. The other is Olive Hills, once the home of Hugh Fraser.

Now Hugh Fraser and G. F. Morris were the giants of the district. They were rivals in producing the best wine, rivals in the council, rivals in turning on the best entertainment. In 1898, the Governor and his lady, Lord and Lady Brassey, were to make a tour of the north-east.

Immediately Hugh Fraser and Morris each put in a claim to be their overnight hosts. Fraser spent great sums in putting in all the right additions. He even added a tower, a dead ring of the tower on Government House in Melbourne. Yes, to be among the socially elite, one had to possess a tower in the eighteen-nineties. Morris completely renovated his already handsome two-storey building, and it was Morris who won the battle, for the Brasseys finally stayed at Fairfield. It was all too much for Hugh Fraser. Very soon afterwards he sold up and left the district. Nor is the Morris family any longer at Fairfield. The winery and vineyard is nearby on the road to Wodonga.

The show place in the district is now the All Saints Vineyard at Wahgunyah. In 1965 the winery received a plaque from the National Trust, which was unveiled by the Governor, Sir Rohan Delacombe. The Governor this time did not cause any fearful controversies. He did not stay over night in Rutherglen.

All Saints is the oldest of the family vineyards, and the Sutherland Smiths are now up to the fifth generation. The Smiths came to Wahgunyah on the Murray in the early 1860s. They were joiners at the Castle of Mey in Scotland, now occupied by the Queen Mother. The original George Sutherland Smith must have been homesick. In 1880 he completed his winery, an enormous building covering several acres, a perfect replica of the Castle of Mey. If you see it now, it looks like something out of Beau Geste. A few machine-guns around the battlements and you could keep out the entire Viet Cong.

As for the vineyard, it was named All Saints after the old parish back home. It is a nice, reverent name for a vineyard. The thing to do is to get a high vantage point inside the winery and look down. As George Sutherland Smith III always says: 'There you see the largest oak storage in the Southern Hemisphere.' Altogether there are close on half a million gallons stored in great barrels and in the gloom, back to back, they look like dozing elephants. Most of the barrels were made before the turn of the century. All Saints had a superb cooper, P. O'Sullivan, the best in the world according to George. Every year he won the first prize at the Corowa Show. About 1896, he said, Penfolds sent to Germany and had two oak barrels specially made by the best cooper there. O'Sullivan still came first. Penfolds second.

After the grand tour inevitably George Sutherland Smith brings out some wines for inspection. Just when one feels that one has tasted every wine that could conceivably be produced in the north-east he comes out with a lovely expression. He doesn't say crudely: 'How about one for the road?' He says: 'Just a minute. There's one other you must try to see you safely over the grid.'

The trail home is equally interesting. One of Australia's most highly skilled producers is at Milawa, just twelve miles out of Wangaratta. John Brown's family have been living there since 1857. His grandfather originally settled in Canada, and one of the sights of the old place is the great rambling barn. Now it is a wine store and it is typical of the old Canadian barns. It is built of solid hand-hewn timber, as big and as lofty as a cathedral. During the day as the heat goes up past the century and down again the old place creaks in the joints and seems to start up a conversation.

The winery is a brick building. John Brown leads the way inside, down some stairs, and suddenly it is dark, gloriously cool, and the dangerous romantic atmosphere we were talking about earlier is all too evident. John Brown puts down some tasting glasses, and goes off with a long rubber hose to tap the vats. He has some rieslings, his straight shiraz and beautiful blends of cabernet-shiraz and cabernet-mondeuse-shiraz. At Jimmy Watson's winery in Melbourne the cabarnet-mondeuse-shiraz is always called the C.M.S., not to be confused with the Church Missionary Society.

If you are strong enough you can carry on. At Bundarra, near Glenrowan, there is Bailey's vineyard. The Baileys produce a big, big, unforgettable claret, that tastes like liquid steak and eggs.

Then near Nagambie, is one of Australia's most famous vineyards, the 106-year-old Chateau Tahbilk. It looks more like a French chateau than a French chateau. One drives along an avenue of olives and white mulberries and then by the winery are magnificent spreading plane trees. There's the red earth, there's the white-washed brick and then there is the old chateau tower of wine labels. It is here that Eric Purbrick produces his quality wines and he is very proud that he crushes, ages, bottles, labels and despatches his wine all under the one roof, and it goes not only all around Australia, but all around the world — England, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Japan and the Pacific Islands.

After the great expansion programme in 1875 and the completion of a new underground cellar, there was a grand opening ceremony and this was all recorded in the Nagambie Chronicle of 6 January During the ceremony a bottle of Tahbilk dry red and a bottle of Tahbilk dry white were bricked into the cellar wall. Eric Purbrick read about this in the old copy of the Nagambie Chronicle and it was with the excitement of finding gold that he dug them out of the wall. Alas, those wines, like elderly chorus girls, had seen better days.

However on the centenary day, 25 September 1960, Eric Purbrick repeated this ceremony. He asked the Prime Minister, then Mr Menzies, to brick up a bottle of dry red and a bottle of dry white,not to be opened until the year 2060. Mr Menzies, later Sir Robert Menzies, was in his best ironical mood that day. He said: 'Everybody knows that I am practically a teetotaller. So it is with the greatest pleasure in the world that I deprive drunkards to the extent of two bottles. Yes, two bottles, you could say, are safely out of harm's way.” And so after the bricking up ceremony, with a gleam in his eye, he went off to taste some champagne. Furthermore quite a deal of champagne was put safely out of harm's way that day.

Another good area for a wineabout is Western Victoria. Head out through Ballarat, through Ararat, and then half way to Stawell, one comes to Great Western and the champagne cellars owned by the Seppelt family since 1918. Here one finds one of the most astonishing sights in the country: a series of underground tunnels like the catacombs of Rome. They have been there over 100 years and once again here is a place with a plaque and the blessing of the National Trust. Although it is most unlikely that the cellars here will disappear. The present manager at Great Western, Mr Les Francis, a very careful man, will not commit himself to the extent of the tunnels, but he says this much — there are five miles of stacked bottles.

Most of the tunnels were dug in the days of the Gold Rush. Gold was not that easy to find and out of work miners were glad of the job. The result is that one does not use the word 'tunnel'; in the mining tradition they are drives. The drives are named after distinguished visitors. There is a Lady Somers Drive, a Lord Hopetoun Drive, a Sir Dallas Brooks Drive, and a splendid drive named after Dame Nellie Melba. The former manager, Mr Colin Preece, who was at Great Western for thirty years, says that Dame Nellie made two visits to Great Western, once in 1902 and again in 1929. The legendary tale was that she refused to visit in 1902 unless they gave her a bath in champagne. One rather suspects that Dame Nellie never actually had that bath. After all, they didn't have pint-sized prima donnas in those days, and Mr Preece feels she would have needed about 180 bottles.

Hans Irvine MLC, who created the Great Western champagne tradition, was the owner in 1902, and it was at this time that he entertained the Governor-General Lord Hopetoun. Mr Preece says the 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 to Lord Hopetoun, and unstick him, as it were. Mr Preece says the medication did such a fine job that an Ararat chemist still has the sign that the shop is under Vice-Regal patronage.

The trip down underground is an eerie experience. The drives, although quite spacious, are dimly lit. The walls are utterly black, not clammy, but covered with a bacterial mould, soft and hairy to the touch like a cocker spaniel. The atmosphere is not chilly, rather the reverse. The temperature never varies by more than three degrees. from sixty, so it is quite a pleasant place to be, summer or winter. Yet with all that gloom and the thick black fungus all around, one begins to acquire a dreadful feeling of claustrophobia. The drives go on and on, and the possibility occurs that one might become lost and not get out for a week. However if this happened there would always be the very real comfort that one was surrounded by one and a half million bottles of champagne.

Great Western champagne is very good champagne indeed and the demand always far exceeds the output. There are those who feel it is a waste to drink it at weddings, twenty-first birthday parties and such. The ideal time is when one is not laden with emotion, but | when its flavour can be savoured to the full. In Australia a very good time is around noon, before lunch, and that is what happened when last I visited Great Western and the contents of the tunnels were reduced to 1,499,998 with several bottles of the five-year-old champagne brut.

It would be very easy to continue this wineabout, to describe Best's famous winery down the road a trifle, also at Great Western. It would be easy to talk of Mildara on the Murray at Mildura and from there to proceed into South Australia. But at this stage I think you have had enough to see you safely over the grid.