Category Archives: Book review

Book review — Wine Grapes by Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding and Jose Vouillamoz

Wine Grapes: A complete guide to 1,368 vine varieties, including their origins and flavours
Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding and Jose Vouillamoz
(Allen Lane, an imprint of Penguin Books, October 2012, $199
)

Page 1023 of Wine grapes brought me to a shuddering halt. Not that I’d read the preceding 1022 pages, instead skimming through Jancis Robinson’s preface then diving in for the low down on ‘syrah’ (shiraz).

It seems Australia’s national red hero isn’t what we all thought. Robinson, Harding and Vouillamoz conclude, “Pinot is a very likely great-grandparent of syrah, which challenges the supposition that they have completely different origins”.

DNA parentage analysis by French and American scientists in 1998 established shiraz as the love child of mondeuse blanche (the mother, from Savoie) and dureza (the father, from Ardeche).

This fortuitous and altogether spontaneous mating could have occurred only had the two shared the same viticultural bed. And in 2008 researchers Meredith and Boursiquot concluded the most likely place to find the two cultivated together would have been in the French Rhone-Alpes region, probably in the Isere.

But where and how does pinot noir come into the shiraz family tree? Something called probabilistic DNA analysis by Vouillamoz and Grando in 2006, established dureza, shiraz’s father, as “a sibling of teroldego”, a variety from Trentino in northern Italy. “This was the first evidence of a close genetic link between two varieties on different sides of the Alps”, writes Robinson.

And it continues, “Since syrah is a progeny of dureza, it is therefore a nephew/niece of teroldego. Vouillamoz and Grando have also detected a second-degree genetic relationship between pinot and both dureza and teroldego, which means that pinot could be their grandparent, grandchild, uncle/aunt, nephew/niece or half-sibling. Since pinot was already known in France and in the Tyrol in the fourteenth century, its cultivation predates that of both dureza and teroldego and it is logical to consider pinot as their ancestor, either their grandparent or their uncle/aunt. Therefore, pinot is very likely great-grandparent of Syrah”.

The shock revelation of shiraz’s lineage dragged me back to Robinson’s preface, where she’d warned of surprises ahead. I have on my bookshelf well-thumbed copies of her Vines, Grapes and Wines (1986) and the first and last of three editions of The Oxford Companion to Wine – the latter containing updates of her previous work on grape varieties.

But Robinson advises us to discard this previously authoritative work, “as this book is so much more up to date and comprehensive than either of my previous works on the subject”.

The book’s many revelations (like the pinot-shiraz relationship) rely on DNA profiling, recently developed probabilistic analysis (capable of finding more distant relationships even in the absence of known parents), and cross-referencing with historical cultivation records.

Robinson says Australian scientists established the first grape DNA profile in 1993. Four years later Californian scientists revealed Bordeaux’s noble red variety, cabernet sauvignon, as a likely natural crossing of cabernet franc and the white variety sauvignon blanc. Knowledge has grown exponentially since then.

Robinson claims the near-1300 page book “provides readers with virtually every DNA result published before 31 August 2011 as well as with dozens of unpublished results and fourteen pedigree diagrams exclusive to us that reveal many new, sometimes unexpected, familial relationships”.

Despite the depth of recent discoveries, many of the boxes in the pedigree diagrams contain question marks representing unknown family members. Perhaps these identities will be discovered in coming decades.

In the case of shiraz, for example, we know one of its great-grandparents (pinot) but not pinot’s mate. Nor do we know shiraz’s grandparents. Other diagrams in the syrah family tree offer several possible options for its genetic relationship with the white variety, viognier.

Robinson estimates the number of vine varieties in the world at 10,000, members of about six species. However, the book limits itself to 1,368 of them. That seems an extraordinary number, despite the steadily growing range of varietal names appearing on wine bottles. But Robinson says this is the number of varieties they know to be producing commercial quantities of wine.

The book offers beautiful colour plates of many vine varieties, depicting leaf, stem and grape bunches.

For each variety the authors detail berry colour, principal synonyms, varieties commonly mistaken for it, origins and parentage, viticultural characteristics, where it’s grown and what it tastes like.

Under ‘Syrah’, for example, we learn France claims the number one position with 68,587 hectares in the ground in 2009. Australia claims second place with 43,977 hectares in 2008.

The introduction covers a broad, easily read introduction to the grape vine, including grape varieties, the vine family, a description of mutations and clones, the basics of vine breeding (natural and human-controlled), rootstocks, grafting and DNA profiling.

The books also lists varieties by country of origin, where and under what conditions different varieties grow. There’s a comprehensive index. And if 1300 pages aren’t enough, the 20-page bibliography points to more bedside reading.

Wine Grapes is a towering and original work, a reference book for the world’s wine industry. And for wine drinkers it reveals so much about the vines that give us such drinking pleasure.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2013
First published 20 March 2013 in The Canberra Times and goodfood.com.au

Book review — Halliday wine companion and autobiography

James Halliday: Australian wine companion 2013 edition
Hardie Grant Books. RRP $34.95 (paperback)

James Halliday: A life in wine
Hardie Grant Books.  RRP $45 (hardcover)

This year’s review copy of Australian wine companion 2013 arrived with a bonus – James Halliday’s easy-reading autobiography, A life in wine.

The companion’s just as the name suggests – a well-thumbed, much-loved reference that can’t really be reviewed every year, given its predictable content.

Over time it’s become the equivalent, if unofficial, of a Michelin guide to Australian wineries and wine – and as much a marketing tool for successful vignerons as it is a solid, consistent guide for wine drinkers.

Such is the companion’s reach and value that each year a flood of winemaker press releases alerts me to the coming release. Indeed, vignerons value Halliday’s endorsement so much that it appears in marketing material of all kinds, including roadside signs in our wine regions.

Among Canberra wineries, Ken Helm set the pace this year, as always, emailing just days before the book arrived, “I look forward to a chat about wine in general – even Halliday’s wine companion 2013 – Canberra wineries did very well again”.

We haven’t chatted yet, but Halliday puts Helm towards the top of his quality pyramid with eight other Canberra makers – Capital Wines, Clonakilla, Collector Wines, Eden Road Wines, Lark Hill, Lerida Estate, Mount Majura and Nick O’Leary.

Each of these received a five-star rating. But there’s a hierarchy even at this level in Halliday’s system.

He awards five black stars to wineries offering good wines in the current review, with at least two of those rating 94 or more out 100. Wineries consistently making exemplary wines (with two or more currently rating 94 or more) earn five red stars. Wineries at the very tip of the pyramid – with a long, acknowledged record of excellence – have their name printed in red.

Clonakilla remains our only wine on that tip. But Alex McKay’s Collector Wines knocks on the door, with five red stars. The others mentioned above rate five black stars (Helm demoted from red last year). Closely following on four black stars and one white (that is, almost five stars) are Brindabella Hills, Four Winds Vineyard, Gallagher Wines, Lake George Winery, McKellar Ridge Wines and Shaw Vineyard Estate.

A surprise casualty this year, after last year’s rating of four black stars plus white star, is Bryan and Jocelyn Martin’s Ravensworth Wines. Ravensworth received heaps of accolades this year, mine included, making me wonder whether the wines were tasted. Martin says he sent samples. We’ll know when the online Wine companion 2013 goes live.

I wondered, too, about the absence of Long Rail Gully from the Canberra list. Richard Parker makes bloody good wines – worthy of a five-star rating in my view. When I phoned the winery, Garry Parker, Richard’s father, replied, “We’ve never given him [Halliday] our wines”.

Halliday requested samples last year, explained Parker, but at the time he didn’t have enough wine to send. However, he anticipated having a full complement shortly, once they’ve finished bottling recent vintages. Vintages due for release (and destined for Halliday’s review next year) include 2011 cabernet sauvignon and pinot noir, 2009 shiraz and 2012 riesling and pinot gris.

Wine companion 2013 gives profiles on 1,381 wineries, detailed tasting notes on 3,722 wines and ratings on another 3,053 wines. Many of the tasting notes come from Ben Edwards, Halliday’s collaborator and heir apparent.

Several Canberra wines make it to Halliday’s best-of-the-best list: Clonakilla and Gallagher 2011 rieslings, Clonakilla Riesling Auslese 2011, Clonakilla Murrumbateman Syrah 2010 and Clonakilla Shiraz Viognier 2011.

Halliday’s autobiography makes a pleasant afternoon’s read (and a lot of laughs), packing an exceptionally busy life in wine into about 250 pages.

I’ve known Halliday since 1979, selling wine to him, sometimes at mates’ rates, when I was with Farmer Bros, sponsoring his top 100 in The Australian during my time at Vintage Cellars, as a fellow reviewer at countless industry tastings and well-lubricated events and as a judge at various wine shows – including the first five years of the Limestone Coast show at Coonawarra.

Everyone in the industry, including me, always felt in awe of Halliday’s productivity. For me working full time, running a family, judging at wine and beer shows and filing a gradually increasing number of weekly columns for the Canberra Times seemed more than enough work.

But Halliday has an ability, it seems, to work non stop. How else to explain how as a partner in Clayton Utz, a notoriously demanding employer, he established not just one but two vineyards and wineries – Brokenwood, in the Hunter Valley, and Coldstream Hills in the Yarra Valley, at the same time judging at Australian and overseas wine shows and writing numerous books and columns for newspapers and magazine.

At age 50 in 1988, he retired from Clayton Utz, but continued a prodigious work output as viticulturist, winemaker, author, judge and key player in the reform of wine shows and promoting the Australian wine industry.

All this, and he found time, too, to drink deeply and well. The great wine experiences literally slosh through the book in mouth watering detail. Halliday shared the passion generously across the years with a growing circle of friends and industry acquaintances. But the book focuses more on the inner circle and especially on his much-loved friend, Len Evans. Evans rollicks life-like through the book, which Halliday wrote largely before Evans’ death in August 2006.

“On 16 August 2006 my world changed forever” writes Halliday in the preface, giving an account of a joyous, wine-filled night at Evans’ house, Loggerheads, in the Hunter on 15 August, only to arrive in New Zealand the next day to learn of the death.

The sense of loss lingers through Halliday’s personal, frank and at times very funny account of his life in wine. The more you love wine, the more you’ll love the book.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2012
First published 8 August 2012 in The Canberra Times

Book review — Max Allen

The history of Australian wine: Stories from the vineyard to the cellar door
Max Allen, Victory Books 2012, $49.99

Canberra readers might wonder at first, as I did, why Max Allen’s new book excises us, and surrounding wine regions, from Australian wine history. Local industry founders, Edgar Riek and John Kirk don’t rate a mention. Nor do Tim Kirk and Clonakilla’s world-famous shiraz viognier – arguably Australia’s most influential new-age shiraz. Even the ubiquitous Ken Helm, father of Canberra riesling, misses out. And readers in Young will note the omission of Peter Robertson, founder of Barwang Vineyards and, with it, the Hilltops wine region.

But flip from the index to Allen’s introduction, and we quickly learn the book is best summed up in its subtitle, Stories from the vineyard to the cellar door. It’s not a history at all, in the E. H. Carr sense, but a clever and entertaining compilation of personal stories and opinions.

Allen writes, “Based on a series of interviews conducted across a wide range of industry figures – from winemakers to cellar hands, from business leaders to grape growers – it’s neither an official history nor a definitive history: it’s an oral history, full of first-hand accounts of what happened and when and why, and personal opinions on how Australian wine got to where it is today”.

Those oral histories reside in the State Records of South Australia. They were commissioned by the Wolf Blass Foundation and recorded, transcribed and compiled by Adelaide historian Robb Linn. “Rob harvested the stories, fermented them and carefully bottled them up. I have merely decanted them onto the page”, writes Allen. And he does, images included, over 212 pleasure-to-swallow pages, including the index.

But the available material sets the scope of the book, accounting for the gaps mentioned in the opening paragraph – and the limitations of seeing wine history largely through the eyes of producers.

That’s what the book’s about, of course. But as an old retailer and marketer, I’d love to see more on the dynamic interaction between producers and sellers of wine. For example, Chapter 8 Boom and bust: The business of Australian wine details acquisitions and mergers among producers, but doesn’t refer to consolidation at the retail end that spurred some of this producer activity.

In an earlier chapter, Allen mentions perhaps the most far-reaching legislative change in Australia’s retailing history – Gough Whitlam’s Trade Practices Act. The Act ended retail price maintenance, precipitating massive changes in the distribution chain, particularly in retailing.

Some wine producers resented the abrupt end of what was in effect a gentlemen’s price-fixing racket and resisted the change, futilely, for some years.  It’s unfortunate that the book’s sole producer perspective on the Trade Practices Act, comes from Hardys – at the time one of the most conservative companies and, in my memory, one of the slowest and least effective in dealing with the change.

Hardys’ Ray Drew, says the book, links the discounting unleashed by the Act “to the extreme consolidation and virtual duopoly of today’s wine retail market”. Does he mean the industry should’ve stuck to price fixing? I think we need to look elsewhere to understand how Coles and Woolworths amassed their estimated 80 per cent of Australia’s wine market.

The Trade Practices Act created opportunities for retailers and for almost twenty years after the Act’s passing independent retailers collectively controlled the fine wine market. They couldn’t have done this without the protection and freedom afforded by the Act.

It’s true that some of these operators relied almost solely on discounting to drive trade. But some, like Dan Murphys and Nicks in Melbourne, Farmer Bros in Canberra and the Wine Society in Sydney, actively sought the best wines from Australia and overseas and educated their customers through press ads, newsletters, tastings and dinners. Thus the Trade Practice Act not only lowered prices, but allowed entrepreneurial retailers to fan demand for wine.

The Act also released wine producers from the grip of hoteliers and opened the new trading opportunities essential for a production orientated industry producing more than it could readily sell.

But in Queensland, restricted licensing laws gave hotels a virtual monopoly on liquor sales, wine included. However, the conservatism of the hotels, proved to be their own undoing. Their limited wine selections, combined with comparatively high pricing, opened a tremendous opportunity for mail-order wine sellers in the southern states. They soon counted Brisbane and the state’s more affluent provincial centres among their best customers.

By the mid nineties, accelerated by the recession we had to have and interrelated consolidation on both the production and distribution side, independent retailers began to lose their grip on the fine market. Coles moved first, launching its Vintage Cellars chain in 1994 and aggressively acquiring independent outlets to trade under the banner. A few years later Woolworths acquired Dan Murphys. A decade later it had become the dominant force in Australian wine retailing.

Of course none of this happened without intense interaction between the retailers and the producers who tell their stories in Max Allen’s book. Allen takes a unique resource – Rob Linn’s oral histories – and combines it with his own knowledge to give a colourful sketch of Australian wine and the personalities behind it. It’s a valuable contribution to our wine literature. And it whets my appetite both for the missing winemaker stories and the bigger picture of wine commerce.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2012
First published 1 August 2012 in The Canberra Times

Book review — Great, grand and famous Champagnes

Great, grand and famous Champagnes
Jane Powell, Fritz Gubler and Dannielle Viera
Arbon Publishing, Sydney, 2011
$79.99

“We can’t all be like Marilyn Monroe and fill our bathtubs with 150 bottle bottles of Champagne”, declares the accompanying press release. But neither the press release, nor Great, grand and famous Champagnes, reveal the sequel to this intriguing romance: did the winemakers really fill 151 bottles from Miss Monroe’s tub? We’ll never know.

The Monroe story sets the tone for a colourful, if uncritical, portrayal of the romance, glamour, mystique, history, hard-nosed commerce and science underpinning the wine world’s greatest luxury brand. If, like me, you rate the best Champagnes among the world’s greatest wines – and feel that even Gruen Planet couldn’t improve the marketing proposition – then the book’s as easy to swallow as its topic.

The third in Fritz Gubler’s series of ‘great, grand and famous’ books (after hotels and chefs), Champagne appears, like its topic, to be a clever, even sparkling, blend (or assemblage) of information from a wide range of sources.

After being drawn by the press release to the Marilyn Monroe snippet (page 168), we return to the cover. Here, Scott Cameron’s evocative close up of a crystal flute – teeming with the famous, tiny bubbles – reinforces brand Champagne and prepares us for the richly illustrated 240 pages that follow.

We all look at the pictures first. And in Great, grand and famous Champagnes, it’s eye candy from cover to cover – starting with Champagne sipping Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman (Casablanca, 1942) and finishing with a couple of art nouveau postcards of women drinking Champagne (circa 1900).

Every spread in between illustrates Champagne across the ages, capturing its history, commerce, followers and strong brand marketing. The latter includes several reproductions of unique art deco posters, including a classic for Champagne Joseph Perrier, created by Jean d’Ylen in about 1920.

The early part of the book, tracing Champagne’s intimate connections with French royalty and power brokers, portrays some of its great patrons, including luxuriously robed Pope Urban II, the Sun King, Louis XIV, and his mistress Madame de Pompadour.

In the book Jane Powell writes that de Pompadour, “had strong family links to the Champagne region and already understood the difference between sparkling and ordinary champagne. She loved Moet’s wine and soon became one of his most valuable customers, ensuring that Moet’s champagne was served at every important function at Versailles”.

A full-page image of Champagne’s famous wine priest, Dom Pierre Perignon (1638–1715), from a relief at Hautvilliers Abbey, depicts the cellarmaster holding a bottle of the then new-fangled sparkling wine.

Other famous Champagne tipplers portrayed in the book include Sir Winston Churchill (with Odette Pol Roger), Salvador Dali, Robert Redfern with Mia Farrow, Elizabeth Taylor with Montgomery Clift, Sean Connery, and Ingrid Bergman with Cary Grant.

Numerous vineyard and cellar photos give a feeling for Champagne’s landscape and production techniques. But I wonder why we still see shots of blokes hand-riddling bottles in wooden racks. Surely we’re grown up enough to see the less romantic gyro pallets that took over from hand-riddling thirty years ago (the book actually describes the modern technique).

The book lists three authors – Jane Powell, Fritz Gubler and Dannielle Viera. Gubler appears to be the driving force behind the book, pulling together its many components. Powell wrote much of the content, including the early chapters on Champagne’s history and commercial success. And Viera contributed to profiles on various Champagne houses and personalities.

Powell begins her chapter, “Growing the market”, with this quote from British writer, Nicholas Faith, “Champagne is a luxury brand made and sold by a hard-headed, hard-working, rather cold-blooded bunch of people, fully aware that no one needs to drink Champagne”.

Powell summarises the long winemaking history of Champagne, the region’s at-first tentative move away from table wine production to sparkling wines, the emergence of the first great Champagne houses in the early eighteenth century, their consolidation and growth in the nineteenth century and the emergence of dry Champagne in the late nineteenth century.

She covers the at-times bitter tensions between growers and Champagne houses early in the twentieth century, culminating in the statute of champagne in 1927 and the formation of a central body (the Comite Interprofessionel du vin de Champagne) representing the interests of the industry and regional as a whole.

The region now produces over 300 million bottles of Champagne annually and vigorously defends its brand at all levels – from the ground breaking Perelada case that stopped “Spanish Champagne” in its tracks fifty years ago, to the more recent action by Veuve Clicquot to stop tiny Tasmanian producer Stefano Lubiana using an orange label. This is the hard-nosed phenomenon Nicholas Faith referred to.

The book also has a terrific section on Champagne’s famous women, including Louise Pommery, Nicole-Barbe Ponsardin Clicquot and Lily Bollinger.

It’s a good introduction to Champagne, blended from many sources, including the classic Champagne: The wine, the land the people, Patrick Forbes, 1967 and Christie’s world encyclopedia of Champagne and sparkling wine, Tom Stevenson, 2003.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2011
First published 23 November 2011 in The Canberra Times

John Gladstones on wine, terroir and climate change

Wine, Terroir and Climate Change
John Gladstones, Wakefield Press, Adelaide, 2011
$59.95

John Gladstones wrote this mesmerising book for the world’s grape growers and winemakers. But it’ll appeal to a wider audience – including those interested in the concept of wine and “terroir”, or readers looking for a concise but painstaking discussion on natural and human-induced climate change.

Gladstones outlines the ambitious scope of the book at the outset. He writes, “This book tackles two contentious subjects that underlie the future of viticulture. Terroir is much spoken of, but nobody, to the best of my knowledge, has attempted a comprehensive definition and integration of its elements in the light of modern science. To do so is an ambitious task, given the many remaining gaps in knowledge. Some of my conclusions may prove to be wrong. But I trust at least that they will help lead to a fuller understanding.

“Climate change, which makes up much of the book’s latter half, must obviously influence all planning for future viticulture. But in approaching the subject it became evident that neither public understanding nor the ‘official’ position of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was necessarily accurate. Much in the argument for global warming by anthropogenic (man-caused) greenhouse gases appeared questionable. I therefore undertook as deep a study of the basic scientific evidence as I was able. The result was disturbing, though more as to the science underlying the global warming thesis than to the future of viticulture”.

The book, like Gladstones earlier Viticulture and Environment (1992), places temperature at the centre of grape growing. He sets out the reasons for this in chapter two of the new book, titled Temperature: The Driving Force. The theme weaves through the book and crystallises into practical advice for grape growers in maturity rankings of grape varieties, viticultural climate tables and reference climate tables.

For the general reader, as opposed to vignerons and grape growers, Gladstones’ methodical dissection of “terroir” is wonderfully enlightening.

The French word, for which there is no English equivalent, has become part of the mainstream wine vocabulary and stands for the environmental forces behind a wine’s individuality. The idea is central to France’s appellation system – based on distinctive regional wines, and drills down even to individual vineyard sites.

Gladstones defines “terroir” as “the vine’s whole natural environment, the combination of climate, topography, geology and soil that bears on its growth and the characteristics of its grapes and wines”. And he links these forces to the practicality of the market, writing, “The important thing is that a wine’s defined origin conveys a meaningful message to buyers and consumers, mostly as to its style though not necessarily as to its quality”.

We then read compellingly through the elements of terroir: temperature, broken into sections on vine phenology (physiological development), diurnal temperature range, day length, growing season temperature summations, individual sites, growth and fruiting, ripening temperatures, temperature variability and within-season variability.

A controversial conclusion from this section is that the best wines come from regions with the “lowest diurnal temperature range” – seemingly at odds with the notion of great wines coming from continental climates like Canberra’s. Clonakilla’s Tim Kirk quipped to me, “I haven’t forgiven him for what he said about Canberra [in his 1992 book]”.

Gladstones then discusses light intensity and exposure, rainfall, atmospheric humidity, wind and ripening period ideals for wine styles. Next under his gaze come geography, topography and soil, broken into several sections: latitude, altitude, topography, air drainage and frosts, aspect and slope, soil and above ground microclimate, proximity to water bodies – concluding with the common threads running through known best viticultural sites.

After this, Gladstones moves underground, examining soil water relations, soil and root temperatures, development of the vine root system, the root system and fruit ripening and an hypotheses (and objections to it) on hormone-driven root control of ripening.

The next two chapters study vine balances and management (soil-atmosphere water balance, vines and root maturity, vine size and crop load and irrigation strategies) and vine nutrition (nitrogen, potassium and other nutrient elements).

Finally, he arrives at geology and soil types, two of the most mentioned but perhaps most problematic aspects of “terroir”. He presents the challenge: “associations between wine characteristics and soil type alone, and likewise to some extent geology, have nevertheless proved elusive when studied objectively”.

After looking at soils and geology in literature, soil structure and drainage, soil thermal properties, soil types and vine nutrition and relationships to geology, Gladstones concludes that there probably is a geological flavour element to “terroir” – most plausibly from deep roots of mature vines tapping elements close to bedrock.

A chapter on organic and biodynamic viticulture charts the many advantages of organic management and concludes that it probably aids the expression of “terroir”. However, biodynamics appears to add no advantage and, writes Gladstones “at worst, they represent an unhealthy retreat into irrationality and mysticism… they have no place in an enlightened 21st century”.

Unquestionably Gladstones’ conclusions on climate change are the most controversial element of the book. The section, however, is a magnificent read for its broad sweep across a complex topic. It’s written concisely, logically and expansively and is accessible to non-scientists like me. It’s richly referenced for further exploration of the issues.

Gladstone discusses pre-industrial climates, the evidence of sea levels and early history, including viticultural records, natural causes of climate change, including earth-sun geometry, volcanic activity, solar irradiance and magnetic field, and modelling pre-industrial temperatures.

He then examines anthropogenic causes of climate change, including carbon dioxide and water vapour, aerosols and other pollutants, and land uses and effects. Next he examines modelled temperature feedbacks, principally ice and snow cover and clouds.

After a detailed study of the attribution of causes, including and examination of data sources, statistical methods and climate modelling, he concludes that “warming by anthropogenic greenhouse gases has been much over-estimated”, and “The 20th century’s true warming, as recorded in sea surface temperatures, is at least largely accounted for by natural climate fluctuations, for which the most credible cause on decadal to centennial timescales is fluctuation in solar output and magnetic field”.

He also concludes that we’re likely to be now dipping into a natural cooling period to about mid century. He anticipates this will likely offset admitted human-induced warming in that period.

Gladstones’ controversial conclusions underline the inherent uncertainty in predictions of any kind. His calculations put human-induced warming at much less alarming levels than those driving public policy. He could be right. But then, he could be wrong, too. Nobody knows with certainty.

Gladstones’ views on climate change lead to his conclusions that the world’s great wine “terroirs” will ride out any changes. He also concludes “rising atmospheric CO2 concentration will itself probably increase the optimum minimum and mean temperatures for vines”, and that “Sustainable production methods and improving quality and reliability across both market segments will help further establish wine as a world beverage of preference and moderation. The 21st century stands to become wine’s golden age”.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2011

Book review — “Riesling in Australia”

Riesling in Australia – the history, the regions, the legends, and the producers
Ken Helm and Trish Burgess. Published by Winetitles, South Australia, 2010. $49.50 plus postage at Winetitles.

Spike Milligan might have called “Riesling in Australia” a book of bits, or a bit of a book. Written by Ken Helm and Trish Burgess, the 144-page book – subtitled “The history, the regions, the legends, and the producers” – is largely a series of vignettes about riesling, told by third parties.

Over a period of three years Helm and Burgess pulled together material on a wide spectrum of riesling topics, in varying levels of detail. The first five chapters cover the grape’s origins and Australian history, its performance in a number of Australian regions, how it’s grown, the science behind its flavour and consumer and media perceptions of it.

Chapter six, the longest in the book, sketches twenty “Legends of Australian riesling”, including Helm, and their reminiscences, recollections and reflections.

The book concludes with a description of riesling events around the word, a table of Australian riesling producers by state and region and colour reproductions of Wine Australia’s regional maps.

The structure makes it, perhaps, more of an interesting reference book than a cover-to-cover read. It seems pitched at the riesling faithful rather than potential converts, something the variety sorely needs.

While riesling true believers and the trade might be the main audience targeted by Helm and Burgess, its appeal might have been widened with the addition of a little more narrative connecting the interesting material.

For example, one of the books many photographs, labels, memorabilia and period advertisements is a double-page advertisement, from way back in 1979, spruiking the virtues of Stelvin screw caps.

Now, if you’re not seeped in wine lore you won’t know the pithiness of this ad. There’s no caption or explanation helping readers connect the dots. Later in the book riesling legend John Vickery describes the acceptance of screw caps as “the most significant event in the improvement in quality of Australian rieslings”.

Screw cap’s success in Australia dates from the 1998 vintage of Vickery’s Richmond Grove Watervale and Barossa Rieslings, followed in 2000 by a group of Clare Valley Riesling makers. So how does this connect to an ad appearing in “Family Circle” in 1979?

The old ad marks the industry’s early push to replace cork with screw cap for quality reasons. Consumers didn’t buy the story at the time, and the effort failed.

But the screw-cap-sealed Pewsey Vale rieslings of that era matured beautifully, providing the impetus – and confidence – winemakers needed to try again, successfully, twenty years later.

Riesling has been all the better for it ever since. The story deserves a chapter of its own. And perhaps because the book speaks to the converted it glosses over the variety’s lack of commercial success in Australia.

A chapter on riesling viticulture, by Louisa Rose, Chief Winemaker for the Yalumba Wine Company, laments riesling’s perennially niche status. It sat doggedly at around two per cent of the national crush from 2005 to 2009, writes Rose. Adelaide Hills winemaker, Stephen George, states the position more starkly and personally. Why does he put so much time and effort into riesling when he wonders each year if he’ll be able to sell it?

That the challenge facing riesling is one of perception and consumer acceptance, not quality, is acknowledged in the book. But, like the screwcap story, it’s a theme that might have been elaborated, and used to convert the doubters.

This failure to elaborate on major themes is part of a general lack of narrative connecting the various sections of the book. But these are minor quibbles when we look at the depth and range of material assembled by Helm and Burgess. They acknowledge it as a reference work and a “guide on winery trips”, targeted at students of oenology, viticulture, winemakers and wine consumers – probably in that order.

For the general reader with an interest in wine, the most interesting section may well be the vignettes of leading riesling makers, published in alphabetical order.
Sifting through these, much of the story of modern Australian riesling emerges. Again, from the perspective of those not seeped in wine lore, this may seem fair and reasonable. But the section begs some narrative perspective. The makers contributed different things at different times.

How much more exciting might this section have been with an overview from the authors – explaining the significance of the early work done by Colin Gramp and Guenter Prass at Orlando and the extraordinary rieslings made by John Vickery at Leo Burings from the 1960s. These inspired the next generation of winemakers; and a tasting of Vickery’s old rieslings in 1997 led directly to the modern adoption of screw caps in 1998.

For committed riesling drinkers, makers and grape growers, Louisa Rose’s chapter on viticulture and Dr Leigh Francis’s chapter on riesling flavour are highlights.

Hopefully the book will spark lots of commentary and create new interest in riesling. Helm in particular has been a tireless promoter of the variety, and the Canberra district. We, the converted, love our rieslings and the comparatively low prices niche status brings. One day, maybe, the word will get out. And it will if Helm and Burgess have their way.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan

Book review: Wolf Blass — behind the bow tie

Wolf Blass — behind the bow tie
Liz Johnston, Fairfax Books 2009, $39.99

Old winemakers and merchants don’t retire. They push on past the golden years, working until they drop. At 75 years Wolf Blass remains the man behind the brand, owned by Fosters since 1996 – and out of his financial control since 1991, when Wolf Blass Wines and Mildara merged to become Mildara Blass.

He’s unquestionably one of the most influential figures of our modern wine industry. Wolf both tapped into and led public tastes across four decades, building an immensely successful brand in an industry more prone to disbursing wealth than creating it.

He deserves a book. But what credibility can we expect of an official biography (Fosters owns the copyright) marking Wolf’s 75th birthday, and launched in a blaze of publicity for the brand?

But scepticism is unfounded. Like all things associated with Wolf, there’s substance behind the fanfare. History isn’t rewritten; Wolf’s not canonised. Indeed, Liz Johnston gives us the best wine book in years. Like Wolf’s wine it’ll engage a wide audience.

It starts, of course, with an interesting subject – Wolfgang Franz Otto Blass. He was born into a wealthy German family in 1934, spent an adventurous, at times dangerous boyhood under the Third Reich in Stadtilm, Thuringia; and lived under American, British, French and Russian occupation after the war before settling and training as a winemaker in West Germany.

At age 22 he became cellarmaster for Karl Finkenauer at Bad Kreuznach; moved to England as wine chemist in 1957; and in 1961 emigrated to Australia to become sparkling wines manager at the Kaiser Stuhl Co-operative in the Barossa Valley.

He registered ‘Bilyara’ as a business name in 1966 and made small quantities of wine under this brand, while working full time at Tollana, the wine arm of United Distillers. In 1973 he started Wolf Blass Wines International; floated the hugely successful business in 1984 and merged it with Mildara to form Mildara Blass in 1991.

Fosters bought Mildara Blass in 1996 but retained Wolf as brand ambassador, a role he plays very actively today – travelling, promoting and working with the winemaking team, led by Chris Hatcher and Caroline Dunn.

But the book’s more than just a chronology. It’s a reflective work that puts Wolf and his life in historical context. Some of the most interesting and confronting bits cover his childhood in wartime Germany.

Some of it’s boys-own adventures like pilfering food from German supply trains between strafing runs by British Spitfire squadrons. But other memories continue to disturb Wolf today – for example, as a child he witnessed the beginning of the death marches from Buchenwald prison, located near his home.

Johnston writes of Wolf seeing prisoners shot and the corpses left on the roads – and being told that the victims were criminals and deserved their fate. It was years before Wolf realised what he’d witnessed as an eleven year old.

The toughness of the war years and the period of shortages that followed, though, helped shape a determined and resourceful Wolf Blass.

In Australia Wolf initially made sparkling wine for the ‘pearl’ styles, pioneered by Colin Gramp in the 1950s. But when he moved to Tollana under United Distillers began making the bright, fruity, easy-drinking styles that ultimately made the Wolf Blass brand famous.

The commercial history sprinkled through the book introduces us to other key figures that shaped our wine drinking habits, including Max Schubert (creator of Grange), Harry Brown (a remarkable, Sydney-based wine merchant), Len Evans and Peter Lehmann. But we also see the commercial players, notably Ray King, the man behind Mildara’s commercial success and later, the success of the combined Mildara and Wolf Blass. This was the industry benchmark for return on investment.

King must scratch his head wonder at the destruction of wealth in Foster’s wine division since its disastrous acquisition of Southcorp in 2005.

We learn a lot, too, about Wolf the promoter, the brand builder, the womaniser, the racehorse owner – a colourful and refreshingly frank, politically incorrect commentator. We see Wolf through others’ eyes – notably his wife’s and two exes. Now that is being frank.

It’s a terrific read and will appeal to different people at different levels – the human perspective, the wine perspective and the large wine industry view.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2009

Book review — The Australian beer companion, Willie Simpson, $49.95

This is the book Australian beer drinkers have been waiting for – a succinct chronicle of who’s brewing what, where. It’s written by journalist, turned specialty beer writer, turned brewer, Willie Simpson – an experienced beer sampler and keen judge of what’s important about each of the breweries described in the book.

The book starts with a few beer essentials: what goes into beer (including a brief history of hop-growing in Australia) and a summary of the major beer styles we’re likely to encounter. It’s jargon-free and written in plain English, but not dumbed down.

After that it’s a state-by-state tour of our brewers, big and small, starting with Willie’s top-five ranking. In the NSW and ACT section, for example, his selections are James Squire Pilsner, Wicked Elf Pale Ale, Wig & Pen IPA, Redoak Framboise Froment and Murray’s Dark Knight – an eclectic mix that includes beers from Australia’s second largest brewer (Lion Nathan’s James Squire) and Canberra’s tiny Wig & Pen.

The maps help us put the breweries in a place. And the pictures have been thoughtfully shot, capturing the personalities behind the beers as well as their breweries and products.

And the press release came with a wonderful Henry Lawson quote, “Beer makes you feel the way you ought to feel without beer”.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2009

Beer review — Cooper’s Vintage Ale 2009 and Newcastle Brown

Coopers Extra Strong Vintage Ale 2009 375ml $4.70
The five-star rating acknowledges delicious back vintages as well as the current release. It’s built to last, the preservatives being high alcohol (7.5%), assertive hops, deep malt flavours and bottle conditioning (living yeast in the bottle when packaged). It’s robust, fruity, malty and bitter – but harmonious. Drink now, but hold a few for later enjoyment.

Newcastle Brown Ale 330ml $3.75
While this is on the blander end of the ale scale, it’s only modestly alcoholic at 4.7 per cent, and offers attractive toffee and caramel like aromas and flavours. Together with the sweet, malt character this gives an attractive warming effect, while a decent tweak of hops dries the finish out nicely

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2009

Book review — ‘The Wine Diet’ by Roger Corder

Any book that puts wine at the centre of the diet can’t be all bad. It was enough to draw the Chateau Shanahan literary team beyond the me-too cover hype – the usual promises of eternal life, or something like it, if you follow this diet.

But as we read through the book we found not a panacea, but a discourse on nutrition enlightened by population studies and medical research down to the molecular level – and one family of molecules in particular.

On page 32 we meet this star molecule – procyanidin – or one version of it, anyway. Our arteries dilated just looking at tetra-epicatechin, a strapping chain of four epicatechin molecules.

But before we discuss the procyanidin family, we should meet Roger Corder, author of The Wine Diet.

The jacket tells us that he’s Professor of Experimental Therapeutics at the William Harvey Research Institute, London. It says ‘he has pursued research into cardiovascular function and the links between diabetes and heart disease for 25 years, with the aim of discovering new treatments for these ever-increasing health problems’.

Corder’s long trail to procyanidin begins with a recounting of the so-called French paradox. About 25 years ago, he writes, ‘French epidemiologists observed that the French had relatively low rates of coronary heart disease despite high consumption of saturated fat’.

Then in 1991 Dr Serge Renaud appeared on 60 Minutes and shook America with the idea that ‘regular wine drinking could account for the French paradox’. This, says Corder, ‘split experts into the camps of believers and non-believers’.

Scientists continued to study the protective effects, or not, of alcohol in general and of red and white wine.

Much of the research focused on the benefits of the polyphenols found in red wine – of which our hero, procyanidin, is but one form. These compounds are derived from grape skins and pips and, to a lesser extent, from oak storage vessels.

Further population studies tended to confirm a heart-protective effect from red-wine drinking. As scientist drilled down, they examined an apparent correlation between red-wine consumption and reduced platelet aggregation – a risk factor in blood clotting.

For others, the search shifted to the anti-oxidant properties of red-wine polyphenols. Could they prevent the oxidation of LDL-cholesterol (the bad one)? The belief was that as LDL-cholesterol (the bad one) accumulated under the endothelium (the non-stick coating inside blood vessels) it oxidised and could become a trigger for atherosclerosis (arterial blockage).

Clinical trials showed that, yes, red wine polyphenols did indeed suppress LDL oxidation – whether ingested as red wine, as white wine laced with red wine polyphenols or as an extract without alcohol.

Not surprisingly this and other similar studies, writes Corder, led people to attribute the ‘anti-atherosclerotic benefits of red wine to the antioxidant properties of its polyphenols’.

But as further trials with anti-oxidants showed little efficacy in reducing the incidence of heart attacks, scientists began ‘wondering whether they have any relevance’.

The headline anti-oxidant during this period was resveratrol, another member of red wine’s polyphenol family. Corder discusses the case for and against resveratrol but dismisses it, quoting fellow scientist George Soleas, writing in 1997, ‘resveratrol is a very minor player indeed, and may even more accurately be characterized as a spectator’.

Corder agreed with Soleas partly because the concentration of resveratrol used in clinical trials bore no relationship to the quite small quantities found in red wine.

Moving away from the anti-oxidant qualities of red-wine polyphenols, Corder sought to identify the ‘most important component of red wine for modifying vascular function and preventing atherosclerosis’.

His laboratory research showed that red wine suppressed synthesis of endothelin-1 – an agent known to narrow blood vessels, raise blood pressure and trigger ‘processes leading to atherosclerosis’.

Corder and his colleagues ultimately identified our friends, the procyanidin family, as the polyphenols contributing to blood-vessel health.

Corder’s subsequent research identified areas, most notably in Sardinia, Italy, and Madiran, France, where consumption of red wines with high procyanidin concentrations coincided with low rates of heart disease.

A great deal of The Wine Diet isn’t about wine all. Not even the procyanidin bit, as Corder details the dozens of common foods rich in these compounds – from apples to walnuts to chocolate.

And on wine itself, Corder has more caveats than Clayton Utz: only red wines contain procyanidins and their concentration varies enormously from wine to wine; the greatest benefit is to be had by drinking wine with meals, as this reduces peak blood alcohol level; that consumption must be moderate; and that for women regular wine consumption, even at low levels, increases the risk of breast cancer.

Perhaps of even greater interest than the mighty procyanidin molecule is Corder’s discussion of nutrition in general. The Chateau Shanahan team found this the most illuminating part of the book – a level headed discourse on how we might balance our energy intake amongst carbohydrate, fat and protein and a rundown on the nutrients we need, why we need them and what we’ll find them in.

As we said at the start, any book that prescribes wine in our diet can’t be all bad. And it gets better when we’re encouraged, as Corder does, to eat a wide range of fresh products.

The Wine Diet — Complete Nutrition and Lifestyle Plan, by Roger Corder. Published by Sphere, an imprint of the Little, Brown Group $29.99

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2007