A bullseye in the bag and an­other on the run

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Indulgence - James Halliday

IBE­LIEVE it to be a true story — rather than ur­ban myth— that a group of five vis­ited Stan­ton and Killeen’s cel­lar door one day: grand­fa­ther, mum and dad (the three tasters) and two chil­dren. The much-ad­mired Chris Killeen (who re­cently suc­cumbed to can­cer, aged only 53) gave a run­ning com­men­tary on the wines, cul­mi­nat­ing with one of his great vin­tage ports, only a few years old.

‘‘ This wine,’’ he said, ‘‘ needs 10 years at least, and will live for much longer if prop­erly cel­lared.’’

Grand­fa­ther, stand­ing at the back of the group, put up his hand and de­clared, ‘‘ Son, I have a prob­lem. Th­ese days I don’t even buy green ba­nanas.’’

As the days rush by re­morse­lessly to­wards my 70th birth­day (a decade or two got lost along the way) I am­for­ever re­mind­ing my­self of the folly of buy­ing green ba­nanas. But when a vin­tage such as 2005 in Bur­gundy comes along, cau­tion is thrown to the wind. The whites are very good, the red bur­gundies sheer mir­a­cles. I am go­ing to buy all I can get my hands on and hap­pily drink many of them long be­fore they have fully ripened. Th­ese are very spe­cial ba­nanas.

All the ex­perts agree this is the best vin­tage since the fab­u­lous 1978s and ’ 49s. Com­par­isons such as th­ese are in one sense in­vid­i­ous but ev­ery­one seeks some bench­mark for com­par­i­son.

The wines came from a grow­ing sea­son that had ev­ery­one guess­ing. June was dry and hot (an­other 2003?), then cool weather re­turned for the first half of July, fol­lowed by a warmer sec­ond half with some rain. This dis­ap­peared with a mini-drought through­out Au­gust but dot­ted through the first two weeks of Septem­ber with per­fectly timed and weighted light patches of rain.

The end re­sult was a mod­er­ate crop of per­fect, evenly ripened grapes with no rot. The skins were thick, the juice per kilo­gram low, the colour great, the tan­nins per­fect. They said in 2002 only a fool did not make good wine; in 2005 it proved dif­fi­cult not to make great wine.

The sup­ple fruit of th­ese 2005 wines is mirac­u­lous given that they have so much con­cen­tra­tion: the mid-palate has a crescendo of flavour, yet the wines drive through to an as­ton­ish­ingly long fin­ish. Within their cat­e­gories, the vil­lage wines, the pre­mier crus and the grand crus all leave you with a sense of dis­be­lief. How can such young wines have so much char­ac­ter, typ­ic­ity and flavour that you will be se­duced into drink­ing them long be­fore they reach their zenith?

Now there is the 2007 vin­tage, prov­ing the old tru­ism that no two vin­tages are the same. It will be very early, with the first grapes be­ing picked at much the same time as they were in the sear­ingly hot 2003 vin­tage. But the cir­cum­stances could hardly be more dif­fer­ent: spring ar­rived a month early in what was meant to be win­ter and rel­a­tively dry and warm soil pro­vided a boost to growth.

I usu­ally ar­rive in Bur­gundy at the be­gin­ning of May, the vine­yards still largely bare, the soil that invit­ing, warm red-brown run­ning up the sides of the Cote d’Or to the forested hill­tops. This year there was a sea of green, with not a glimpse of brown to be seen.

May pro­ceeded with cli­mate change on a day-by-day, hour-to-hour ba­sis, sunny one mo­ment, rain­ing the next. Crit­i­cally, the tem­per­a­ture var­ied around a bal­ance point of 20C, ideal for vine growth, not so much for flow­er­ing: para­dox­i­cally, a good thing, as the un­even berry size will re­duce the yield.

The Bur­gun­di­ans work on a 100-day pe­riod be­tween flow­er­ing and pick­ing and find it sur­pris­ingly con­sis­tent re­gard­less of the in­ter­ven­ing weather (un­less it be a 2003 con­tin­u­ous heat­wave). But what hap­pens when the start is ad­vanced by 30 days? The sec­ond half will see far more hours of daily sun­light and warmth.

This will shorten the 100 days to per­haps 90. Will this mean grapes will be­come sugar-ripe but not flavour-ripe? Will the seeds har­den as they should? Is this a fore­taste of fu­ture cli­mate pat­terns? May those pat­terns be even bet­ter than the last four decades of the 20th cen­tury? We can’t be cer­tain, but the ides of March are good.

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