Greg Duncan Powell tours the centuries, and the country’s key regions, for a brief history of wine
IT was once said of salt that it makes its presence felt by its absence. Apparently, if deprived of salt for too long, humans have a tendency to chew dirt. I feel much the same way about wine. Bereft of wine I might not actually eat soil, but metaphorically my dinners would be dirt.
Without wine, food is soulless. There’s nothing to lift it off the plate apart from the basic mechanics of fork and spoon. Eating food without wine is refuelling, it’s not feasting. Every meal is breakfast. Life is a permanent Methodist picnic, an eternal weekend with your teetotaller aunty.
A wineless existence is almost too horrible to contemplate. Humans and wine are, after all, inseparable. The relationship goes back thousands of years. The first evidence of cultivated vines are found in the republic of Georgia and date back to 7000-5000BC. But winemaking was going on way before then. Piles of fossilised grape pips have been found, suggesting winemaking dates back to the Stone Age.
A ripe grape is the only fruit with enough natural sugar to produce enough alcohol to make a liquid that will be relatively stable and keep bacteria at bay. No wonder that in prerefrigeration times, when most of what went into people’s bellies was off or nearly off, wine was regarded as medicine.
Wine is made from grapes but the real credit should go to Vitis vinifera ,a truly amazing plant. There are about 40 sub-genus of Vitis , the grape vine. There’s Vitis riparia (from river banks) and Vitis rupestris (rock loving) to name a few, but the one that has spread throughout the world and given so much pleasure is Vitisvinifera , which means ‘‘ wine bearing’’.
Vitis vinifera evolved from vines from the Asian Vitis species, and the thing that now distinguishes vinifera from its wild Asian cousins is that its genes are heterozygous.
An excellent Scrabble word, heterozygous means that an organism will not breed true to type: its genes are constantly in a state of flux. This makes the grape vine surprisingly adaptable. It’s also a hermaphrodite. Wild vines are a mixture of fruitless males and fruiting females, but not vinifera ; she (or he) has done away with the need for bees and can propagate vegetatively, and bud mutation is common.
The mutating grapevine is the reason for all the varieties, for all the tastes, for all the talk of terroir and for wine tosserdom in general. It is the unstable nature of the vine that makes viticulture and winemaking so interesting and makes wine so much more than fermented fruit juice. Without those mutations and the subtle (and not so subtle) differences, we might be drinking it but we wouldn’t be talking about it, showing off about it or writing about it.
The wine tosser is not a new species. They are as old as wine itself, and were satirised by Horace in 1BC. In fact, the only difference between the wine scene then and now, apart from details such as the use of amphorae and the lack of Riedel stemware, were the wines.
Some of the descriptions sound a bit strange to our tastes: ‘‘ Brown liquids which take light when flame is applied to them’’, and wines ‘‘ bitter and impossible to drink without adding water’’. But these sorts of descriptions were unusual.
Romans had a sweet tooth and the food they prized was flavoured almost out of recognition with such diverse ingredients as honey and fermented fish sauce, so it’s not surprising that the wines they favoured tended to be unctuous and sweet.
Many of the great vineyards of Rome still exist but no longer seem to produce the wines that Pliny and his mates raved about. The famous falernian is still made where it was, is still amber in colour but not very good. Alban exists now as frascati, that lean, rather bland Italian white grown southeast of Rome.
The Roman viticulture manuals recommended vines be tied to stakes the height of a man, with rows of vines two paces wide and two paces apart, and that’s still the way many vineyards are laid out across Europe.
Later, as the Christian church established itself, the vine found other custodians. Monasteries and wine have a long connection, both in cultivation and consumption. St Benedict, who founded the Benedictine order in AD529, recommended about half a pint of wine a day for each monk, but was prepared to be a bit flexible depending on the monk’s constitution. The monasteries produced it and the powerful bishops fought over those dioceses that produced the best wine.
The truth is that be it a simple barbecued sausage or a freshly peeled prawn or shrimp, consumption with wine is the finishing touch. Wine is available in hundreds of flavours or grape varieties.
A correct matching of region to grape variety is usually the reason a wine tastes good. It’s all about the intricate workings of different grape varieties and particular climates, soils and seasons.
Here are 13 varieties with Australian regions:
Sparkling wine, Tasmania: Our smallest state is fast becoming Australia’s Champagne. Launceston is our Reims and Hobart is Epernay; the cool summers and long ripening periods are perfect for growing chardonnay and pinot noir (the official grapes of Champagne in France).
Riesling, Clare Valley, South Australia: The Clare Valley, northeast of Adelaide, just before the desert, is home to our most reliable rieslings: limey, minerally wines. They reward cellaring for several years.
Sauvignon blanc, Adelaide Hills, SA, and
best Marlborough, New Zealand: Slow ripening is the key to their flavour and structure.
Semillon, Hunter Valley, NSW: North of Sydney, this isn’t the ideal grape-growing region and it often rains just before harvest, leading cloud-watching vignerons to harvest their fruit before complete ripeness. Voila, Hunter semillon style was born: clean, lean, citric, low in alcohol and with the acidity to guarantee longevity in the cellar, it is unique.
Chardonnay, Yarra Valley, Victoria: Some cleverly run professional wineries with quite a bit of experience mean that the duds are few and far between.
Cool-climate pinot grigio: Good ones are emerging from Tasmania and the Victorian areas of the Mornington Peninsula and King Valley.
Botrytis semillon, Riverina, NSW: Griffith and Leeton are the capitals of ‘‘ noble rot’’. The long, dry autumns are perfect for botrytis to shrivel the semillon and add all those marmalade and dried-apricot flavours.
Pinot noir, Yarra Valley, Victoria: There are plenty of cool places that can produce a worthy pinot noir but not with the consistency of flavour and cost-effectiveness of the Yarra Valley.
Sangiovese, King Valley, Victoria: The pretty King Valley in the state’s northeast is fast becoming Australia’s Italy where grapes are concerned.
Shiraz, central Victoria: There are many subregions, but the brief is the same: spicy, peppery, juicy and drinkable.
Shiraz grenache, McLaren Vale, SA: Here you’ll see old, gnarled, untrellised vines, socalled bush vines. These are grenache vines, the secret behind the blend. A style based on the red wine of France’s Cotes du Rhone, though the Aussie version is a bit gutsier.
Cabernet shiraz, Barossa Valley, SA: This blend is an Australian invention and something to be proud of. It fleshes out the spots where cabernet is lacking and adds a few high notes and bass notes on the aroma front.
Cabernet, Margaret River, Western Australia: Coonawarra is the traditional region, but in elegance, sheer class and cabernet upper-crustiness, Margaret River is superior. They might be a bit lighter and you have to pay serious money for a good one, but the taste of a quality Margaret River cabernet stays in your olfactory memory forever. This is an edited extract from ThePig,the OliveandtheSquid by Greg Duncan Powell (Murdoch Books, $36.95).
Long history: Evidence of the cultivation of vines dates back to 7000-5000BC but winemaking was happening a long time before that