GRAPE TALES

Greg Dun­can Pow­ell tours the cen­turies, and the coun­try’s key re­gions, for a brief his­tory of wine

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Indulgence -

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

their

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

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