The popular image of the Zen Buddhist is of someone quietly intense, gifted with lunar calm, whose infrequent actions are sudden, dramatic and awesomely effective. On the movie screen, they can generally fly, too.
I’ve always thought that this Zen caricature isn’t a bad winemaking model to follow, with its implied combination of rapturous concentration and disciplined inactivity interrupted by only the most judicious interventions.
If there is a critical fulcrum, though, a perfect Zen moment when the eyes gleam like diamonds and the hands pause with the readiness of a motionless heron perched over an unsuspecting frog, it is surely the moment at which the winemaker says: ‘Let’s pick!’ You could write a book on this one subject alone, and any winemaker who tells you that he or she always gets it right is either lying or stupid, and probably both.
It’s perennially difficult; Australia’s recent vintages, with their persistent drought and pulses of dramatic heat, have made it almost impossibly so. Every region and every variety
nuances the problem differently, but the fundamental challenge is to take the grapes from the vine at the point at which sugar, acidity, flavour and (for red grapes) tannin are in perfect harmony.
It’s tempting to bring the notion of the‘sweet spot’ – the point within a cluster of extremes disposed to deliver the most favoured outcome – into play here. It should theoretically be locatable in any distinguished site in most vintages. Excessive sun, heat, desert wind and drought, though, are all discombobulating factors, meaning that sugar accumulates
too rapidly, acidity disappears too quickly and the tannin and flavour ripeness beckoning from every winemaker’s memory seems chimerical. But you’ve got to make a decision; what’s it to be?
The late harvest decision, where the berries are picked somewhere between dimpled and dessicated, is deeply unfashionable in Australia at present, and high alcohol levels are often regarded as a badge of shame. Acid adjustment, the standard means of providing balance to rich, high-alcohol wines, is increasingly seen as a failed, bankrupt solution, delivering sweet-and-sour flavours with all the subtlety of a bag of lemon drops.
‘In the end,’ predicts the far-sighted Steve Webber of De Bortoli in the Yarra Valley, ‘we shouldn’t need to add acid to anything.’ Sandro Mosele of Kooyong on the Mornington Peninsula agrees: ‘I don’t want to add acid – yet I like acidity. So what do I do? I pick earlier.’ I heard this often on a visit to some of the fine-wine areas near Melbourne (the Yarra Valley, the Mornington Peninsula and Geelong).
The group of adventurous young winemakers calling themselves South Pack, for example, espouse it to a greater or lesser extent (they include Luke Lambert, Timo Meyer, Mac Forbes, William Downie and James Lance of Punch). They’re inspired not only by the thinking of established new-generation leaders like Webber and Mosele but also
by the historical example of wineries like the Yarra’s Mount Mary (whose Cabernet
has always been picked very early).
Chardonnay virtuoso David Bicknell of Oakridge in the Yarra teased me by claiming that his quest to make ‘minerally, tight, cleansing wine’ was my fault for having written over-enticingly about Chablis in The New France. Michael Glover of Bannockburn in Geelong, a deep-thinking classicist if ever there was one, also has his Zen picking moment unusually early, for both Chardonnay and Pinot.
Final alcohol levels for many of these growers’ wines are 12.5% or 12.8%. I suspect many Decanter readers will be cheering from the sidelines on reading this. Almost everything these winemakers are doing is so courageous and heartening, and such a proud rebuke to the industrialism which has led Australia to its present position, that I want to cheer from the sidelines myself. Yet, on this issue I would be doing these creative, freethinking winemakers a disservice if I didn’t inject a note of caution.
Some of these wines drink beautifully (see below). But others strike me as taking restraint too far towards skinniness. This is Australia. This is solar land. Great wines of place must be true to the place, not repress the place. There is a sweet spot in there somewhere. It may indeed be early ripeness rather than late ripeness, but ripeness must figure or the wines will under-deliver on the one quality no wine can afford to be without: pleasure.
I sometimes regret the fact that alcohol has to be labelled, since in a well-constructed wine of natural equilibrium, its precise level barely matters. What does matter is a serene inner architecture: poise, harmony and drinkability. That’s the quest, though it may at times be as difficult to attain as the answer to a Zen kõan.
Written by Andrew Jefford