Religion, like politics, is considered conversationally off-limits. That’s why chat can be dull: the interesting topics glitter icily to one side, forever out of reach. Yet the assumption that mature adults can’t balance emotion and reason is flawed, as is the idea that we can brook no contradiction of our beliefs and convictions. So, when a winemaker tells me that he’s ‘working hand-in-hand with the Creator’, I listen. This has to be more interesting than a list of barrel suppliers.
The co-worker is Tim Kirk of Clonakilla, sited at Murrambateman in Canberra District. As we talked, he produced a delicious phrase: ‘the theology of wine’. What might this mean? ‘As a
practicing Catholic Christian,’ he said, ‘I have a fundamental belief that there is love in the universe, that there is a divinity, that God is a good God and that he creates the universe out of love.
There are several means through which God is revealed, and of course the primary means is through creation. Anyone – whatever creed, colour, background –
can look at the earth and be in awe of the beauty of the created universe.
‘I love the idea that the wine grower has this gift of working with the landscape, with the created universe, with the sacred earth, to create something of beauty. I am just part of the terroir. The glory is to God because it is His wonderful world. To me, great wine is proof that somewhere in the heart of creation there must be goodness.’
Tim Kirk is trained only in theology and has no wine science degree. Yet for me, his wines are among the most technically assured in the country. And his inspiration is plainly one of religious rapture. You may be nonplussed, as I was at first – but why? If a winemaker believes that God has entrusted him or her with a task of this magnitude, their attention to
detail should be limitless.
This, so far as we know, was how great Burgundy first came into being, in monkish hands.
Happily, God also took the precaution of endowing Tim Kirk with an exceptionally good palate – and guided him to the Rhône valley back in 1991–1992, where Kirk found wines which he described in almost visionary terms as ‘ethereal’ and ‘pure’.
He added that he then made the decision to ‘move away from the traditional Aussie style of Shiraz’ towards something which might replicate that ethereal quality. Clonakilla now produces Australia’s best Shiraz-Viognier and a suite of other outstanding wines, too.
I’m interested in the Kirk palate. Clonakilla wines have a wonderfully sensual quality.
Few in Australia judge their acid additions more sensitively, manage their barrels more effectively, use whole bunches to finer structuring effect than Kirk does. His wines are seamless and beguiling. He speaks of Viognier as a ‘satin nightgown kind of variety’. I
wonder when he picks his Shiraz. ‘I pick it when it’s beautiful,’ he says, with such
disarming sincerity that I’m strangely happy with what might otherwise be considered an evasive or flippant reply.
He loves Shiraz, he says, because it has ‘a warm heart. It’s like an ember, a fire: maternal, comforting.’ I’m curious, because religion is associated with selfabnegation and withdrawal, and the spiritual regarded as a retreat from the sensual. Could he, I wonder, be a hedonist? He seemed taken aback, and affirmed his belief in ‘moderation and self-control’, but returned to stressing that his is a ‘very optimistic theology – I love the goodness of God and the wonder of creation, and that’s manifested in a most distinct way through wine. But you have to know when to stop.’
I then remembered a remark Douglas Neal of Paradise IV in Geelong had made to me: ‘Have you smelled the fear in Australian winemakers?’ Neal’s theory (he is a historian) is that the technical training winemakers receive in Australia ‘promotes fear. It tells you that nature is the enemy.’ Tim Kirk has the serenity I envy in those whose religious belief is
assured, and accepts what nature brings him. Even in its diabolical moods – as in
November 2006, when he lost 90% of the 2007 harvest to frost.
‘Being fundamentally optimistic, we thought “How can we turn disaster into triumph?” So we began sourcing grapes from other local vineyards which hadn’t been affected by frost. That was how the O’Riada Shiraz came into being. We love it. We’ve expanded the vision as a consequence of the disaster. So no, I’m not afraid. Often stressed, but not afraid.’
Kirk’s religious rapture, of course, is a gift that can’t be taught. Yet there are secular, agnostic equivalents – in poetry more generally, and humane reverence for the intricate mechanisms of nature. One day, I hope, they too will form part of a winemaker’s training.
Written by Andrew Jefford