Thursday, August 29, 2013

Yeringberg 1863 - 2013

Yeringberg 1863 - 2013 from ALF on Vimeo.

This is a short preview of a film photographer Adrian Lander and I are making about Yeringberg, an historic winery and vineyard in the Yarra Valley, celebrating its 150th anniversary in 2013: the clip starts with a painting of vintage at Yeringberg in 1875.
Third generation vigneron Guill de Pury tells the story of how his grandfather established one of the Yarra's grand 19th century wine estates; of how the young Guill grew up surrounded by history and memories after the original vineyard had been pulled out; and why in the late 1960s he re planted vines on the site his grandfather had chosen, and started making wine at Yeringberg again.
Original music by Dave Newington.
- This preview was put together to accompany a feature story on Yeringberg in the Aug/Sep issue of Gourmet Traveller WINE Magazine.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Australian Terroir - Belonging to Country

Samuel de Pury's vineyard, Yarra Valley, drawn c. 1898 by William Barak
© MEN (Musée d'ethnographie, Neuchâtel) Reproduced with permission

(In 2013 I hosted an event at the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival called Terroir = Belonging to Country, where guest speakers discussed Aboriginal notions of belonging and European concepts of terroir in an attempt to gain a deeper understanding of who and where we are. What follows was some background reading.)


In 2003, Clare Valley winemaker Jeffrey Grosset delivered the inaugural New South Wales Wine Press Club lecture in Sydney. His topic was terroir - that evocative French word describing how the country, climate and culture of a vineyard site produces wine that tastes unique. And what Grosset said that day was revolutionary.

‘Terroir is the French word for what some have known in Australia for thousands of years as pangkarra,’ he said. ‘Pangkarra is an Aboriginal word used by the Kaurna people of the Adelaide Plains. It is a word that, like terroir, represents a concept that has no English translation but encompasses the characteristics of a specific place – the climate, sunshine, rain, geology and the soil–water relations. About the closest we can get in English is to refer to the site, but even that doesn’t really cover the major components of terroir - or pangkarra - being the soil and the local topography. In essence, a wine has a certain taste not just because of the variety and vineyard management but because of its place. People who say, “this is my place, I belong here” are more likely to grasp the concept than people who say, “this is my place, this belongs to me”.’

Sitting in the audience, I was blown away by this imaginative leap of thought. Australian grape growers and winemakers have often used Aboriginal words to name their vineyards, wineries, regions and brands, and the use of Aboriginal imagery - from ‘dot paintings’ to Yellow Tail marsupials - is also widespread on wine labels. But here Grosset was travelling beyond the words and the images to engage with an ancient Aboriginal worldview, and by doing so was suggesting a new, profound and unique way of thinking about terroir in Australia.


Aunty Carolyn Briggs understands precisely what Jeffrey Grosset is talking about.

Aunty Carolyn is an elder of the Boon Wurrung people. For thousands of years, since long before white settlers arrived in Victoria in the early 1800s, the Boon Wurrung have been the traditional owners of the country that stretches from Werribee River, just to the west of present-day Melbourne, round the eastern side of Port Phillip Bay, down into the Mornington Peninsula and south to Wilson’s Promontory.

I have come to talk with Aunty Carolyn because the Melbourne suburb I live in is Boon Wurrung country, and I want to find out if there is a word in Boon Wurrung language that might be similar to the Kaurna word, pangkarra.

This to me was the most exciting implication of Grosset’s original lecture: that there must be or must have been dozens of different Aboriginal words that might capture or hint at the meaning or spirit of terroir, because Australia’s vineyards are planted in regions identified with dozens of discrete Aboriginal language groups. In some cases, the old language group areas are remarkably similar to the boundaries of modern-day Geographical Indications: the Yarra Valley wine region GI, for example, is almost the same shape on a map as the country of the Wurundjeri people.

It seems to me that if vineyard owners and winemakers in each region made an effort to find out whether there is or was a local word that comes close to terroir - and then asked the original speakers of that language for permission to use it - it could not only help to foster reconciliation and create a greater joint pride in country, but also help people tell their unique wine stories.

‘Yes!’ says Aunty Carolyn. ‘You’re talking about the diversity of each of Australia’s lands. They are not all the same. And the wines they produce aren’t all the same. They don’t all produce bloody Yellow Tail.’

In Boon Wurrung language, she tells me, the word ‘beek’ means country, as in land. In the same way that the Latin word ‘terra’ means country, as in land. But she doesn’t know of a Boon Wurrung word that comes closer to the spirit of terroir. And she reminds me that, because it was an oral tradition, never written down, much of the Boon Wurrung language is lost.

‘But Boon Wurrung language is similar to the language they speak in the Yarra Valley’ she says. ‘We share a lot of words with the Wurundjeri people.’


Wurundjeri country covers what is now the city of Melbourne and runs upriver into the land where the Yarra Valley vineyards are now planted. One of the most famous Wurundjeri men was William Barak, head man of his tribe, who was born before the white settlement of Melbourne in 1835, and who died a couple of years after Federation.

During his later life, William Barak became great friends with the de Pury family, then - as now - winegrowers in the heart of the Yarra Valley. Around 1898, Barak made a painting of Samuel de Pury’s vineyard - an astounding image of orderly vine rows nestled among plunging, tree-covered hillsides.

Barak’s great, great niece is Professor Joy Murphy Wandin, a respected Wurundjeri elder. When I visit her at her home in Healesville to discuss Jeffrey Grosset’s ideas, she, too, immediately understands. She, too, initially suggests a very similar word, bik: ‘It means country, as in soil’. Then she shakes her head and pauses.

‘That word terroir,’ she says. ‘I reckon it also means belonging to country: where the growth comes from. And that word in our language would be ngooleek. Belonging. Sometimes there’s not a lot of commonality between English and Aboriginal words. But I think this is close.’

Like her great, great uncle, Aunty Joy has had some associations with local wine people: in the early 1990s, Yering Station winery released a wine featuring Barak’s name and story, and came to her to ask for permission and help.

‘I remember when they were developing the Barak’s Bridge label,’ she says. ‘It was a nice connection - apart from the simple courtesy of asking. Being able to acknowledge the original landowners and the history on a wine label was quite special to me. It was as important as if it was my own project. When I saw that Barak label, it gave me a great enormous pride of belonging.’

Imagine if Yarra Valley grape growers and winemakers were to adopt the word ngooleek as their own, unique local expression of the concept of terroir.

‘Oh, it would be so good for my children to be able to buy wine with language on it,’ says Aunty Joy. ‘Wurundjeri language is so beautiful, and it’s not known. Language is the belonging of your culture. It’s about who you are. It’s the voice of who you are. When I speak language, it’s who I am.’


(This is an extract from my book The Future Makers, Australian wines for the 21st century, published 2010)


UPDATE, 20 May 2013: All the way over on the other side of Australia, Margaret River winemaker, Rob Mann of Cape Mentelle, is also engaging with this idea. Read his thoughts about making wine in Wadandi Boodjar - 'ocean country' in Nyungar language - in the latest edition of Mentelle Notes.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Australia NZ Organic Wine Show - awards dinner

The Australia / NZ Organic Wine Show is taking place next week. The top wines will be announced at a dinner at Agape Organic Restaurant and Bar, 1385 Botany Road, Botany on Friday evening. The event kicks off at 5pm with an opportunity to taste a wide selection of wines entered into this year’s show, followed by a three-course dinner featuring certified organic produce matched with wines from last year’s winning vineyards. There’s also the chance to win a signed copy of my latest book, The History of Australian Wine: Stories from the Vineyard to the Cellar Door.

$97 pp. includes
Tasting, Dinner with Wines, Raffle Ticket

 Bookings Essential – online at or call 
02 8668 5777

to stay up-to-date with the show

Monday, February 4, 2013

Going with the flow: natural wines at Rootstock Sydney

Natural wines polarise people. Supporters love the whole organic, minimal intervention vibe and the unforced, juicy flavours they find in most natural wines. Critics hate the whole achingly trendy hipster scene and the cloudy, volatile flavours they say they find in all natural wines.

You know which side I’m on. I’ve been banging on for years about biodynamic farming and sulphur-free wines and fringe-dwelling winemakers. And the more I immerse myself in the natural wine movement, the more it appeals to me: it chimes with how I feel about so many other things in life.

Take photography. Ever since I started fancying myself as a mini Max Dupain, I have always avoided using a flash, much preferring natural light. If taking a photograph is about capturing not only a moment but also our experience of that moment, then I would much rather make do with what’s really available in that moment than impose the intrusive glare of the flashbulb - even if the end result is a bit blurry.

Take music. I love the acoustic Americana of Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings, who famously record their simple duets - just them and their guitars - in single takes, no overdubs, no tweaking. The performance that makes it to the final record is the one that best captures the spirit of the song, even if Dave plays a couple of bum notes, or Gillian’s voice cracks a little toward the end.

As Gillian once told a journalist, she and Dave accept what other artists would call “mistakes” and rough edges as long as they don’t interfere with the heart of the matter. For her, it’s more important to distil the essence of the song onto tape than give a flawless performance.

Or take philosophy. I had a fascinating conversation recently with Steve Lloyd-Moffett, a Californian religious studies professor who is writing a book about the connections between religion and wine. He draws a fabulous parallel between the minimal-intervention approach of natural winemakers and the Taoist principle of wu wei.

“Literally translated, wu wei means ‘non-action’,” says Steve, “But it is not valuing doing nothing. It means not forcing a solution or seeking to gain control but being aware and going with the natural flow. Think of it more as active non-interference.

You will have the opportunity to taste heaps of delicious natural wines - wines that might be a bit blurry and might hit the odd bum note but have actively not been interfered with and are definitely full of heart - at Rootstock, the Sustainable & Artisan Wine and Food Festival, taking place on Sunday February 17 at The Italian Forum in Leichhardt.

(A version of this column first appeared in The Weekend Australian, 2nd February 2013. All photographs were taken by me on an old Olympus OM1. On 35mm film. Using natural light. )

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

This is Scoring Wine

The 100-point system of rating wine continues its relentless march towards global domination. Until recently, the only place you would see a wine with a score out of 100 was in a written wine review. Now the 100-point system is also set to replace the 20-point system traditionally used in Australian wine competitions.

Earlier this year the Sydney Royal Wine Show trialed the new method of judging in some of its classes; wines at the just-completed Royal Queensland Show were scored out of 100 rather than 20; and the Canberra International Riesling Challenge in October will also be moving to this new system.

It’s not just an Australian phenomenon, this obsession with big scores. Even that bastion of old-school wine appreciation, Decanter magazine in the UK, has this month ditched its old five star rating system in favour of points out of 100.

Sigh. Regular readers know that I am no fan of scoring wine. It makes as much sense to me as scoring a sunset. Yes, some sunsets are more beautiful than others. But two or three points more beautiful? Reducing such a subjective, multi-faceted sensory experience to such a precise number seems to be, well, missing the point.

But I am obviously in a dwindling minority. Doling out the points is clearly here to stay. So, adopting the can’t-beat-‘em-join-‘em principle, from now on I will start scoring wine too. And I’m very excited about the new rating method I’ve devised: where most blokes only go up to 100, my scoring goes up to 110.

In a nod to nostalgia, I’m going to allocate a maximum of 20 points for quality - complexity and persistence of flavour, all the usual jazz. But I’m also going to award 10 possible points for funkiness: whereas most judges would give lower scores for a touch of volatile acidity or cloudiness or a whisper of brettanomyces (a ‘spoilage’ yeast), for example, I’ve realised that I actually like finding these agricultural characters in wine: I think they can make it more interesting and more delicious with food. So actually, no, bugger it: let’s make that 20 possible funky points. Boo-yah!

I’ll give up to 10 points for packaging. After all, who doesn’t love a cool label, a heavy imported bottle and a wax capsule? Another 10 possible points for obligatory greenness (sustainable, organic, carbon neutral - all the touchy-feely stuff). And 20 points for food-friendliness because it’s so important: I’m going to ask winemakers to recommend a specific dish for each wine sample they send me, which I will then have the kitchen staff in my tasting facility cook up and serve alongside the tasting glass. Ten bonus points will be awarded for any wines fermented in clay amphorae.

I’m also going to give up to ten points for value: the better the QPR (that’s “quality-to-price-ratio”, apparently: it comes with its own logarithm), the higher the score (I’ll be deducting points for wines that are obviously overpriced, opportunistic and ostentatious). And finally, I’m leaving another ten points to play with just depending on how I feel on the day.


A version of this article first appeared in the Weekend Australian A Plus on 21 July 2012