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The terror of terroir

Opinion

Philip White is sick of Australia's kow-towing to imported wine experts.

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The Royal Adelaide Wine Show. Bloody Royal. Every major Australian capital city has one.

This writer lost interest in these royal plonk races many years ago. Not only cynical and exhausted by the notion of such giant wine competitions being run beneath a letterhead bearing the crown of the Germano-Greek family which rules Britain, like many others, I’m also tired of the guest preachers and teachers the Royal Show controllers ship out here to pat us on the head before giving us a lecture about how to make wine after three or four days tasting it with us.

And then, almost invariably, they tell us how little we should expect to be paid for it.

I mean, they go home, Poms, mainly, whisper in a few ears and have their buyer mates import their favourite discoveries, having screwed the Australian maker/supplier through the basement floor of the profit division. Then, if you’re lucky, unlucky or whatever, they’ll write about their “discovery” and recommend it in a newspaper or shiny magazine.

Not to mention the extra Brexit-triggered collapse of the pound, which is pushing the prices down even further. Or whatever influence Donald Trump eventually has on the value of the yankee dollah. To those enormous markets, export has never been more treacherous.

Another mob some Australian wine heavies kow-tow to are the so-called “sommeliers”, provided they come from abroad. This S-word comes from the old “sompter” which was a dude with a donkey or horse cart whose job it was to stock the cellars and pantries of great houses.

Now they tend to use their employer’s money to compile enormous wine lists of obscure things like the recent flood of murky hippy wines the colour of Donald Trump’s hair and as biologically mucked-up and challenging as his brain.

They love a list that’s so confusing in language, price and obscurities that the punter must depend then on their advice, which gives them the perfect opportunity to flog whatever has the best mark-up so they can make the list longer.

For many years, Brian Croser was chairman of judges at many of our royal wine shows. His approach has played a hugely significant role in the modern Australian wine industry.

As chairman of the Winemakers’ Federation of Australia, he played a key role in devising the highly contentious Wine Equalisation Tax and its even more contentious rebate, then pushed hard to have the National Wine Centre built in our Botanic Gardens.

The Wine Centre, which ended up costing the taxpayer something in the vicinity of $50 million, was in financial strife soon after opening. Now a glorified wedding house, it still provides handy offices for wine authorities like Wine Australia, of which Croser is deputy chair.

Not too bad, having an office in our sacred garden, just a stroll from the feederies and wine bars of the East End.

When Croser was deputy chancellor of the University of Adelaide in 2003, it took over the Wine Centre in an interminable peppercorn lease deal. Got the damn thing for near-enough to nothing.

Croser is back in contention in wine circles since announcing Wine Australia will spend $5.3 million to investigate the influence of terroir on Shiraz and host a junket for international sommeliers in April.

The deputy chairman has form in this matter of terroir. In 2009, he was instrumental in bringing the British wine critic Andrew Jefford and his family to Australia for a year to write a book explaining our terroir to us. While the Jefford family’s tenure was expensive, extended, and getting close to a decade ago, there’s still no book as far as I’m aware.

Apart from his naming of his Petaluma winery, Croser seems to have a fascination with California, where he did some wine studies in 1970. His current business, Tapanappa, has more than a coincidental reflection on the Napa Valley: one drives through Petaluma to get there from San Francisco.

Tappa Pass, near Angaston, was allegedly named after an Aboriginal term for pathway or track. The Tapanappa Formation, a metasandstone/metagreywacke part of the Kanmantoo Group schist, is mined at Kanmantoo and sold as “bluestone” for building.

This is a long way removed, both geologically and geographically, from Croser’s Koppamurra vineyard at Wrattonbully near Naracoorte. He renamed this Tapanappa Whalebone Vineyard after some old bones left stranded there in the limestone after the sea retreated about half-a-billion years after the Tapanappa schist was forming a four-hour drive to the north-west.

At least it’s not as far away as the Whalebone Vineyard in California. Its original website explains that particular one is “In the heart of Adelaida, west of Paso Robles [which] derives its name from the many whale and marine fossils trapped in the vineyards’ broken shale and limestone. Calcareous treasures were left behind after the underwater canyons and basins retreated … ”

In the marketing for his Tapanappa Whalebone Vineyard, Croser wrote: “The erosion of the limestone continued underground … and has formed a large cave complex exposing the bones of the 800,000-year-old whale in its walls below the vineyard. Such is the stuff that makes a unique terroir.”

So while he knows there’s no Tapanappa anywhere near his “unique” bone, it will be interesting to see whether Croser adjusts his nomenclature after somebody’s spent that $5.3 million on another investigation of our terroir.

“This is the most exciting and insightful research project I have seen undertaken in the Australian wine community in my 40-year involvement,” he said in his Wine Australia press release.

So. Imported names, imported experts, imported smellers, royal wine shows … somebody’d better keep a close eye on all this before it becomes just another very expensive right royal stuff-up.

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