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The vintage when John Clarke died


Despite its extremes of climate, this year will always be remembered by wine writer Philip White as the vintage when we lost the delightful John Clarke.

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Once a person accumulates a serious collection of vintages, and I mean years, not bottles, the lazy brain tends to use identifiers other than the actual number of the year. You know, like ’83 was bushfire and flood, ’11 was the wettest ever, ’71 was bloody perfect.

Many other vintages, like people, just seem to march away in the line to obscurity, forgettable, featureless.

The flak wasn’t too bad when I listed the official weather and climate records broken in the lead-up to the harvest of ’17: although there were far too many, it seemed, for some winemakers to digest. No, no, no, they said, conditions are ideal. Yes, it was wet but now it’s not. Yes, it was hot but now it’s cold. Yes the yields are very high but so is the quality. No the winds are not really any different this year but they do seem to blow around a lot sometimes. Yes there were a lot of yellow leaves earlier on but they all fell off in that gale. No it wasn’t it was a zephyr. Did it rain too much in Coonawarra? Oh there was a fair bit of it over that fence there but if never actually rained here. Like not right here. Nah, that wasn’t rain.

I can assert that there’s a lot of Shiraz around that seems a little hollow in the middle. Like it’s not as bad as the Stephen King cover with the house with all its doors and windows open, the lights on and the curtains all blowing out, but you know that whatever’s in the middle is not quite the one that was there that other year when everything was just a lot more peace-in-the-valley.

Time will tell.

I can say there’s some exquisite Cabernet reclining in oak and tank along these South Mount Lofty Ranges, and it’s not just the overt amount of unplucked leaf present to jack up the variety’s normal herbaceous index: it’s real serious pretties in the best ground. Same, dare I say, with Grenache. Great perfumes in great sites.

I trust that his very saddening death reminds us all about the importance of that sort of humble greatness that is so rarely recognised or given room to move.

I can report some utterly forgettable Chardonnay. And some of scary finesse. Many curious odds and sods of new varieties. Who leaked in the Savvy-B? Nobody. Of course. Many fine sites, many fine varieties still hanging, in hope, all over the state. I daren’t mention Clare Riesling: I’ve already had such a contradictory variety of Rizza reports that I’m not picking any of them until the wine’s in a bottle in front of me.

One curious thing. It is a thing. It’s a whole generation of winemakers who haven’t experienced what we used to call a normal year. Like it went on for week after week, more gentle like this. This was normal. Now we suddenly have this slow one like the olden days everyone’s recalibrating. It’s not always a panic.

But no, I’m not gonna attempt to round that all up into a neat digestive curve ball that just hangs there in the air waiting to be slapped.

Bigger things than that going down.

I’m already referring to 2017 as The Year John Clarke died whilst walking round the Grampians photographing wild birds with his wife.

By Bacchus he was such a lovely bright spark. I can never forget finding him in the rabble of the old Universal Wine Bar in its heyday, sitting at a front table with the simple glee of a delighted schoolboy. He had such bright curious eyes that seemed to suck at every radiation you exuded so thoroughly and forensically yet somehow at the same time comfort you with casual reassurance so well you forgot about what they’re seeing while also you just happen to forget to talk. If you dropped your line of vision from his eyes you hit that charming, disbelieving, cheeky grin. My goodness.

Just coincidentally, but maybe it’s not, there was a big slice of demeanour Clarke shared with Dr Ray Beckwith (1912-2012), the great Penfolds wine scientist. This was an unswerving faith in their own curiosity. To my eye, they were both dazzled by what their curiosity handed them. They followed it around.

It’s cheap and easy to whinge about the wine industry, the ethanol biz, not having a Clarke to mimic it publicly. Or a Beckwith hidden within, plastering its walls and corporate mentality with bright science. History now shows that even in its ridicule of politics, colonial Australia has afforded only one John Clarke. I trust that his very saddening death reminds us all about the importance of that sort of humble greatness that is so rarely recognised or given room to move.

If there are such brains out there in the wine community how would we know? Would they get a voice? Where?

Which leads me to the matter of, how you say, ‘pairing’ drinks and grief. I’m almost convinced wine is no good as an assuager of grief. When the skinny old bloke with the scythe comes scratchin’ up the lane I reach for the distilled peated oak-cured spirit of John Barleycorn. It has a more direct gravity and cooler geometry than the romantic drinks.

Within that scaffolding I’ll be following my nose til it lights me up.

Oh? What’s that? Follow it into the vintage outside? Sure! That’ll be the year John Clarke died photographing birds in the Grampians.

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