It’s very cool, Penfolds boss winemaker Peter Gago being awarded his Companion of the Order of Australia. The thought of a nation bestowing its greatest award upon a bloke who makes really expensive wine seems to mark a new boundary, a new outpost of belligerent defiance in a world devoid of sense, truth or direction.
As well as a certain degree of winemaker-as-rock-star, this notion has a delightful sense of the larrikin.
But in his many interviews yesterday, it was typical to hear Pete explain how he uses his astonishing wine collection to teach others. I, for one, have been blessed to share many very special bottles on those rare occasions when he’s in town and not winemaking.
I know of nobody so generous, tireless and determined to hike the image of Australian wine internationally. Bacchus only knows how many hundreds of millions difference he’s made to Australia’s export figures. Pete’s always on a plane somewhere between top-flight tastings in LA, Moscow and Shanghai, plotting which bottles he’ll remove from protective custody upon his return to Adelaide.
He also pointed out that his award lifts wine into a world usually reserved for sportspeople, the arts, science, public servants and warriors.
And then he reminded me that Penfolds winemakers before him had been similarly honoured: “Max Schubert AM, Dr Ray Beckwith OAM, Don Ditter OAM … they set it up and did the heavy lifting,” he said, and then listed other critical members of the Grange family: “Ditto, Steve Lienert, John Bird, Baldy, Kym … of late. Lucky me happened to be holding the ball when they took the pic!”
Peter was pre-eminent among winemakers to acknowledge the challenges climate change presents to the wine world. “This is the fifteenth vintage in a row when I’ve had to recalibrate my definition of extreme,” he told me during the record wet of 2011.
The only thing that hasn’t changed since then is the relentless rate of change. He’s fortunate that his most famous wine, the Grange, was designed from the start to be a trans-region blend of the best fruit available, making it unusual among the world’s best reds, as most are estate-based, from single sites, and therefore limited in the avenues of flavour possible as climate gets more ornery.
Wine has certainly seen much change since Peter started work at Penfolds in 1989. There’s only one thing more certain than that reality: in the next decades we’re going to see a lot more radical transformation in this business of rehydration and gastronomic relish, and it’s not just confined to the wine realm.
Having come from a staunchly teetotal family, I can’t see wine as a separate entity among beverages: it’s simply one of the more extravagant, dangerous and mythologised. The human spend on drinks, of course, spreads to cover other liquids, from coffee, tea and Bonox through the fizzy, sugary world to juices, milk and water: all fields facing phenomenal challenge through environmental, ecological, social and economic upheaval and changing extremes of weather and pestilence.
The goddam coffee berry borer, for example, about the worst thing a coffee grower can contemplate, has just hit New Guinea – one of the world’s last two coffee-growing sites to be devastated out of about 60 producing countries. With exhausted budgets and little chance of slowing the spread, they’re putting up roadblocks in infested areas, but facing the reality of losses around the 80 per cent mark.
New Guinea is also now host to huánglóngbìng – “The Yellow Dragon” – a bug, the Asian citrus psyllid, Diaphorina citri, which spreads the deadly citrus greening disease which has in recent years ravaged the groves of California, Florida and South America. Australia is the only country yet to have the pleasure. It’ll come with the breeze. No solution in sight.
The tea world is in chaos, too, not just from changing climate and newly-developing plagues and pests, but social expectation. While there are tea fiends as obsessed as to pay Grange prices for a few strands of brilliant leaf, dealers are at last realising that the expert folk who pick such stuff are generally undernourished and barely-paid itinerants. As is happening with some success in the coffee “fair trade” system, the employment side of the vast tea business is undergoing some overdue upheaval, starting in Assam. If you think the pluckers and graders of that best of all teas are hard done by, imagine how the pickers of teabag dust are treated. Lots to address there. Like making toilets available.
There’d be no Grange without water: all these things are inextricably entwined
Coffee’s in more trouble than social in South America. Extreme temperatures, drought and disease are delivering miserable yields, and while growers are looking to move to more suitable colder, damper, higher bastions, these are fast running out. Leaf rust, a fungus, cost the world’s coffee producers more than $2.5 billion and 1.7 million jobs in the last five years.
In South America, equatorial drought is also giving hell to the winemakers of Chile and Argentina: there’s a big emigration of serious players moving their vineyards to Patagonia.
Meanwhile, the vineyards of Europe face incredible shortages and horrors. Shocking weather has just knocked up to half the buds off the French vignoble.
What’s another important bevvy flavour? Vanilla? Don’t go there. The bean of the Vanilla planifolia orchid has also been flinching in this new weather: cyclones and hurricanes have kicked the business hard in Madagascar, which produces 80 per cent of the world’s supply of its favourite flavour. The price of vanilla has increased tenfold in five short years.
Outside of inferior petrochemical simulations, there is no solution in sight.
Milk, like all these beverages, deserves its own essay. The plight of the Australian dairy farmer is no brighter. Which is related to the availability and price of water as much as to the strangulating price-chopping supermarket duopoly. Which is another fairly important drink, especially to the weaned: you can’t beat the old fresh water.
And when there’s not too much of it splooshing down in inconvenient places, even that’s running out … just in time for US researchers to finally discover water receptors on the mammalian tongue, adding some logic to the tired old sweet, sour, salt, bitter and umami reception mantra.
Which is where it all happens, from Grange to greengages … putting pressure on other great Gago-like creative, scientific brains to further stretch the envelope of beverage reality, luxurious and essential. Like the University of Manchester researchers now using modified graphene oxide membranes to filter salt ions from brackish water, making it quite safe to drink.
Any invention that can unlock the 97 per cent of Earth’s available water which is dangerous for humans is a very big deal: 1.2 billion of us currently lack access to reliable supplies of clean drinking water.
There’d be no Grange without water: all these things are inextricably entwined, and this writer for one is certain we shall see great brains that like formidable Penfolds list work together to devise brilliant solutions that the rest of the world has not even dreamed of: solutions that please our petty desires for titillation and luxury as well as supplying us with the sorts of liquids essential for life to continue.
Congratulations, Peter Gago AC!
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