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How far has wine writing come? That’s the $3000 question

Wine

Philip White ponders the ways his colleagues in the press corp have regarded the $3000 Penfolds G3, perhaps the most discussed Australian wine of the era.

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“There is no one in South Australia who has a better ‘nose’ than Mr. Mazure. If you take him a bottle of wine he can tell you where it comes from. On the day of my visit Mr. E.P. Clarke, the Inspector of Distilleries, arrived over from Stonyfell with Mr. H. Martin. The Inspector produced a bottle of sherry, which he said he had brought from Mr. Tolley’s. Mr. Mazure smelt and tasted the sample, and then remarked ‘Well Mr. Tolley must have got it from Stonyfell, because that is where this wine was made.’ And he was right. South Australian wine has improved out of all knowledge since Mr. Mazure first landed on these shores.”

-The South Australian Vintage 1903 By Ernest Whitington from “The Register.” (friends of the State Library of South Australia 1997; curated and introduced by Valmai Hankel)

That was written long before journalists began to write much about the aromas and flavours of wine. Nobody dared analyse wine much. If wine was written of, my mob merely reported the condition of the joint, the aspect of the vineyard, and the types and gallons in store.

On reporting a Mazure Kanmantoo St George’s red of those days, Whitington went as far as to say the folk at that table all thought it was the “white seal French” but they would never attempt descriptors as are now common.

Mazure held court those days at the Auldana cellars. It was there, and later at Romalo, opposite Penfolds Grange, that he perfected his St Henri Claret.

 

He seemed to hover over the table a month back when Peter Gago poured a bottle of the exquisite 1971 vintage of the wine, as made by Max Schubert and his crew there at Magill. The ace Sydney wine critic Huon Hooke was there to share it. There are very few bottles of that great vintage left in captivity – Peter had taken our bottle from his own private collection.

With other journalists, we’d just had the first taste of the new-release Penfolds Collection and the already mythologised – and sold out – $3000 Penfolds G3.

That drink, in my opinion, has to be one of the most stylised and distinctive wines of the era. Right from the start, I was curious to see how each writer would regard and report it.

In The Real Review, Huon echoed Peter’s suggestion that the wine was a tribute to the great blender-winemakers of the past, like Max, but was also “a graphic example of the idea that a successful blend produces something greater than the sum of the individual parts. It seems to me, having tasted the wine, that he is correct.”

Without listing the berries and whatnot the wine evoked in his imagination, Huon reported: “The wine was aged for an extra period of time in oak after the blending, which could explain the astonishing concentration and sublime texture …”

In The Financial Review, Max Allen got a step closer to the standard metaphor and simile: “There’s a depth and density to the rich black fruit that is a hallmark of Grange, with the fruit wrapped up in mature flavours of warm oak and damp earth and sweet leather, as well as youthful characters of dark spice and fine, firm, lingering tannins. In other words, you can see the contribution that each of the three vintages, 2008, 2012 and 2014, brings to the wine, but it all marries together seamlessly.”

In The Advertiser, Tony Love reported Peter’s mantra: “No matter what you might think about this unique play on an icon such as Grange, the result … is a wine that arguably is even more mysterious than its parts.”

Then, he too got more specifically metaphorical: “As a synergistic blend, it is intensely dark in colour as well as rising with the wafts of black berries, redolent too with deeply herbal essences like crushing together mint and star anise entwined with a subtle oak background and meshed with fabulous palate enhancing, medium-grained tannins.”

In Executive Style, Michael Harry seemed to agree: “It’s bright and buoyant, rich in colour, tinged with sweetness, luscious hints of berries and herbs and humming with the full-throttle luxury shared by the very best Grange.”

Nick Ryan followed in The Australian: “Recognisably Grange, but at the same time something more … the wine quickly proves itself to be more than the mere sum of its parts. It’s packed with deeply set dark berry fruit, Dutch licorice, boot polish and woody spice. It’s utterly seamless, intently focused and perfectly poised. Is it worth the hype? Hell yes.”

Tyson Stelzer was the first one to bring ants into it, reflecting the criticism unconvinced wine judges made when they decried Max’s early Granges in the ’50s: “The DNA of Grange shines strong, in all of its glorious complexity, layered with black plums, blackberries and liquorice, nuanced with black olives and crushed ants. The tannin structure is towering, very firm, very fine and remarkably enduring. Length and line are profound. Age has brought a compelling seamlessness to the blend, with the harmony of 2008 lifted by the brightness of 2014.”

On The Wine Front, Campbell Mattinson also hinted at the crushed ants, the smell of which resembles formic acid. But he too blended metaphor with the Penfolds promotional line: “It doesn’t taste like any of the vintages … it has taken the three vintages and become something other. It’s an extremely concentrated wine. Strong fruit, strong oak, strong tannin, strong impression. Ferrous elements, dense blackberry, saturated plum, saltbush, vanilla, woodsmoke. Lots of formic. Pounding tannin. It feels dense, mellow, fresh and silken at once. Drinking it is a somewhat strange experience: it feels mature, partly, even slightly leathery, but there’s a rocket of fresh black fruit too. Its quality is undeniable. That said, the real ‘soul’ of Grange is an artful combination of its story, its creator, and its reliable flavour. In the glass, this wine tastes as though it’s a step removed.”

“Artful”, eh? While he doesn’t indicate whether he used this word in its sense of learned and wise or cunning and crafty, Campbell toyed with the price, wondering why punters with the dosh wouldn’t simply blend their own and end up with three bottles’ worth of an approximation rather than the official barrel-matured blend.

“Everything about it is wrong save for three things: rarity, prestige, and (no small thing) the taste of it,” he wrote. “G3 would have been more interesting, even compelling, had it been released at $1000 per bottle rather than at $3000 but then, the rich and powerful need something rich and powerful to spend their money on, so maybe that would have been throwing easy money away.”

With these encapsulations of the reactions of some of the more influential of Australia’s critics, I believe one sees the lot of us tip-toeing between our honest reactions to its style and the corporate line of the wine being an essence of Penfolds.

Which demands the query: given their lack of scientific rigour, do our descriptors have anything in common? I think so. But much more vaguely than the way we echoed the public relations mantra, whether our version of it was simply repeated PR guff or our own original thoughts.

Given the distinction we seem to agree the wine has, have we helped aspiring buyers understand the key facets of its true nature? Have we learned anything from it? Can you, the reader, really learn much from us?

Maybe. It’s just a telling pity that these opinions are all the utterances of old blokes. The women all seemed to be out the back, working in Penfolds public relations division. In which case they appear to have won.

In simply repeating the spiel they have learned from Peter Gago, have we “critics” taken the role of mere salespeople? I would like to think not.

To get back to Mazure, one can only wonder how far we’ve come since his day. How many of us would recognise the G3 if it were presented again, blind.

Would we buy it if we had the money?

In his inimitable On The Road Again blog, Winsor Dobbin has his mind set: “G3 is impressively complex and will be much-sought-after by collectors,” he agreed. “But to be totally honest it did not float my boat. I’ll take 30+ bottles of St Henri any day.”

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