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Mr Mick Cab Merlot: it's a snaky, shiny whip of a thing


Whitey likes an unlikely Bordeaux-style blend from the Clare Valley named after winemaker Mick Knappstein and available for under $17.

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I dunno how close it was to the end of the ’70s when one blistering summer day I crept into the dark cool at Stanley Wine Co at Clare to find there suppin’ red in the gloom Mick Knappstein and Brian Barry. They already looked like old men through my brash peepers. It was real slow and quiet.

Stanley Leasingham Cabernet Malbec had spent a decade securing its place as a respected modern dry red of Ferrari V6 quality. One can’t ever taste those wines fresh again, like the condition at which point they were bottled and sold, but it’s tempting to try to redraw their memory through their place in history.

Those new-style, leaner, cleaner Mick and Tim Knappstein reds must have worn more sappy oak than is common nowadays, but I still recall them seen to be elegant, intense, polished delights for the table.

Like you’d never turn down a glass of that stuff.

In more than a doffing of the hat to the venerable Mick Knappstein, Tony and Lita Brady invited him to be the guest speaker at the centenary of that special high temple of Cabernet sauvignon blended with Malbec, Wendouree, in 1995. His brief, very important speech was kindly recorded and shared by my colleague Tim White.

Recalling a former winemaker there, Roly Birks, then deceased, Mick said he “was a very honest winemaker, in as much as you knew what he did. You’d see on the head of his vats … so many buckets of Mataro, many buckets of Shiraz, or even Malbec. He blended his wines at the crusher … It always had at the head of the vats what the additions were. If the grapes were very ripe it would say how much water went in. Now you know, not many winemakers would do that… He was honest!”

Merlot is a much more recent addition to the Clare blenders’ bench. This early-ripening red, also of Bordeaux, was allegedly named by the French for the Merle, the black bird which devours the Merlot first at vintage. Preferring the more traditional varieties, I was derisive of Merlot’s intrusion into Clare during the Hardy’s and Fosters invasions of 20 years back.

Time to see what’s happened. Mr. Mick by Tim Adams Clare Valley Cabernet Merlot 2014 ($17; 14% alcohol; screw cap) is commonly available at Hungry Dan’s for at least $2 short of this maker’s recommended retail.

A bottle of it stood glowering on my desk until I realised I’d got well below the label in no time at all. Like it’s a snaky, shiny, sinister whip of a thing whose genetics presage its pierced punk countenance. Four years of age is a damn good start. No brash American oak is another delight – there’s still a braw sappy chin on it, but this is all old French. Intensely olivine Clare fruit is another bull’s eye. Long velvety juniper-style tannins are the Cyclops one in the middle.

Like the best of the leanest, longest-sighted, stoic reds of Clare, this is one you drink standing or sitting up straight. It’s the lean dry air opposite of the soulful squish of the higher maritime humidity of McLaren Vale. It’s probably a bit sweeter than the best of the region’s Cabernet Malbec blends, too, but hey, some rock has harmonies.

Greek food please. Haloumi, kalamata, feta, greens. Loukaniko. Or Calabrian coast … go further for the best spaghetti vongole … like in season, the cockles off that beach as served straight up in the broth at Goolwa’s Cafe Bombora away down three or four hours south of Clare where those billion-year-old ranges finally dive into the Great Southern Ocean.

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