In the Hands of God

Doing things naturally isn't cheap but the results can be divinely inspiring, as PHILIP WHITE reports.

IT was a fairly ordinary-looking shed, with an inconsequential stack of winemaking equipment. Spotlessly clean, mind you - there just wasn't much stuff there. The standard stainless-steel dairy tank with a cooling sleeve, favoured by small-scale winemakers; a stack of old barrels; an impossibly small hand-screwed basket press.

Try it as we did that afternoon,
with perfect pasta,
with fresh mulloway.
And the shiraz?
Slick, intense, silky, breathtaking.

"See," I said to the air, "it's not winemaking at all. It's really blokes making mud pies." Armando Verdiglione pulled his chest full of air, turned on his softest, richest baritone and said: ``But, Philippo, nowdays, it's mud pies with chemistry.'' He took me by the arm and led us out into the bright Adelaide Plains sun, and the spotless organic vineyard tended by his brother-in-law, Dominic Versace.
``You know, Philippo, wine should be the flavour of the grape,'' he said. ``Whatta you want all this tannin? Bah! Tartaric? Why do you want all that? Bloody chemistry! Whatta you want all this wood?''

He turned me to Dominic, tanned and squinting, arm in plaster after a vineyard post split and exploded under the hammer. But Armando wasn't referring to posts. He was spitting. ``Dominic's family has been making wine for thousands of years,'' he said. ``Whatta you want all this wood?"

That disdain didn't quite hide the audacity of this exercise. I mean, there's Armando, an insurance man with a heart so full of song that he frequently forgets I can't speak Italian, and Dominic, the legendary backstage handyman from the Festival Theatre and the opera, releasing their first commercial wines. At $50 a bottle.

But then I recalled a meal I'd had 20 years earlier, just a few hundred metres up the street. Jack and Lea Minnett were entertaining Max and Thellie Schubert. Max spoke at great length about his love for the intense, sweet fruit of the Adelaide Plains, about how he preferred it for his beloved Grange, and about how healthy and clean that environment was for premium viticulture.

Just across the road was the scrappy-looking Angle Vale winery where many legends had cut teeth: Doug and Scott Collett, Charlie Melton, Doug Lehmann, Lindsay Stanley, Robert O'Callaghan and Helen Martin. Since then, Fiona Donald, Max's heir at Southcorp, has worked there with the formidable Guenther Prass. Not exactly lovers of light reds.

Dominic's kicked his share of barrels, too: when not inserting trapdoors in the Festival Theatre stage, he's done the impossible in various wineries at critical stages of Australia's wine revolution, even dragging the hoses at Siegersdorf while Brian Croser taught himself to make his new sanitised style of riesling.

Last week, Southcorp slashed the price of its greatest Coonawarra reds: Wynns Michael and Riddoch super-premiums crashed from $100 to $55. Still expensive? My Italian mates think so. So how do they justify $50 for their unknown stuff with the unlikely Versace label?Try handmade. Try hardly a drip of water. Try shovelling that whole vineyard through that tiny basket. Try tiny volumes per acre. Try no filtration; no chemicals; no additives other than a little sulphur. If that barefaced honesty wears thin, try the wines: a sangiovese that's wickedly, honestly Italian. That strange, feathery smell which marks the grandest sangiovese lives here, with beautiful cherries and velvety, natural tannins.

Try it as we did that afternoon, with perfect pasta, with fresh mulloway. Salsicce! And the shiraz? Slick, intense, silky, breathtaking. Max would love it. But non-vintage?

"Well, Philippo, we make a better wine by blending. We call it first release. The sangiovese, yes, that's for drinking soon, but the shiraz? We use a number. Whose business is this vintage? Nobody's. Stick to nature; the Lord. His grapes. We don't bloody well put anything in it. The Lord looks after it. La natura da vino e vino!"

The man means mud pies. Utterly luxurious mud pies, no chemistry. Mud pies that you won't suddenly find at half-price.


Adelaide Advertiser, February 13 2002