Extracts from Volume II of My Top Shelf


A Philosopher’s Guide to Wine

Roger Scruton

Bloomsbury Continuum, 2009.

Roger Scruton is an English philosopher who enjoys, among other things, fox hunting and wine.  He is conservative – more than that, he is a sane and articulate conservative who can speak in terms that the rest of us can follow.  That makes him a rarity among philosophers, if not conservatives.  When Australians who regard themselves as conservatives – often falsely in my view – invoke Scruton, they conveniently forget that he is firmly committed to conserving the planet.  He wrote a book about how to be a green conservative.

This book begins as follows.

This book is not a guide to drinking wine, but a guide to thinking it.  It is a tribute to pleasure, by a devotee of happiness, and a defence of virtue by an escapee from vice.  Its argument is addressed to theists and atheists, to Christians, Jews, Hindus and Muslims, to every thinking person to whom the joy of meditation has not extinguished the pleasures of embodiment.  I have harsh words to say about the health fanatics, about the mad mullahs, who prefer taking offence to seeing another’s viewpoint.  But my purpose is to defend the opinion once attributed to Plato that ‘nothing more excellent or valuable than wine was ever granted by the gods to man’, and I am confident that all those who are offended by this innocent endeavour thereby give proof of their irrelevance.

Scruton quotes Jefferson as saying ‘wine is the only antidote to whiskey.’  He is an old fashioned purist: ‘To assign points to a claret is like assigning points to symphonies – as though Beethoven’s 7th, Tchaikovsky’s 6th, Mozart’s 39th and Bruckner’s 8th all hovered between 90 and 95’.  Robert Parker did us no favour with this system – it reminds me of judging divers – but Australian critics have loyally gone along with it.

This book is that of a learned man that will not suit all palates.  Scruton does cover a lot of ground – mainly in the European context.

Ancient philosophy, Christian religion and Western art all see wine as a channel of communication between god and man, between the rational soul and the animal, between the animal and the vegetable kingdoms.

Scruton then explores that statement with an analysis of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde and a critical argument of Kant (who had guests for lunch every day and gave each guest a pint of red wine).

Scruton has trouble with our selling wine by reference to grape variety rather than place.  He says that the Wirra Wirra, in McLaren Vale, is one of ‘the oldest and most beautiful wineries in Australia and that its Grenache and Shiraz is a wine that tastes of Australia – so strong that it resembles a fortified wine, combining the guilty excesses of port with the playfulness of the Australian outback.’  ‘Playful’ is not a term I would use for the outback.  It is a gorgeous killer.  But I am very familiar with the reaction of Europeans to the strength of Australian wines.

And to force Syrah up to 14 per cent or more, tricking it into early maturation, so as to put the result on the market with all its liquorice flavours unsubdued, puffing out its dragon breath like an old lecher leaning sideways to put a hairy hand on your knee, is to slander a grape that, properly treated, as it is on the hill of Hermitage or on the Côte Rôtie, is the most slow and civilised of seducers.

There was a time when we may have sniffed some condescension, if not snobbery, from an Englishman there, but since this book is on the shelf to celebrate the role of wine in my life, and since most of that is Australian, I will say something about our wines.

Doctor Christopher Rawson Penfold was a medical practitioner near Brighton in England.  He emigrated to Australia, to the area around what we now call Adelaide, with his wife Mary.  In 1844, just eight years after this convict free colony started, they purchased 500 acres of ‘the choicest land’ for the sum of £1200.  It was from the estate of Sir Maitland Mackgill.  Mary Penfold farmed the land while her husband developed his medical practice.  She looked after the early wine-making on the new estate.  The first wines made from Grenache were prescribed as tonic wines for anaemic patients.  In the early years, the Penfolds also grew barley which was made into beer and sold at a place where wagon trains ended with an appropriate name – World’s End Pub. 

That is how the wine-making business we know as Penfolds started.  Its slogan was ‘1844 to evermore’ and one of its premium wines was and is Magill Estate.  Penfolds is one of the world’s biggest and best wine-making businesses.  It is at least as good as the French at the bottom end of the market, and it has one label that can match it with the French at the very top.  It is a business that Australians can be proud of and it makes wines that they – including me – can enjoy.  If doctors get dirty about your consumption of Penfolds, remind them of the subject of the first miracle.

A couple of months before the ANZACS landed at Gallipoli, Max Schubert was born to Lutheran parents in a German community at the edge of the Barossa Valley in South Australian.  This was not an easy time for Australians of German descent, and there were lots of such people in the wine-making areas of South Australia.  The Barossa Valley was then the most significant wine-making area in Australia.  Its specialty was and still is the variety known as Shiraz or, sometimes, Hermitage.  Young Max joined Penfolds as a messenger boy.  By 1948, he had become the chief wine-maker, a position he held until 1975.  Max spent his whole working life at Penfolds.  The exception was his war service.  He volunteered against the express wishes of Penfolds to fight the Germans.  He did so in North Africa, Crete, and the Middle East before fighting the Japanese in New Guinea – where he contracted malaria.  That is an extraordinary record of service – to his country as well as to Penfolds.  It is also an extraordinary story of survival.

In 1949, Max was sent to France and Spain to learn more about fortified wines.  They were then the mainstay of production – and the first port of call for serious drunks.  He of course went to Bordeaux.  He visited wine-makers with names to conjure with – Chateau Lafite Rothschild, Chateau Latour and Chateau Margaux.   He there tasted very aged wines.  When he got back, he wanted to try to make a wine that would age as well as these great Bordeaux wines.  He did so, and he succeeded.  When he died in 1994 at the age of 79, The New York Times said that his wine known as the Grange had won more wine show prizes than any other Australian wine and was regarded as the flagship of the Australian wine-making industry.  It is in truth a household name –even if most of us cannot afford the $700 or so one bottle costs on release.  Max Schubert spoke of the beginning of this great wine.

It was during my initial visit to the major wine-growing areas of Europe in 1950 that the idea of producing an Australian red wine capable of staying alive for a minimum of twenty years and comparable with those produced in Bordeaux first entered my mind.  I was fortunate to be taken under the wing of Monsieur Christian Cruise, one of the most respected and highly qualified of the old school of France at that time and he afforded me, among other things, the rare opportunity of tasting and evaluating wines between 40 and 50 years old, which were still sound and possessed magnificent bouquet and flavour.  They were of tremendous value from an educational point of view and imbued in me a desire to do something to lift the rather mediocre standard of Australian red wine in general at that time…..

The grape material used in Bordeaux consisted of our basic varieties…..Only cabernet sauvignon and malbec were available in South Australia at the time, but  survey showed that they were in such short supply as to make them impracticable commercially….I elected to use hermitage or shiraz only (which was in plentiful supply) knowing full well that if I was careful enough in the choice of area and vineyard and coupled that with the correct production procedure, I would be able to make the type and style of wine I wanted…..

 So began an Australian success story.  Penfolds has produced labels including Grange, St Henri, Bin 389 and the ultimate fall-back of the author, Koonunga Hill, which, at about $10 a bottle, is as good a value for wine as you can find anywhere in the world. 

Someone once said that Max Schubert smoked Gauloise cigarettes.  If he did, that would have supplied a real motive for making one very big wine because they could kill a brown dog at thirty yards.  But whether Max smoked those cigarettes or not, he made an enduring contribution to the Australian story.  He helped us to shed that ghastly failing called ‘the cringe’.  On a good day, we can play cricket and footy well.  But we can also make a bloody good wine – and without any evident help from on high.

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