Book reviews 2020 – Commonwealth wine

Intoxicating by Max Allen book cover

4 March 2021 We’re delighted that Max Allen has won the André Simon 2020 Drink Award for Intoxicating. Read his account of the background to the book here.

31 December 2020 Enjoy these reviews of books about Australia, England and South Africa now that we are republishing them free.

27 November 2020 See this guide to all of this season's book reviews.

Ten drinks that shaped Australia 
Max Allen 
Thames & Hudson Australia 
ISBN 9781760761004 (paperback) 
ISBN 9781760761370 (ebook) 
AU$32.99, £24.53 Book Depository, £12.29 (Kindle) 

I’m not sure what I was expecting from this book, but I am sure that no book that I have reviewed for has knocked me sideways like this one has.

I think I was probably subconsciously expecting it to be about wine – 10 great bottles of wine with historical links to convict ships or the first vineyard ever planted. Something like that. Maybe featuring a Penfolds Grange, a Henschke Hill of Grace, maybe even – for some tongue in cheek humour – some Yellow Tail Shiraz. What I wasn’t expecting was a powerful, moving and, quite simply, astonishing immersion into Australia.

A book like this is hard to review. I find the same problem when I taste an exceptionally beautiful wine – I just want to set my pen, my keyboard, my analytical, critical, computational brain aside and just let it wash over and through me. I want to run soul fingers through it, feeling it like beach sand, like salty green water, like sea foam. I don’t want to write about it. But I want to press it into the hands of everyone, begging them to taste it. Or, in this case, to read it.

But I have my keyboard in front of me and a deadline that I am in danger of missing, so I will try my damnedest to write something coherent.

I could sum up the book in five words: it explains Australia through booze. I could tell you that the ‘Ten’ in the title is misleading. Ten chapters, perhaps. A lot more than 10 drinks, though. You won’t blink an eye when I tell you that those drinks include beer and wine, although you might not have suggested Australia’s biggest selling, industrially produced beer or Brown Brothers Spätlese Lexia or Kanga Rouge. You probably won’t be that surprised if I mentioned there is a chapter on rum and other spirits. You might not have been expecting salty champagne (real champagne, Gosset, in fact) to play an important role in shaping Australia and you will almost certainly not be expecting Ethiopian mead to get a mention. Or peach cider. Perhaps port, but 100-year-old bitters? A pre-mixed cocktail from 1926? Some of you might know about green-ant gin (which, says Allen, ‘popped in the middle of my tongue like taut pearls of lime’) and some very well-travelled imbibers may have tasted quandong eau de vie. But way-a-linah? Or mangaitch? Kambuda? Tuba?

There are cider gums in Australia. They exude a lemony sweet sap which ferments in hollows in the trunks. They have been described as the ‘mellifluent trees’ of the Tasmanian frost plains. The Aboriginal people used to bleed them and celebrate with the intoxicating beverage that resulted. That’s way-a-linah. Mangaitch is made by the Noongar people, from Banksia flowers. Kambuda is a liquor made from nuts in the Northern Territory, tuba from palm-tree buds in the Torres Strait.

It was a revelation for Allen. ‘Reading about them opened my eyes. The landscape came to life. Plants turned into flavours … And I realised that I had come across a few fleeting references to Aboriginal fermentation … But I had overlooked them, not registered their importance, just not made the connections. I was, back then, still seeing through the dust of the “dry continent” myth. Reading and talking to Maggie [Brady] and Bruce [Pascoe] changed that. Their work fundamentally shifted the way I think about, look at, listen to – and, importantly, smell and taste – the country where I live.’

Contrary to what historians have been telling us for the last couple of centuries, Australia was not a dry country before the first Europeans arrived. The Europeans did not introduce the Aboriginal people to alcohol. Instead, Allen asks, could Aboriginal fermented drinks be some of the oldest known to humanity?

In discovering these almost forgotten, ancient alcoholic beverages, Allen confronts Australia’s past, present, and the possibilities of the future: ‘The knowledge was there. It was simply a matter of asking the right questions … Why haven’t we been asking the right questions?’

So Allen asks questions. Lots of them. He asks anthropologists and brewers, wine merchants and chefs, musicians and artists, scientists and distillers, horticulturalists and doctors, winemakers and writers. He talks to Aboriginal elders and educators, historians and farmers. He questions things commonly presumed to be fact and finds myths and bullshit and new truths. He tastes and tastes and then threads the black and gold yarns of intoxicating drink through his needle and embroiders the tapestry of Australia, pulling in dozens of stories from past and present, from the bottom of the ocean, the remote outback, from humble kitchens and glamorous restaurants, from giant mash tuns to wild native vinelands.

From a beach in Botany Bay where a second lieutenant from the ship Sirius handed some wine to an Aboriginal man, he maps the history of drinking culture in Australia from the seasonal, mild and ceremonial drinking of the Indigenous people to the First Fleeters with their huge supplies of gin, brandy and rum. ‘Binge drinking was common and communal’, he writes of the early European settlements. Alcohol, ‘an indispensable cog in the colonial economy’, served as currency, a tool of power and control, a way of coping with a brutally hard life. This culture of drinking spread to the Indigenous communities and was increasingly encouraged by the Europeans as a tool of suppression, control, subjugation and humiliation.

Through the music of Dougie Young and Archie Roach, Allen looks at the confluence of race, alcohol, creativity, culture, identity: ‘They were field recordings: you can hear his friends chuckling along in the background when their names and exploits are mentioned in the songs. You can hear dogs barking and bottles being knocked over as Young strums his guitar … songs of defiance.’ He quotes anthropologist Jeremy Beckett: ‘Aborigines had adopted the hard drinking of the frontier to reconstitute their shattered society, and that in defying official prohibition they were conducting a pre-political resistance.’

And then Allen gets us to peer at the barrel-shaped, large-format, glass flagon that became so popular in order to understand other aspects that contributed to Australian wine-drinking culture: from prohibition to barbies. Large-format containers became a particular feature of Australian socialising. So much so that it was Australian winemaker Tom Angove who patented the first bag-in-box (BIB) wine. Penfolds followed suit and sold wine-in-a-tin (it tanked). But Marcia Langton recalls that it was so widely used as a weapon that doctors and the Central Australian Aboriginal Congress lobbied to ban them because of the horrendous injuries they were causing: ‘The alcohol industry – I’ve got to say this very clearly to you – has opposed sensible policy reform despite [knowing about the] health consequences, in order to sell more alcohol.’ It’s a chilling comment. Allen asks: ‘How do they – we – justify profiting from a product that can cause such profound harm?’

In answering it, he descends into the inner sanctum of Seppelt, tasting their Angaston Bitters a century old… ‘a bitter cavalcade of flavour digs a groove along my tongue’. Alcoholic tonics were, for centuries, used to cure flatulence and dyspepsia, thirst, loss of appetite, exhaustion, depression, stress, overwork and business pressure, insomnia, anaemia and seasickness (to name but a few!). It’s no coincidence, he points out, that many of the vineyards and wine estates that are still around today were founded by doctors. And even modern science acknowledges that there are some medical benefits to moderate wine drinking (with the inevitable emphasis on moderate, of course). It doesn’t stop with wine. Academic and legendary cidermaker Clive Crossley is currently undertaking a research project on the effect of cider on the gut microbiome – he believes that the health benefits of cider go way beyond antioxidants.

It’s not just health. Alcohol is about connectedness. It connects people with people. In telling the story of Dalwood Cabernet, Allen shows how the reach of one wine stretched out over two centuries and positively impacted the lives of dozens of people. It spun a spiderweb of inspiration, teaching, mentoring, influencing, opportunities, support, knowledge sharing, generosity and ideas. In Allen’s stories he shows, too, how Australian winemakers, brewers and distillers are engaging with Indigenous culture in myriad different ways, learning about it with a burgeoning sense of awe and respect. Alcohol connects people with their own past, it connects them with the past of other people. And in doing so, it opens up new possibilities for the future. Fancy a pint of Something Wild wattleseed lager?

Which brings us neatly to Allen’s other point. Alcohol also connects people with land. Talking about the concept of terroir with Allen, Kaurna Elder Uncle Lewis O’Brien muses, ‘It’s a natural human thing to do when you’re living on the land. You start to connect to it. It’s that double possession: it possesses you, you possess it … that’s what the secret is, you have to know all the places.’ Defining terroir in Australia might not work in the same way as defining terroir in Burgundy, but as Uncle Lewis points out, it’s already there. You just have to know a place well. Vanya Cullen’s nephew, Nic Peterkin, has started picking local native wildflowers to throw into his Pinot Noir musts – the flowers have unusual wild yeast populations that kick off the fermentation and although they are slower than the traditional wine yeasts, they produce fascinating wines.

Max Allen has an uncommon perspective. British born and raised, he lived in the UK until his twenties, spent holidays in Australia as a child (his stepfather was Australian), moved to Melbourne in 1992, married an Australian girl and never left. He worked in the wine industry in the UK for a while and fell in love with wine at the age of 15, with his first sip of Brown Brothers Spätlese Lexia. He has a cross-continental frame of reference, a British sense of humour and understatement, Australian raw honesty, self-deprecation and earthed-ness. He speaks ‘Australian’ (I needed translations for icy pole, The Shout and heeltaps) and has absorbed the culture but he is also able to stand back from it. It’s Australia from the inside looking out, and the outside looking in.

Intoxicating is a social and cultural anthropology of Australia seen through a unique lens. Allen is, in a way, a libation genealogist, establishing kinship, pedigree, identity, clans and bloodlines, hereditary likenesses and lineage, connecting dots to draw the Australian family tree. What I love, though, is that he doesn’t do it with the cold objectivity of an academic. He plunges in, consumed with curiosity, full of questions, full of wonder, full of listening. He sticks his fingers in tree bark, his hands in buckets of fermentations, his tongue into bitter hops. He gets on trains and buses and planes and drives eight hours to drink warm oxidised beer on a beach, for research purposes. He is persistent, tenacious, courageous and humble. And his writing has real poetry.

After all that, I’ll sum up the book in one word. Intoxicating.

Sparkling Wine by Stewart Wilde book cover

Sparkling Wine
Vineyards of England and Wales
Stewart Wilde
ACC Art Books
ISBN 9781851499052
£9.99, $19.95

Maybe I’m a bit of a closet stalker, but I like to know a smidgeon about my authors before I read their books. It’s not only wine books. I even google (thank e-heaven for Google, although I know I shouldn’t deify any of these giant corporates – please forgive me) the authors of novels if I don’t already know who they are. I like to understand where someone is coming from, to acknowledge their experience and also to try to align myself to their prism. The notion is that I can then approach the book with a more open, less judgmental mind. This is my own myth.

So, the reason for the above burble is that I have no idea who Stewart Wilde is and apart from an enigmatic and relatively anonymous Instagram page (is he the old guy, or is that his dad?), I cannot find anything out about him. Which, frankly, is weird if you know enough about wine to write a book on it. Is this important, apart from my own curiosity? Yes. I think that it is only fair that, as readers and potentially buyers of this book, you know exactly what qualifies the author to dispense advice and opinion at your expense.

So, I will give you what I have: Stewart Wilde’s self-written Amazon biography: ‘After practicing as an award winning architect, and keen amateur sportsman, cricket and rugby, for many years I changed tack and followed my passion, wine. Working in the wine trade, from shop assistant to consultant, by both examination and experience, over several years I have acquired and nurtured an intimate knowledge of the vineyards of England and Wales. I have become personally acquainted with many of the growers and winemakers who have contributed so much to the spectacular rise of U.K. sparkling wine over the last decade. When tempted away from the wine producing regions of the U.K. I spend my time exploring vineyards, and their wines, further afield, from Sicily to Uruguay, Champagne to Madeira, Portugal to New Zealand.’

Let us now repair swiftly to the book.

It’s a small, well-designed book about the shape and size of an ideal travel guide – backpack-slippable. It is organised, logical and navigable. The photos are lovely – filtered, not professional, but well framed and the elegant yet vibrant colour palate of both the book and the photos turns this book into something that feels vivid and relatable.

It gives us a brief, serviceable but unoriginal introduction. It gives us a minimalistic but functional introduction to grape varieties used for sparkling wine in England and Wales. The rest of the book is divided by region and then by county and then by winegrower. The book is basically comprised of 57 succinct two-(small)-page profiles of these winegrowers, described by Wilde as a ‘selection’ but the criteria are not specified.

The profiles are extremely well organised and easy to read. I wondered, looking at the layout of each one, so calm on the eye and on the mind that it felt like a meditation, whether this was the spinoff of architectural training. Whether it is or no, we benefit. There is something calm, white-spaced and precise that makes this book a pleasure to use.

There are two major shortcomings. First: Wilde has made the classic mistake of reviewing specific wines rather than an overview of the range/style or performance of a wine over time. This means that the book will date very quickly. Second: there is no depth.

If you want a handy travel guide to the sparkling-wine-producing vineyards of England and Wales, this would do the trick (although Elisabeth Else does a formidable job of this with her website Wine Cellar Door, constantly updated and free). If you want something to really chew on, read my next review.

English Wine by Oz Clarke book cover

English Wine
From still to sparkling, the newest New World wine country
Oz Clarke
Pavilion Books
ISBN 9781911624158
£16.99, $24.95, CA$33.50

Oz certainly tells a story! That guy doesn’t clear his throat or pick up his pen but that there isn’t a call for Curtain Up. He can’t write without rousing his readers to a stand-up, knee-slapping sing-along. So, clear your throat, brace your knees, and prepare to clamber up on the nearest pub table. No half measures when Oz Clarke is at the front of the conga line.

In true Oz style, it’s breathlessly fast-paced. In one stanza we’ve moved from the Romans to the Dark Ages to the Catholics, William the Conqueror making way for Henry II, the Little Ice Age and then suddenly we land in 1946, Surrey, at the grapevine research station set up by Ray Barrington Brock. Then we’re off again, charging through the vineyards of Hampshire and Sussex, bumping into Americans from Chicago and the first English sparkling wines. And that’s a wrap on the history of wine in the UK.

From Nyetimber to climate change, Oz hurtles through the coolest, and hottest, topics relevant to UK wine today. One of which is, inevitably, soil. To my disappointment, a promising paragraph on soils petered out into comparisons of climatic conditions with other regions. We hear and read so much about ‘the motherlode’ of chalk and limestone soils we share with Champagne that they have achieved a near-mythical status. Every English wine producer with so much as a corner of chalk trumpets the fact as if it were incontestable proof of quality wine. Oz chucked aside an important opportunity to explore, in reasonable depth, all English (and Welsh) vineyard soils, which are so much more complex and diverse than we’re told. It was an opportunity to investigate why some of England’s most exciting wines are coming from gravel, clay and greensand vineyards and to challenge the limiting chalk narrative.

Then there was the slightly confusing statement on soils and climate change: ‘As the climate warms, even regions like Scotland and the Welsh borders are revealing soils that are pretty much the same as those in Germany’s Mosel Valley, France’s Beaujolais and northern Rhône Valley, and Portugal’s Douro Valley.’ So, am I to understand that the warming climate is revealing soils we didn’t know were there? Or does it mean that because Scotland has similar soils to (let’s say) the northern Rhône, they’ll soon be making Syrah up there?

The (very short) section on site selection was mostly focused on climate, providing a legitimate, but perhaps short-term and narrow-angled, view of the viability and scope of British winegrowing. But he managed to devote two full pages to Bacchus, albeit by talking around rather than about the grape and thereby deftly managing to duck the question of whether it really does make a drinkable wine, in the end praising it for its name.

I suspect that because of his guilelessness and bonhomie, we overlook the sly cynic in Clarke. The ‘irresistible muddy-nut quality of Seyval Blanc’? Although when it comes to Rondo, his gift of tact wavers: ‘I want [a wine] to taste like something I’ll enjoy drinking. And Rondo doesn’t find it easy … people have tried so hard to prove with Rondo that they can make a serious English red that the thing ends up like cloddish soup’.

Although, really, Clarke, does the world need your next sentence…? ‘… still quite full-bodied enough to score well on the testosterone counter’. Because that’s exactly what a good English wine needs, is it: a couple of proper balls?

After some other fairly surface-level, general observations on wine styles and wine production along with a confusing map on vineyard distribution across the country (a bit of simple colour-coding would have made all the difference there), he takes us on a tour of the eight wine-producing regions of the UK (London, with its three wineries, being one).

This is where Clarke is at his best. In his jovial, harry-casual, jongleur style he sets down tedious but essential producer-profile facts (5 ha, south-east facing, planted 2001, blah, blah) with such flourish that it feels like you’re being served free Michelin-star amuse-bouches by the chef himself. He paints enthusiastic, larger-than-life descriptions of characters and vineyards and even though there are only 10 (beautiful) photographs in the whole book, you feel like you’ve been reading in technicolour.

You also come away thinking that Clarke must be best friends with all these people – he writes about them as if they’re chums that go back a long way. Some of them probably are and do. To some producers (the big, well-known ones about which much has been written already), he devotes many lines of script. Alas, some less well-known but equally significant and interesting producers get only a few lines, and I think they (and the reader) deserve more.

Nevertheless, Clarke has profiled no fewer than 54 wineries, which is substantially more than Stephen Skelton MW looked at in his book last year. The contrast between the two books could not be more marked: Skelton dry, dispassionate, didactic and serious; Clarke witty, dramatic, animated and genial. It’s hard to say which one I would recommend. If you want to really learn, in depth, about wine in the UK, pick Skelton. If you want to have fun reading about wine in the UK, pick Clarke. Or have your wine and sip it: get both.


The Wines of South Africa by Jim Clarke book cover

The Wines of South Africa
Jim Clarke
Infinite Ideas
ISBN 9781913022020

From music student to New York sommelier and, in 2013 and still currently, Wines of South Africa’s US marketing manager, Jim Clarke comes at South Africa from a unique outsider-turned-insider position. Spending the last seven years so close to the subject is a big advantage. It was also one of my primary concerns: is it possible to write a non-partisan account of a wine region when you’ve spent seven years being paid to promote it?

‘Regardless of how good the wines are’, Clarke writes, ‘I would find it difficult to promote an industry in good conscience if I didn’t believe in the integrity and good intentions of its actors.’ He carries on to say, ‘I hope now is indeed a good time for a book. The South African wine industry is certainly not at a resting point; change continues with great rapidity … South Africa is making great wine.’

In some ways, it’s an easy book to write. South Africa is one of the most exciting wine regions in the world. In other ways a difficult book to write. Politics, inequality, poverty, racism are tensions and shadows that still dog the industry.

It’s not something I’d ever considered, but South Africa might just be the only wine region in the world that has a written record of its very first wine harvest. Birthdate: 2 February 1659. And quite possibly, with the exception of Noah’s landing spot and New Zealand, few other wine regions have been established by such a tiny number of people.

The Dutch were not impressed by the French winegrowers who arrived in the 1680s – Van der Stel writing to the Dutch East India Company requesting that they didn’t send any more Frenchmen, as they were not prepared to get their hands dirty!

Clarke writes a clear, readable history of the Cape wine industry through its waves of influence: Dutch, French, British; slavery, phylloxera, war, temperance; fortified to unfortified; the commercial battle between bulk négociants and winegrowers; apartheid and independence. It’s a chequered history with, prior to the 21st century, many more lows than highs, and reading through it, one realises that South Africans are made of extremely resilient stuff.

In chapter 2, ‘Transformation and other contemporary issues’, Clarke approaches the minefield topics early on. As he examines the statistics of ownership, economics and employment against the backdrop of government legislation, mechanisms and programmes, different business models, financial viability, funding, wine (and drinking) culture, education and deeply engrained patterns of paternalism and dependency, the only crystal-clear axiom to rise up out of the morass is that this is a deeply complex situation. To assume the cleavage planes lie along colour lines alone is damagingly naïve.

Considering the scope and sensitivity of his task, Clarke has done a good job. As far as I can see, his analysis is for the most part objective and clear-headed, following facts rather than emotions and avoiding moral judgements. He cites numerous examples of organisations, businesses and individuals who have played important parts in effecting positive change, but at the same time he doesn’t hesitate to chronicle past failures and current weaknesses.

It is interesting to note that South Africa is the largest producer of Fairtrade-certified wine in the world (75% in 2018), but this represents just 5% of South African wine and only 2,500 workers (of the roughly 167,000 people employed in the industry). The biggest deterrent to Fairtrade certification, according to Clarke, is the cost. He comments that ‘by some estimates more than half of the premium goes to the certifying organisation rather than into the community’. There’s no small irony in that.

One of the challenges Clarke highlights is what he describes as ‘the fundamental economic problem of profitability’. Low grape prices, rising labour costs and costs of imported goods such as barrels, and a weak rand have made the industry inherently unstable (and this was written before COVID-19). He argues that raising the retail shelf price of South African wine by 12% would raise farm income by 35% and make the business of wine-farming sustainable. But that would require changing our expectations that South African wine should be, first and foremost, cheap. It’s easy to be critical, it’s easy to turn a blind eye (most of us are guilty of both) – but as Clarke points out, whether importer, wholesaler, retailer or consumer, we all play a part in social justice in South Africa.

At the same time, reading through the rather depressing assessment of the state of play (farmers ripping up vines to plant more profitable cash crops, exports trapped in budget categories, bulk wine being sold for less than it cost to produce, vineyards being sold to real-estate developers and yields being affected by difficult growing conditions), it struck me that just about every wine industry in the world has gone through difficult times like this. Whether South Africa is resilient enough to adapt and change is the crucial question.

On the subject of poverty and the financially crippled South African wine industry, I did wonder whether Clarke may have abandoned his neutral stance and promoted an over-beleaguered view. Without hard statistics, it is impossible to say, but he seems to have left out half the story. Anyone who has visited the Cape Winelands can clearly see evidence that not every wine farmer is barely making ends meet.

It seems disingenuous to say, for example, that Stellenbosch has (along with Swartland) the lowest percentage of profitable wine farms and the least-profitable vineyards, without mentioning that Paarl, Franschhoek and Stellenbosch are home to several thousand dollar (not rand) millionaires and this vineyard-laced trio forms the fastest-growing region in South Africa in terms of private wealth creation. Clarke doesn’t mention that there are some very wealthy wine-farm owners in the Cape who might well have a vested interest in making sure that their vineyards are not profitable!

The chapter on the structure and regulations of the South African wine industry is very good – particularly useful if you’re trying to get your head around South African wine labelling. But there was one page on South African law which reminded me of a conversation with a South African winemaker a couple of years ago. It left me as incredulous then as now: if you want to shoot yourself in the economic kneecaps, have laws that prevent farm owners from selling off a small part of their large farms.

In other words, if I were a young, aspiring BAME winegrower who’d found 10 ha (25 acres) of vineyard that a farmer was willing to sell to me and a bank manager who was willing to loan the money to me, South African law would say no. The farmer can sell his entire 1,200-ha (3,000-acre) estate to me, along with the six-bedroom mansion, swimming pool and wedding venue, but he cannot sell just 10 ha. Unfortunately, I don’t have R120 million, I don’t want the mansion, the swimming pool and the wedding venue, and I couldn’t cope with the other 1,190 ha. So instead of being able to start up a small winegrowing business that could contribute to the economy and the wine industry, I have no choice but to make wine for a wealthy wine-farm owner. Chances are, I will never have the money to buy those 1,200 ha.

That’s just one crazy law. Never mind the one on single vineyards… to register a block of land as a single named vineyard it must be 6 ha or less and planted with a single variety. So that wonderful 6.2 ha vineyard with a field blend of old Chenin and Sémillon? You can’t register it, give it a name and put it on the label of the bottle. Illegal.

Much more encouraging, even exciting, was the chapter on the old vines of South Africa, a project that began with Rosa Kruger, well known to Purple Pages. Also encouraging was to see the extent to which South Africans embrace sustainability and biodiversity.

The book provides a good overview of each wine region in South Africa, focusing on geography and climate with a bit of history. His selection of producers is thoughtful – a wide range from well-established to new, large to small, glamorous to simple. The producer profiles are lightly sketched, and Clarke has avoided the pitfall of tasting notes or recommending specific wines, which means that it will stay relevant for a good few years to come.

Overall, a book that makes up for its lack of sparkle with reliable, unembellished steadiness and coherent writing style. Another excellent addition to the Classic Wine Library.