I well remember the first Australian shiraz that I liked (since a brief flirtation with the facile pleasures of fruity ripeness and oaky power in the early 1990s had turned to general dislike). It was at a friendly evening tasting that for some reason my hazy memory locates at Dornier in Stellenbosch. I am confident, however, that I was sitting near Chris Williams (I’m not sure of the date but it must surely have been within spitting distance of his taking up the cellarmaster job at Meerlust in 2004.) We both much liked a particular wine, and he thought it was Australian, and I bet him a bottle of German riesling that it wasn’t – I thought it far too elegant, dry and interesting.
Chris was right and I was wrong (both phenomena destined to be many times repeated). The wine was Gioconda Shiraz, from Victoria, quite a famous wine then and now.
So when I had a rare moment of inspiration last week at a tasting/dinner in Riebeek-Kasteel and identified a wine as Gioconda Shiraz (admittedly not straight off, but still…) I was particularly pleased. It was a 2004 and drinking very nicely indeed. So too was another 2004 – the maiden vintage of the Swartland Syrah made by the (inevitably new) young winemaker at Tulbagh Mountain Vineyards, one Chris Mullineux.
I was the taster for TMV when the winery made its debut in the 2006 Platter Guide, and I waxed very enthusiastic about this wine, giving it four-and-a-half stars – a whole star more than the ambitious home-grown shiraz, the Theta 2003. That scoring didn’t go down very well in the winery I think. But ten years on, that 2004 Swartland Syrah was still doing well (one perhaps for Edmund Terblanche of La Motte to try: he’s reported by Angela Lloyd as opining that Swartland shiraz doesn’t age well – he could also try Columella 2000 while he’s about it!).
The bottle of TMV 2004 was the last that Chris Mullineux had, and it was generous of him to share it. But he – and Cape wine – acquired something much better that year, when wife-to-be Andrea arrived in South Africa from California. It was the decade anniversary of that auspicious arrival that we were particularly celebrating on this particular evening (with a most interesting array of wines from all over). Now, of course, the Swartland is their home, and their Syrahs are internationally renowned.
Australia has been particularly on my mind of late, though not for wine reasons. I’ve been riveted by the angry, heartfelt (and lengthy) account by Robert Hughes of the settlement of Australia by English convicts, The Fatal Shore. It’s a dreadful story, mostly of suffering (in the slums of London as well as the brutal penal setlement at Botany Bay and beyond), with little reported (thus far in my reading) that’s uplifting or of credit to humanity.
Hughes doesn’t forget the other victims of this sordid chapter of colonialism – the birds and animals, but especially the aboriginal people. I hadn’t realised that the early settlement of Tasmania (then van Diemen’s land) was particularly bloody. “It took less than seventy-five years of white settlement”, says Hughes, “to wipe out most of the people who had occupied Tasmania for some thirty thousand years; it was the only true genocide in English colonial history”.
Incidentally, the “First Fleet”, so arduously taking those poor convicts to unimaginable suffering on the other side of the world, inevitably called in for their last bit of replenishment (and of something like civilisation) at Cape Town. The officers were obviously allowed off the ship (while the convicts languished below decks), and apparently hated Cape Town – “the Dutch, the Kaffirs, the heat, the dust”. Hughes doesn’t mention, but I daresay they hated Cape wine and brandy too, with every justification, really (unless they were lucky enough to get some Constantia), as it was mostly pretty appalling stuff, by all accounts – especially the brandy. But the only alcohol most of these first settler Australians were to get in Botany Bay was some pretty grim (imported) rum. It took a while to get to Gioconda Shiraz.