Thursday, 6 October 2011
Rugby World Cup Quarter Final Wine: Australia vs South Africa
The third Rugby World Cup quarter final, featuring Australia vs South Africa, throws together two of the genuine heavyweights of the rugby union world. Both twice former winners of the trophy. And both home to definitive wine styles as direct and distinctive as Quade Cooper and as punchily powerful as returning Springbok captain John Smit.
They say that when you fly to Australia from Europe you have to put your watch back. Twenty years.
If only that were true.
Because that would take us back to a time when Australia was famous - notorious might be the better word - for one of the world's most definitive wine styles.
Big - I mean massive - bawdy, blowsy, blow-your-mind Chardonnay.
You know what I'm talking about.
100% Chardonnay grapes roasted on the vine under the burning Southern sky sun then pounded for fruit to the very inch of their leathery skins. Fermented in vast stainless steel tanks, steeped with resiny oak staves or oak chips and finally transferred into fat yellow green Burgundy bottles with synthetic stoppers, under every shade of green - olive, emerald, jade - or yellow plastic closures, from gold to sulphur to lemon.
But for all that variety what we were looking for in the contents of the bottle wasn't variety. It was sameness. Predictability. Reliability. We knew exactly what we wanted.
We wanted to see that dense golden amber bright yellow shining liquid in a goblet - preferably one that took a third of a bottle or more. Its cloying stickiness should betray the weight of punchy alcohol on the sides of the glass.
Take a mighty whiff of that ripe creamy butter-rich smell. And it is a smell. Not a bouquet or a fragrance. You'll find few hints or scents or subtle aromas here. This is wine foreplay Aussie style - Brace yourself Sheila.
A blast of vanilla is the first thing that hits you. At 14% alcohol it won't be the last either.
It's not like vanilla from the pod or vanilla essence but like thick freezing milkshake vanilla-ice-cream chemical-vanilla. And that's how to serve it too: teeth-on-edge headache-inducing ice-cream cold like a tinny, but opening out as the sun moves across the sky and your glass is no longer under the sunshade.
Because it's not a cold weather drink this Aussie Chardonnay. It's meant for glugging under blue skies, from the cooler at picnics, Summer days on the river or on the beach, impromptu barbecues, lazy wedding afternoons and early evenings when jackets are carried over shoulders and when straps fall off them.
Drink in its waxy malolactic weight, its heady pineapple taste, all that rich sumptuous buttery tropical fruit with added acid sharpness and long long alcoholic finish. WOW. Pour another (big) glass.
After a couple of decades - some say Australia's first commercial Chardonnay appeared as late as 1973 - the preponderance of this style of over-oaked super powerful kick-in-the-head Aussie Chardonnay eventually gave way to the ABC brigade - the Anything But Chardonnay fashionistas who wanted to be seen to be drinking something different. Mostly they chose Pinot Grigio. Good luck to them.
But when you're faced with a choice of the perfect representation of Australia, think back to the Summer Olympics closing ceremony of 2000 in Sydney.
We don't remember pop princess Kylie Minogue (bless 'er) covering Dancing Queen. We don't remember one-hit-wonders Men at Work with their one-hit-wonder Down Under.
What we remember is the diminutive figure of 73-year-old country singer Slim Dusty standing trackside at Stadium Australia in his trademark 'old grey Farrell' hat, guitar slung over his shoulder, voice breaking as he began to sing,
Once a jolly swagman camped by a billabong
Under the shade of a coolabah tree,
And he sang as he watched and waited 'til his billy boiled
"You'll come a-Waltzing Matilda, with me"
with a record-breaking stadium crowd of 114,714 roaring their approval through the chorus.
That's what I'm talking about.
Sip on your ABC if you like, but while the the nation might have chosen Advance Australia Fair as its national anthem in 1984 and The Millennium Games were seen by much of the world as a coming-of-age for the country, the closing ceremony showed that Australia is at its best when it is big and bold and brash and puffed up and proud of what it has built.
So if your preference is for a white wine that truly represents its human terroir, look no further than those that mirror the style of Australia in the 1990s when Chardonnay was the Sir Les Patterson of white wine - a proper drink for proper drinking - not a girl's name.
By contrast, South African Pinotage is as distinctively different a red wine as you can ever imagine.
A cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsault its conception as the answer to South Africa's demanding scrub and contrasting weather has been realised in a wine that divides opinion almost like no other.
It's ruby red to deep brown depending on age, strong examples cloying to the sides of the glass. It comes banana-scented or ripe with burning rubber on the nose. It's typically rough in texture, deeply plum and damson on the palate, toasty tough and mouth-puckeringly tannic. Gluggable, if you can get it down.
It's oenological Marmite - you either love it or hate it.
That virtually nobody else really grows it - except maybe as a novelty - tells you as much as you need to know.
Like most freaks and weirdos, it is found in California. Rumour has it Chile, New Zealand and of course Australia (they'll try anything once) are experimenting with it. Like Dr Jekyll I presume, creating monsters?
Look out for Beyerskloof at one end of the quality spectrum and Citrusdal at the other. Remember too that the more you pay, the less typical it is, the less characteristic. Smoother, even silky, with less burnt rubber, and, truth be told, less South Africa.
Australia may start as odds-on favourites so 25/1 for a draw at full time looks more attractive than an even money win for South Africa.