The Flow & Prose Of Wine

I see the our independent booksellers have chosen Tasmanian author Richard Flanagan’s latest novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, as their Indie Awards Book of the Year.

As a keen reader of home-grown Australian literature, I respectfully disagree: I thought it was rather poorly written and difficult to follow. Flanagan’s writing in his last two books has lacked flow, to the point where I had to re-read many sentences in order to make sense of them. As well, the narrative jumps around disconcertingly.

The descriptions, especially of the jungle where the Japanese soldiers are brutalizing the Aussies working on the Thai-Burma railway, did not come to life for me. Flanagan’s writing has changed for the worse, I think, since the outstanding Death of A River Guide (1994).

Contrast is a useful thing, in wine-tasting as in reading, and the next book I picked up after Flanagan’s was The Secret River, by Kate Grenville. This is not only a great book, an important, gripping and masterfully told story, but it’s beautifully written. The prose flows easily off the page and is highly evocative. It puts you right there in the wild Hawkesbury River landscape with pioneer William Thornhill.

Contrast and comparison are invaluable tools in judging wine. I had the chance to taste the latest Henschke Hill of Grace (previous vintage tastings), the 2009 vintage, at its launch last week. At a recommended retail price of $650 it invites comparison with the other iconic Aussie shiraz I tasted just five weeks earlier, the 2009 Penfolds Grange (tasting) – although Grange has edged away from HoG at $785.

Two grand, famous, price-leading SA shirazes from the same vintage. I didn’t have the luxury of a glass of Grange to sip alternately with my HoG, but the former is still branded on my palate memory, and the comparison is clear. The Henschke is a great wine; the Grange merely a very good one.

It was a better vintage in the Eden Valley than on the Barossa Valley floor, probably because Eden Valley is cooler, and ’09 was a hot summer. The Hill of Grace is made in much smaller quantity than Grange, and is a single-vineyard wine, if that is what rings your bell. Where single vineyards are interesting is in the distinctive character they impart, and the ’09 Hill of Grace is such a typical Hill of Grace, loaded with five-spice and cassis, dried-herb and fragrant vegetal aromas, as well as black fruits and hints of leather and tar. Sensational length; fine-grained tannins. It’s a gloriously complex bottleful of joy.

I was privileged to share in a perfect bottle of the 2006 (tasting) a week earlier at a corporate function, and the similarities were obvious. Safely sealed under screwcaps, and in the hands of Stephen and Prue Henschke at the head of a great family winemaking dynasty, Hill of Grace today is better than ever. Like great prose, it has seamless flow, and brings a smile to your face. 

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