Mahmood Fazal is a Walkley award-winning investigative reporter. On the outskirts of his crime writing, Mahmood is currently compiling a book about wine. It is an extension of his Instagram page semiautomaticwine — where he experiments with journalism, automatic writing and poetry to demonstrate the meaning of his favourite wines. Uncorked is his take on a wine column; a romp through the bottles, varieties, phenomenons and personalities that colour the world of wine today.
It’s a foggy winter night, and my friend Jack Shaw, the co-owner of Melbourne wine bar Hope Street Radio, winds down my gravel driveway, a case of wine perched on his back seat. Jack and I share an affection for obscure, old world wines but on this particular night, we have agreed to zero in on something closer to home.
It belongs to the world of chardonnay, a white wine varietal that spread like wildfire from France’s Burgundy and Champagne regions to the New World around the ’80s and ’90s.
In Australia, Chardonnay has become the most planted white wine grape because it produces a nectar with many different faces, ranging from large textural numbers to racy puritanical memories of the sea. It’s a wine that can be both crisp and refreshing, yet serious and contemplative. When ordering, I like to point the sommelier in the direction of either butter or salt along the chardonnay spectrum when trying to find a suit that best fits.
Generally speaking, Chardonnay wines are high in alcohol with low acidity. It’s a broad shouldered drink favoured by Aussies for its pairing with seafood; notably prawns, crayfish and lobster. It stands up to the sweet and briny flavours with notes of citrus, cream or hazelnut.
In the opening round of our tasting session, I uncork a premature bottle of Domaine Leflaive’s Puligny-Montrachet. It’s regarded as one of the world’s great white Burgundies (meaning, from France’s historic Burgundy region) — and rightly so. The wine’s saline-purity illuminates from the glass, with a slow rolling note of vanilla that rapidly descends into a tussle between white flowers, rockmelon and fresh pastry. It’s a delicate ballet dancer, bathing beneath a coarse white spotlight.
Then, Jack reveals Giaconda’s 2010 Estate Chardonnay. He rotates the screwcap, and ever so slowly empties the river of gold down the throat of a duck shaped decanter. Jack’s focus is solemn, a life-size echo of Vermeer’s painting of the Milkmaid.
The Puligny-Montrachet is flawless — the kind of wine that makes even the best Chardonnays taste bland. But that’s not the case when it comes to the Giaconda.
The taste of a 100 point wine
On the nose, Giaconda’s 2010 Chardonnay conjures an atmosphere of burning bush, with an undercurrent of dry ginger that cracks with mineral overtones. I throw back a quarter glass, and am inflamed with the piercing glow of a struck match. Then, ripples of white flowers, wet stones and singed eucalyptus form a proverbial halo around my head.
This year, Giaconda’s 2021 Chardonnay became the first Australian white wine to receive a perfect 100 point score from The Wine Advocate. When poured into the glass, the aroma reveals itself like a slow dancing burlesque performer in a gold mining town. It’s oily and rich with a back bone of crushed oyster shells.
On first swig, its frame is bush smoke, which slowly nods toward a toasty sense of the exotic, with cardamom and hints of pepper, before shapeshifting headfirst into a longing for the crystalline flavour of the sea. Beneath the marching band of flavour, there’s a meditative persistence. The wine expects as much from you as it gives.
A bottle down, and Jack and I agree the Giaconda lives up to its name. It wasn’t enough just to taste it – I wanted to know more. So I gave the man behind the vines a call.
Meet Rick the mystic
Rick Kinzbrunner is the founder and winemaker of Giaconda, a vineyard in the tranquil yet fabled Victorian town of Beechworth. Like a true mystic, he reflects on the genesis of the chardonnay, asking: “how on Earth do these things happen?”
The yarn begins with Rick stumbling into Beechworth. “In those days it was a place not to be, they only had a loony bin and a jail. [But]I had come across some research by [leading Australian viticulturist] Richard Smart, who had suggested Beechworth was potentially a good place for growing grapes.” Eventually, Rick came across a property that shook his instincts into action, “I just bought the land. I’d never tested the soil. I didn’t even know if there was any water supply.”
Before finding himself with a patch of land in Beechworth, Rick trained as a mechanical engineer. He didn’t fall under the spell of wine until he was a young adult.
“My family never drank any wine or alcohol at all — maybe a glass of something at Christmas,” says Rick. “When I started to work as an engineer some friends introduced me to good red wine. Rouge Homme Coonawarra and Seppelt Moyston. It was an instant passion.”
The route to white wine wasn’t as straightforward. “Murry Robson from the Hunter Valley was probably the first memorable chardonnay I can remember tasting in Australia,” explains Rick. “There was so little available in those days.” Rick’s pursuit of winemaking led him to study in California where he tasted his first white Burgundy, Louis Latour’s Chablis. He quietly adds, “That was a real revelation.”
In the California scene, Rick worked with the likes of David Ramey and others who were reviving traditional methods of winemaking. “That set the groundwork for how I made Chardonnay, things like natural yeasts, barrel fermentation, oxidation of the juice on pressing, selection of barrels and just traditional practices. It generated a lot of my early choices in the first wines I made, which hasn’t really changed very much to this day.”
Rick’s chardonnay is made in an old fashioned basket press. It’s only ever pumped once from the press when it’s juice; after that it’s moved into the barrel and bottle by gravity. “I just let it take its natural course. I’ve never been a slave to the latest fashions. I’ve just made the ones that I’d like to drink.”
The basic rhythm of Giaconda’s wines have been abiding, as Rick puts it, “we only tinker with the edges.” Before pointing out, “the one big thing that has changed in our winemaking is the use of our underground cave.”
An explosive secret ingredient
When I tell Rick that I’ve heard he knows his way around a stick of dynamite, he laughs sheepishly, “vaguely, yes. But this was two and a half tonnes of explosives… It had to be done by experts… It was pretty spectacular. About 70 days of explosions.”
Rick believes the cool temperatures and humidity of the cave allow the character of the wine to develop and concentrate a ghost-like sense of place.
With a mirror to the master, I ask what he thinks of his wines. “The 2021 is one of the best I’ve ever made. It’s very powerful, very long, mineral and complex. They’re very concentrated without being fat, with great acidity. It’s really nicely balanced. And it’s got the matchstick, reductive stuff we love.”
The flinty character of white wine is often broadly described as minerality with the aroma of gunflint, therefore likened to a freshly struck matchstick against steel. It’s a haunting note, echoed most memorably in wines like Didier Dagueneau’s Silex and Tissot’s Savagnin.
“The flinty matchstick character, it’s a complex thing,” reflects Rick. “It’s not something we can manoeuvre. It’s an act of sulphur, the soil, the barrel, the natural yeast and the natural malolactic.”
It’s always hard to pin down what makes something special. The process becomes its own abstract act of distillation. But that Giaconda is the sum of its parts. The iconic flinty note of Rick’s chardonnay is a trail of smoke that sparks within us the story of tradition, the nostalgia of campfire and a fleeting taste of the lucky country.
What Baudelaire might have meant when he wrote, “within the wine’s depths, the wine’s soul.”