Robert Oatley Winery: Will the Canes Mutiny?

North of Mudgee, in between Putta Bucca and Buckaroo, just below Budgee Budgee and near the Wooloomooloo vineyard, they’ve got a bunch of old grape vines piled up.

The burning of which I would not have had the slightest interest in writing about except that with all those outrageous Aussie names to play with, how could anyone resist?  Giving directions to the Burning of the Canes is like rattling off the cast from Jungle Book.

Said cane burning was celebrated last month by the gang from Robert Oatley Vineyards, who are pretty much single-handedly keeping this odd, ancient ritual alive.  Oatley claims that it’s a pagan-era celebration of the end of winter and the beginning of a new grape growing season—equally, a nod to the hard work performed by the migrant-level workforce who prune and cull all through the season.

As a custom, is supposed to have originated in France, where it would logically be celebrated in February or March, but as far as I know, nobody in France has burned anything more substantial than Joan of Arc since Charlemagne was in charge and the annual cane burn is now associated almost exclusively with Robert Oatley—which means that in topsy-turvy Oz, it happens in August, when winter ends in his half of the earth.

If I am wrong about this, and there are any snooty French pagans out there regularly setting fire to their vineyards, please let me have it with both barrels.  Oh, and while we’re talking about both barrels, you’re welcome for Omaha Beach.

Of course, like any self-respecting barbarian wingding, all the solemnity, mythology and symbolism involved in the Burning of the Canes is merely an excuse to get together, drink copious amounts of local wine and gluttonize.  That is precisely the way it went down when culinary guru—another heathen term—Pete Evans inveigled a few hundred hungry pyros with a grand feast held inside Mudgee’s oldest winery, Craigmoor.

Describing the festivities, Sandy Oatley (son of Robert) offered the following boring comments, somewhat unworthy of a drunken pagan:

“Viticulturists are the unsung heroes of winemaking.  While burning of the canes is a rare practice here in Australia, we enjoy the chance to acknowledge the exceptional work done in the vineyard across the seasons. It’s also a great opportunity to celebrate our efforts with friends and fellow wine lovers.”

Fortunately, his wines are less snooze inspiring.  His dad is the former owner of Rosemount—arguably the most recognized and successful family-owned winery on the continent.  As Rosemount’s helmsman, Patriarch Bob pioneered user-friendly, affordable wines first throughout Australia, and then, the world.  A chardonnay/semillon blend was his first big hit, which he called ‘pinot riesling’ for reasons known only to a country that celebrates Christmas in the summer.  This was quickly followed by his rollicking reds; theHunterValleyfruit bombs which now have a permanent spot on finer grocery store shelves for their scrumptious low-priced reliability.  If somehow, some way, you had to crown a Shiraz King, it would be Robert Oatley.

So if he wants to call his semillon riesling, he’s welcome to do it; if he wants to congregate and consummate and conflagrate and toss some shrimp on the Wooloomooloo cane-stoked barbie, more power to him—better prawns than the Maid of Orleans.


Tasting Notes:

 Robert Oatley Sauvignon Blanc, Margaret River & Pemberton, 2008, about $16:  Stellar vintages tend to produce sauvignon blancs that are juicy with pineapple and mango rather than the thin-vintage ‘grassy’ style.   2008 was such a year.  And this is such a wine.

Robert Oatley Chardonnay, Mudgee, 2008, about $16:   Wooloomooloo grapes! So who cares that an early harvest led to higher-than-normal acidity?  The cool weather shows in a crispness of style reflected in citrusy underpinnings, especially lemon and orange peel.

Robert Oatley Shiraz, Frankland River & Mudgee,  2007, about $17:   The blend of brambly, rustic wine grapes from Mudgee and the lighter, fine-grained Frankland grapes makes a nice coupling, with floral and spice notes balancing a full-bore chocolate and blackberry backbone.

Robert Oatley Cabernet/Merlot, Margaret River & Mudgee, 2008, about $18: Mudgee merlot’s trademark is ripe tobacco leaf, and this is a great foil to theMargaretRiver cabernet grapes with characteristic bell pepper, graphite, chocolate and blueberry.  Dollar for dollar, this one is hard to beat.

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