Soaking up the sun: another distinctive vintage rises through scrubland in a valley Down Under. Photo: Mehdi Chebil/Polaris/Eyevine
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The freedom of Australian vineyards leaves tasters spoilt for choice

Before I even got near the reds, I found myself thinking of a short story by Tolstoy, “How Much Land Does a Man Need?”.

The thirsty country certainly makes a lot of drink: Australia produces well over a billion litres of wine a year, which isn’t bad for a continent largely covered by ground so parched that no vine stands a chance.

Until recently, Australian wine was perceived as cheap, plentiful and about as subtle as a wallaby in your bathroom – which was never wholly true but worked well until the rest of the New World started carving up the market. Its current emphasis on regional differences is a change of tack, but it makes a lot of sense if you drive the 250 kilometres from Beechworth through the King Valley to the Yarra Valley, both wine regions considered to be on Melbourne’s doorstep, although the former is as far from the Victorian capital as Newcastle is from ours. This is Australia’s blessing, and its curse: too much of everything, from square miles to fauna. The best-known example is the cute bunnies that arrived with the settlers and pulverised the fragile land, but in Australia everything, from orchids to kangaroos, breeds like rabbits.

From Beechworth, you travel past fawn fields and silver-green eucalyptus down sun-dappled, endless roads. As you approach Yarra, however, you move abruptly into darker-leaved, fern-pelted lushness. It’s a startling change, and that’s just a corner of one of five wine-producing states in a country bigger than Europe. Whoever first decided to build the “Aussie wine” brand may have been a marketing genius but they surely failed their geography GCSE.

What about the choice in grapes? In Australia, no hallowed rules decree which vines may be planted where: you can make wine out of any varietal you can persuade to give you sufficient juice. Where, then, do you stop? Many wine traditions, even the greatest ones, are simply that – if Burgundy grows Pinot Noir and Chardonnay and Piedmont concentrates on Nebbiolo, that is presumably what worked best out of a very limited range of grapes, with primitive wine-making techniques, a hell of a long time ago. The logic of capitalism says that more choice is always good and the market will regulate, but that just makes you a slave to the market. As I zigzagged through northern Victoria, tasting my way from Arneis to Sauvignon Blanc to Riesling to Vermentino before I even got near the reds, I found myself thinking of a short story by Tolstoy, “How Much Land Does a Man Need?”, in which a man is offered all the territory he can journey round on foot in a day. Of course, he becomes greedy, and expires with exhaustion just before sunset.

I tasted some lovely wines – jasmine-scented L’Immigrante Prosecco 2014, made by Dal Zotto using the champagne method (they can’t export it for fear of cross Italians); Pizzini’s clove-and-blackcurrant 2008 Sangiovese (called Rubacuori, meaning “stealer of hearts”); a fine, restrained Chardonnay from Oakridge in the Yarra – but I also tried a lot of duds.

There are various ways to deal with the excess of options the so-called lucky country presents. In Beechworth, Rick Kinzbrunner and Julian Castagna rely on their own judgement: their planting, farming, vinifying, ageing and releasing all follow the idiosyncratic rules of individual taste and their labels, Giaconda and Castagna, produce some of Australia’s best wines.

At Yering Station in the Yarra, a programme of precision viticulture helps pinpoint differences – in temperature, soil and compatibility – not just between vineyards but within each tranche of vines. This is regionality taken to extremes, but it is more logical than trumpeting the importance of terroir while trying to make wines like those of a village 10,000 miles away. Better for Australia’s winemakers to find their own way through their scrub, fern and decomposed granite to wines as unique as the land they spring from.

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 17 April 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Election Special

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On the trail of Keith Jarrett's melodies

Lose focus for a second and you can quickly drop the thread of Jarrett's complex improvisational techniques.

“So, this is a piano,” said Keith Jarrett, sitting down at the one that had been placed centre stage for him in the Royal Festival Hall on 20 November. Blowing on his hands to warm them, he acted as if he had never encountered such an instrument before, raising a chuckle from the hundreds of fans who had turned out to see the man in the flesh. For 40 years, Jarrett has been giving concerts like this – alone with the piano, playing his improvised music to a room full of rapt devotees. Notoriously grumpy – and now as well known for his tirades against cameras and coughing audience members as for his early days playing with Miles Davis – he has an almost eerie focus onstage, relieving the tension only very occasionally with his barbed observations about the excellence of the instrument, or the shuffling in the auditorium.

Jarrett gave us a series of short pieces, each rendering separate and distinctive musical ideas. He began with an intricately woven flash of notes in both hands, criss-crossing the melodies that were by turns dark and haunting, or light and dancing. At particularly complex moments, when his arms were crossed over and the notes were flowing from his fingers faster than anyone could imagine them into existence, he leaned his ear down towards the keys, as if physical closeness could help his ideas more swiftly become sound.

A couple of folk-inflected ballads followed; heart-achingly sweet melodies picked out above rumbling, sour arpeggios. Like Glenn Gould, the Canadian pianist best known for his recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Jarrett can’t help adding vocalisations as he plays, which are all the more evident in his quieter compositions. He rose and fell from his stool; we heard his guiding hum along with the melody, as well as the odd strangled shout, yelp and grunt. He might insist on absolute silence from the audience but his own noises seem completely uninhibited as the music spins around him.

Although notorious for his curmudgeonly attitude to his fans, Jarrett was mostly restrained in this outing, allowing himself just one short, sweary outburst about killing a “f***ing camera”. At the age of 70 and with the power to sell out his concerts in just a few hours, you do wonder how much of the persona is genuine and how much of it is just giving the audience what it expects. A case in point came near the end, when he yielded to clamouring and gave a surprisingly simple and straightforward rendition of “Danny Boy”, an encore that long-time fans know well.

Given that this recital was under the auspices of the London Jazz Festival, there was surprisingly little in Jarrett’s programme that could easily be identified as jazz. One piece, full of brisk rhythms and chunky chords, gradually revealed itself to be based on a modified 12-bar blues structure and another had haunting overtones surely pulled from the classic American songs of the first half of the 20th century. Indeed, this musical ghosting becomes a major preoccupation when you see Jarrett live. It is too easy to distract yourself in trying to follow the auditory trail he has laid for you – was that a bit of Debussy, or Bach, or Glass just then? – and lose the thread of what he plays next. The improvisational technique might have more in common with jazz but now, 40 years on from his bestselling live recording The Köln Concert, it’s difficult to characterise Jarrett’s output as anything other than contemporary classical music.

If it needs a classification, that is. At one point, I became convinced that a particular piece was a Jarrett riff on Beethoven’s Bagatelle No 25 in A Minor – or Für Elise, as it is more commonly known. I was sure it was all there: the extended opening trill, the rising arpeggios in the left hand, the melody cascading from treble to bass and back again. Except, by the time I surfaced from my musing, there was no trace of Beethoven to be heard. A clashing, almost violent melody was dangling over a long drone in the bass. If you try too hard to pin down Jarrett’s music, it moves on without you.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State