Visiting the Maitland Regional Art Gallery in the wet weather last week we strolled into the Open Collection Store which contains some 5000 paintings, drawings, prints and photographs stored in racks, draws and shelves.
On display was a painting that stood out of a man in front of some sheds who had unusual glasses…in fact, the artist had used the bases of two wine glasses to construct the spectacles!
Was this Maurice O’Shea I asked, remembering photos of him with thick glasses and the hint of a connection with wine from the glass he was holding. Indeed, it was said the friendly curator and furthermore, it was painted by the artist Garry Shead, a nephew of Maurice O’Shea.
O’Shea was probably the major influence in developing the Hunter as a fine wine region in the post WW1 era, as opposed to one specializing in fortified wines such as in South Australia.
Having left Riverview College at 16 years he traveled to Lycee Montpellier in France to complete his education under the influence of his French mother. He then studied at the Grignon Agricultural College near Paris and then went back to Montpellier and studied vinicultural science at the famous University there. He returned to Australia in 1921 and built up the Mount Pleasant vineyard and winery his father had purchased from the King family in 1896, with a view that his two sons would run it.
So, Maurice was probably the most qualified winemaker of his day but he also possessed an additional advantage, and his thick glasses a clue to this. Poor vision and the need to wear the less than fashionable glasses had excluded him from military service when he lined up to join the French army early in the war while studying in Montpellier. The story, according to Campbell Matterson, goes that the night after failing his enlistment test he took a small group of friends out to dinner to commiserate and enjoy their last taste of freedom and his release from fighting in the Great War. The mood was one of youthful happiness.
Food rationing was in place so they left it up to the chef to serve what was available and he was indeed creative. Maurice noted an odd character in the meat dish, unlike anything he had tasted before. As he looked around to see if his friends detected anything different there was no sign of it so he remained silent, yet was curious.
Later the chef came out and chatted about the meal, did they enjoy the ‘cat Provencale’ he inquired? The domestic cat, slaughtered that day was his source of fresh meat as other forms of meat was unavailable. Among the responses and laughter, Maurice started to realise that his sense of smell and taste was superior to that of his friends. While his vision was poor he had in some way compensated with the development of an enhanced sense of smell and taste, a factor that added immensely to his winemaking skills!
The senses are curious things, both wine and music are examples of fleeting sensory experiences in the way the actual flavours and sounds are not retained on the palate or in the ear but both are greatly appreciated. There are certain individuals who have an enhanced power of appreciation, such as O’Shea and Jancis Robinson, but we mere mortals can also learn through experience to enjoy and analyse the various aspects of wine tasting.
At our recent Legends Lunch led by Ian Napier, a bracket of Margaret River Chardonnays was a real eye-opener (or taste revelation) showing a remarkable expression of Terroir influenced by the cold southern winds. Firm, with good line and length, refined flavours, almost Chablis style. The 92 Voyager was a standout, but even the middle-aged wines showed the benefits these wines gained with age.
Of course, we have engaged in “Tasting” these wines and they are specially selected to impress. Not your everyday wines for drinking and enjoying as most wines produced are and should be and end up as a refreshing accompaniment with a meal or with cheese and biscuits.
One of the benefits of tasting in a group is that it helps to focus attention, to shape and confirm a vague impression and bring out qualities that may have been overlooked. This is a social group of about a dozen like-minded people about half being winemakers and the rest great enthusiasts, but we are not a wine tasting panel. Some recall the late Len Evans asking the tasting show panels to go back and think again until they get it right – that being until they agreed with him! We operate under no such restraints. Indeed we enjoy the differences of opinion given the individual nature of tasting and our members.
We also try to match the wine with the food over lunch, usually selecting the wine styles in advance of ordering the food and try to avoid foods that would mask the subtleties of the wines. I have invested in half a dozen pairs of black socks to mask the wines so, by and large, we taste blind but not always.
As Michael Broadbent once pointed out “A sight of a label is worth 50 years of experience”, indeed we are all impressionable so we even mask the bottle tops if needed but still, everyone looks for the presence of cork or screw cap! There is a belief, and I agree, that prior knowledge of the brand can enhance the enjoyment but that often comes from the stories surrounding the wines, not purely the tasting.
So we put our selves in the shoes of Maurice O’Shea when we do a blind tasting as it were. The bouquet is probably the most important aspect or tasting a wine. Smell is the oldest and most primitive of the senses and invokes memory in a most direct way. It acts as an immediate catalyst for recognition and identification. It is why first impressions are most important, bringing back memories of past experience.
When we smell, volatile esters and aldehydes in the vapor enter the nasopharynx and stimulate the olfactory cells. The whole of the mouth, back of the throat and nose are involved and even when we swallow, the vapors circulate back up to the olfactory nerve cells.
There are some wines you can just sit and smell and enjoy without even putting them into your mouth, an aged Semillon or Cabernet for example. Swirling the glass gently can release more vapors but often the initial impression fades because the nerve sensors fatigue readily and so its characteristic can be lost.
Taste buds on the tongue and soft palate also play an important role in detecting sweetness, sourness, bitterness, and saltiness. While there are no structural differences in the taste buds distributed over the tongue, it seems saltiness and sweetness are most sensitive in the tip, the sides to sour and the back most sensitive to bitterness. A fifth taste, far subtler, Umami is also present picking up Glutamates in food and wine.
We also detect touch like senses, such as bubbles, spritzing sensations and the “weight” of the wine, the feeling of body heavy or light, and some are sensitive to sulfur dioxide giving a tingling sensation in the roof of the nose.
These are all technical aspects of wine tasting and clearly, Maurice O’Shea had developed these nonvisual senses to a high degree. It has been said he was a great blender of wines and would visit other growers such as Tyrrell and Elliot and pick the best barrels to buy for his blends. He also separated various blocks of Mount Pleasant to produce outstanding small batches such as the Henry and King paddock using his unique abilities.
Human nature aided and compensated Maurice O’Shea for his poor vision, but he studied and prepared himself for a career in winemaking He was exacting, meticulous and passionate about wine and led the way for the Hunter to become a great table wine region in Australia.
Wine Hunter: Max Lake 1964 Jacaranda Press
Wine Hunter The story of Maurice O’Shea: Campbell Mattinson 2006 Hachette Australia
Wine Tasting: Enjoying and Understanding: Michael Broadbent 1979 Macmillan Publishing Co. Inc. New York
Author: Robert Lusby AM
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