by PHILIP WHITE - This was published in The Independent Weekly in April 2007
There were grim faces around the table at Langhorne Creek the other night. Mike Farmilo, Nick Stock and your writer had just spent a day nudging the snifters at the annual Showcase Judging, where the six best local wines are chosen for inclusion in The Langhorne Creek Showcase Selection.
It’s not called a wine show, and no trophies or medals are awarded, but it’s still judged pretty much like a standard wine show, with three judges and an associate, tasting blind and averaging their scores. The rankings are still graded from no award (below 15.5 points out of 20) to bronze (15.5 – 16.9), silver (17 – 18.4), and gold (18.5 – 20), and we chose a Champion Wine of the Showcase.
The sombre mood at that dinner table had little to do with the quality of the delicious selections we made. Uh-huh. This was about water. Drought. The New Heat. Langhorne Creek was the first Australian wine district to be told its irrigation water allocation is now zero. And if Premier Rann’s huge evaporation pan goes ahead at Wellington, their allocation could well be zero for some years to come.
Unless, of course, there’s huge rain up the Bremer Valley, from Salem to Harrogate, and the traditional Bremer flood gushes through, watering the old eucalypty mudflat vineyards closest to the River. These floods submerge whole vineyards, and rarely come at the best time, but might save sufficient vineyards for the district to survive, as it did before modern irrigation. Although not even this primitive system is perfect: the upstream vignerons always take as much water as they like, and decide whether to let anyone downstream have any.
Enough will never be enough, of course. Larncrk - as the frogs and local humans pronounce it - has become a very big district. In 1991, there were 471 hectares of those traditional floodplain vineyards. Their limit was determined by the extent of the flooding, as the aquifer which they had used for supplementary irrigation was cactus: finally too salty for vines.
So Premier Dean Brown arranged new irrigation permits to allow huge-scale pumping from Lake Alexandrina for new vineyards well away from that original flooding mudflat, with its distinctive minty eucalyptols and amazing hoard of Jimmy Watson and Montgomery Trophies, most of which sat on John Glaetzer’s desk at Wolf Blass.
So by mid 1997, there were about 2,500 hectares, most planted by outsiders and newcomers in untried soil away from the Bremer. Key locals thought that might double again in the five years to 2002, to around 5,000 hectares. But in two years there were already 4,317 hectares. At the end of the 2006 vintage, the figure was about 5,800 hectares bearing, with another 332 hectares yet to bear a berry.
One reliable measure of the feverish gold rush mentality which drove this ridiculous, and now obviously unsustainable growth, was a press release from Orlando, boasting that its new planting involved 200,000 trellis posts, 1,000 kilometres of drip line, and 50,000 kilometres of wire.
Larncrk was becoming a kind of Coonawarra Lite: cheaper coolish area fruit grown much closer to the big refineries of the Barossa and McLaren Vale. Fruit whose source would rarely be acknowledged.
In one daring hit, Peter Pargeter, of Vinescape Management Services, planted 320 hectares for the Guild Pharmacists’ superannuation fund, on completely unproven, in fact dubious, samphire country, that grew its own salt lake as quickly as it grew vines.
So suddenly there’s no water other than a little saved up here and there, and the possibility that heavy rains might send another flood or two down the Bremer. That will, of course, flood only those original 471 hectares, and a few newies that have squeezed in on the moody mudflats. Unless five or six years of good rain fills the Murray Basin again, and the Lake begins to flow, all those monster upland prospects will gradually die of thirst. Or salt.
While the aquifer will never cope with another walloping like it had, and will never feed all the new vineyards, it is gradually healing under the new controls. So the winemakers’ logo, a traditional Aussie windmill, may eventually make sense again The Langhorne Creek Showcase Selection will be announced on 4th May and be available for tasting with the other 99 entrants for $10 per head at the Langhorne Creek Memorial Hall on the afternoon of Saturday 5th May.