Funny that we call it “mouth”. This implies a regular drink, which here, can be only seawater. If you study our attitudes to it, and philosophies of management of it, we really mean “anus”. We want stuff to flow out through it, all the time, draining that vast hinterland of eastern Australia: 1,061,469 square kilometres of it. Like a final cleansing organ or gland, the Finniss River and Currency Creek are the last freshwater inputs into the estuary before that ultimate sandy sphincter, which sometimes does one thing and sometimes does another.
During the debacle of the Hindmarsh Island Bridge trials, there was much contention about some of the Original people regarding it as a womb, with the islands inside and out being the offspring.
The Murray Mouth in much healthier times. This drains 1,061,469 square kilometres of eastern Australia. The Currency Creek appellation begins here on the left, at the ingress of the Finniss and Currency Creek waters..
If this is indeed a mouth, she’s having a very big infectious cough.
I realize that you probably know this, but I write this anticipatory note from McLaren Vale, where I live the on opposite side of the South Mount Lofty Ranges, about half an hour from the watershed. We are on the Fleurieu Peninsula. The Vales here on my side ease their waters off the Willunga Escarpment, westerly, into the Gulf St Vincent. Cross that range and you’re in rain shadow country, where Currency Creek and its neighbouring stream, the Finniss, flow out of Mosquito Hill country, Cox’s Scrub and Ashbourne, toward the south-east. Into the Murray estuary.
Meeting's over: Sandy Mulchay, a local artist, takes a seat in her Red Chairs installation, which is gradually sinking into the vast filtering system of the estuary. I like the notion of the electric fence keeping the sad reality of the waters at bay. This is on the lakeside near Clayton. photo Philip White ... click to enlarge.
It is a repeat, if you wish, of the Kurrajong Formation on my side of the range.
After a good rain, you’ll see the stream fizzing like a milkshake at the foot of Salomon’s, rounding more rocks. He planted here because as he introduced his exquisite Salomon Undhof Austrian whites into the markets of Indo-China, Bert found he needed some good red to back it up, and reds won’t ripen in his slice of Austria. But I’ve been up and down that eastern side of the range with him, licking rocks, finding the ones with the flavours that best match home.
While the debate about the Murray-Darling reaches anarchic crescendo, there is a persistent and increasingly laudible argument that the barrages be removed from the Murray Mouth. These are a series of weirs which secure the freshwater coming downstream by holding the saltwater of the ocean out. It’s supposed to be like a dam, with the fresh river water flowing over the barrages and into the ocean. Recently, it’s been the other way round, with seawater leaking back through to the dirty polluted puddle of droughtwater within. Diluting it, if the truth be known.
Now we have big floods, she’s running back out again.
Leading the barrage removalist pack is the pin-up girl of the Climate Change Sceptics, Dr. Jennifer Marohasy, (left) who calls herself “an Australian biologist who holds unpopular opinions on a range of important environmental issues.” She was controversial primarily for her scepticism of popular human-driven climate warming science, but now gathers more attention in these parts for her plain and simple suggestion that the entire estuary would be better off if we let the sea back in when the freshwater wasn’t running. It is damned obvious to me that if you wanted a more natural, wetter river, you’d let its outlet do what it naturally does, no? Marohasy cites the anecdotal work A Fresh History Of The Lakes: Wellington To The Murray Mouth, 1800s to 1935 (Sim & Muller, 2004) and the writings of Captain Charles Sturt, who rowed down the river to discover its narrow mouth on 9th February 1830, bitterly record that it was an impassable mess of canals and sandbanks, and then row all the way back upstream into New South Wales. Marohasy maintains a feisty controversial rage on her blog.
"Just removing the Mundoo barrage would make a huge difference to the ecology of the region including the Coorong.
"Of course it would only be in very extreme drought conditions that the sea water would even make it right across the lake let alone up as far as Jervois where the off-take pipes for the vineyards is located. And keeping the main channel of the river fresh during extreme drought could be guaranteed without building any more infrastructure."
Without the barrages, that upstream water would not always be better, but perhaps the hillside vineyards upstream on Currency Creek and the Finniss might survive. Nothing is certain in these parts lately. The establishment of big hardrock mines on the Bremer at Kanmantoo (below) and the Angas River at Strathalbyn also conjure the constant possibility of polluting accidents adding to the problems of Langhorne Creek and the Lakes System. Dawesley Creek is constantly poisoned by the Brukunga mine tailings dam.
A year after Sturt came by, Captain Collett Barker moored his Isabella on my side of the ranges at Yankalilla and trekked across the forested Fleurieu Peninsula to explore the Murray Mouth, which was very narrow. He swam that, climbed a Coorong sandhill and disappeared. The local Ngarrindjeri had speared him. They later explained they thought he may have been a whaler or sealer (both hated by the Originals), but I’m sure the sight of a person with white skin and a theodolite strapped to the top of his head emerging from that treacherous crossing might have been sufficient reason for fright fight and flight.
Pity we didn’t always involve such locals in the ongoing management of their rivers. Since Barker bit the shellgrit, or, more pertinently, finally saw the point, the history of our estuary has been a long string of unfortunate mistakes, most of which have led to a gradual degradation of the system. Since the Canadian Chaffey Brothers developed irrigation systems and established the river towns of Mildura and Renmark in the last 1860s, grape growers and wine makers have played a very large role in this degradation.
Now it has some reasonably fresh, if not exactly clean, water in it, the river system is being provided a short breathing space for these estuarine industries: down this end, dairying is also vital, but entirely dependent on a good supply of fresh river water.
The thing that scares me about all this is the ongoing popular presumption that the floods are somehow normal. These floods are not normal. Drought is normal. And ongoing. I discussed this recently at Burra with the radical Natural Sequence Farming genius, Peter Andrews.
He pointed out that during the white exploration of its coastlines, Australia’s rivers were barely visible: there was no mighty Mississippi or Nile Delta emergent, and no surge like the hundreds of kilometers of freshwater that whoosh into the South Atlantic where the Amazon emerges from its jungle.
“The rivers here hardly ever made it to the sea,” Andrews said. “The water stayed in the country and kept it good. The rivers were explored from the interior. Somehow we’ve got to remember what it was like before us. We’ve got to learn to spread the water out, use it where it falls, take its energy and destructive force away, slow it down, and let it fill the country while cleaning and draining it in its own complex way. Slowly. If there’s any left to flow into the ocean, that’ll be good.”
Maybe a gestapo of Andrews, the original riverine nations, and Tim Flannery’s Wentworth Group should be given the whole job. Throw Marohasy in for leavening. It doesn’t look much like the Murray Darling Basin Authority has a hope in Hell of sorting anything at this stage, not even with Craig Knowles and Di Davidson and everybody.
Ngarrindjeri genius: David Unaipon, the most famous estuary original, worked in the Kanmantoo St George's winery in the late 1800s while its owner, Charles Burney Young, and his son, Harry Dove Young, paid for his tertiary education at the University of Adelaide.
In the meantime set up a clever suburban waste water recycling system like McLaren Vale has, and prepare the greywater from that burgeoning villa rash of the south coast, from Goolwa to Victor, so it fills the Langhorne Creek mob’s irrigation demands. Who knows – they could well do a clean business pumping any surplus back upstream along Di Davidson’s pipe to sell it to Murray Bridge.
To add a great deal more nature to the southern end of the estuary, all the channels built into the Limestone Coast, draining its water straight into the ocean, should be removed so the groundwater once again goes into the Coorong, keeping it alive.
These things will be foremost in my mind as I sit there with my colleagues tomorrow, appraising the wines of the Currency Creek district at its first ever formal regional judging.
But by the time you read this that will be another yesterday: another day lost in taking serious positive science-and-history-based action to keep the whole damned gadget ticking along. I hope to hell somebody, some mob, can pull something out of the hat, and when they do, that they will be believed and supported. We can do it.
Just because we’re judging at the very end of the River doesn’t mean it’s finished.
So this may explain the varietal breakdown of the region’s plantings, as in the 2008 figures of the Phylloxera and Grape Industry Board of South Australia. Overlooking the notion that the Phylloxera Board might some day be expected to offer something a little more up-to-date, the numbers show that of a total of 912 ha planted by 2008, 277 were Cabernet sauvignon, 61 were Merlot, and 58 were Sauvignon blanc. These are all Bordeaux varieties: 43 per cent of the total. There were probably a few more Bordeaux types in the 84 ha of “other varieties” but I suspect this category would be bulging now with the hyper-fab varieties that end in O.
Sometimes, when the angles and the light are right, but very rarely, Currency Creek feels just a little like the Rhone delta, which might help explain why Shiraz is the region’s biggest grape planted, at 310 ha, or 34 per cent of the total. But we’re stretching realities here. These folks planted Shiraz because they’re familiar with it, it seems popular, and, you know, it’s easy to grow. Oh yes. It also does very well at Langhorne Creek, the next appellation upstream, to the north.
Currency Creek NEVER reminds me of Champagne, Chablis or Burgundy. So why it has 122 ha of Chardonnay, 13 per cent of the total, beats me.
And it never feels like any part of Austria, Germany, Clare or Eden Valley, so the first class tasted, the Rieslings, seemed unlikely. I liked the buttered toast of the Ballast Stone 2004, which I awarded 92 points; the fresher Whale Coast 2006 (93) was more like lime and ginger marmalade, and with an average score of 92 was the second best white of the day.
I forgave two Chardonnays: the Ballast Stone 2006 (92) - from now on, all the scores in (brackets) are my personal appraisals, and not those of my two fellow judges – and the Fleurieu Vinters 2012 (90) which is unfinished. Otherwise, the wines were lacklustre and somewhat like the Chardonnays of the Hunter Valley twenty years ago. Descriptors like “hairoil”, “Brilliantine”, “lanilool” and “porkfat” kept appearing.
I first thought the Vasarelli Family’s Vermentino 2011 was a little broad and flat to be a true top wine, but my colleagues sent me back to it and we eventually agreed the call it the top white, with an average of 92. At least one of the varieties that end in O got up!
Which leads me to the Bordeaux white varieties. Bordeaux ends in X. There was only one bottled Sauvignon blanc in the show, while the variety makes up 6 per cent of the region’s total. This 2009 reminded me of the broad old autumnal styles Robert O’Callaghan made at Angle Vale in the late 70s, and not of Bordeaux at all. And yet, if we looked out the window of our tasting room, we could see the slope on Hindmarsh Island opposite, where Suze Angas grew stunning crisp Semillon and Sauvignon blanc in the 90s, after the Bordeaux style of, say, Peter Vinding-Diers. That vineyard is now houses.
Top red in this class was the Vaserelli Sangiovese 2010: a cheeky, sassy, bright red of overt varietal character, perfect for drinking in its youth. I really loved the audacity of this naughtiness. Pasta!
So we each move to a table laden with thirty glasses of Shiraz. I liked the slick, polished elegance of the Ballast Stone 98 (93) now showing lovely age and mellow brooding. This was a good indicator of what will happen to the Ballast Stone 2008 (91) a wine of complexity, style and authority. An as yet unbottled Wirra Wirra 2011 (92) looked ravishing; as did the beautifully perfumed Ballast Stone 2012 (91).
Best of all was the Salomon 2010, which averaged 94 points from us. But this wine is still extraordinarily tight and austere, and will need a few more years of chillin in the dungeon to offer the sort of reassuring warmth guaranteed, just say, in the Shiraz of Langhorne Creek.
Otherwise, many of these Shiraz wines showed unripe hints of the nightshade family, wintergreen and eau-de-cologne mint. Add to this the crass carpentry of the sawdust, planks and shavings that cheapskates now use in place of barrels, and you’ve got what? Well, you’re not going to compete on value and quality with the Midi or Languedoc, whose wines Coles sell here for way under $20. Uh-huh.
So. Panting. The Bordeaux varieties. Once again, I really liked the Salomon Cabernet sauvignon 2008 (91), an incredibly intense, strapping wine which needs about ten years to warble properly. And I liked the svelte balance and poise of the Ballast Stone Cabernet sauvignon 2000 (92). The Adamopoulos Show Block Cabernet sauvignon 2010 (92) was an accomplished, soulful wine with an entertaining seesaw of fleshy crème caramel and the darker nightshade greens, perhaps a little like Roger Pike’s wondrous Marius Wines from over the range at Willunga.
Our runner-up was the Ballast Stone 2001 Cabernet sauvignon (93), a smooth, composed, creamy wine with a tantalising illusion of sweetness.
So what about the best bit of the Bordeaux thing: the blends? St Emilion? Pomerol?
Apart from one gorgeous barrel sample of Fleurieu Vintners Merlot 2012 (90), and the Ballast Stone Cabernet Malbec Petit Verdot Merlot 2010 (90) which seemed as soft and soulful as the best of Langhorne Creek blends, there was hardly anything worth trumpeting. Sad, that. It’s a great pity that Cabernet sauvignon is so bloody easy to grow: it needs to be balanced in a blend. Bring on the Merlot and the Cabernet franc blends; more Malbec (the Clare clone; not the Langhorne Creek clone) … and I’d love to see some Carmenere planted if there’s a nice warm spot.
So. What do we need? Better canopy management with better dappled lighting on each bunch. Fewer bunches. Lower yields. Less industrial mentality and more tender loving care. Less petrochem regime in the grapeyards. More use of older barrels in place of sawdust/shavings/innerstaves regime of the lumberjacks. More scientific understanding of the geology, geography and weather. More wild yeast, and lees when they're appropriate.
I bow to the audacious Currency Creek wine community for having the courage to do this, and sincerely thank the Brooks family for setting it all up. Thanks to the Ballast Stone Cafe on the lakeside for letting us use their tasting area, and also to chef Michael Duchow and all those he harnessed to make a lovely lunch for judges, helpers, contributors and exhibitor families. And special thanks to the Art Gallery of South Australia for letting Big Mama outa the big city so she could keep an eye on us. She relaxed after a few reds. And she was there, mark my word, to bear witness to the fact that contrary to their bullshit propaganda claims about the Royal Brisbane Wine being the first in Australia to use the 100-point scoring system, we did it first. Mama not happy.