“Sod the wine, I want to suck on the writing. This man White is an instinctive writer, bloody rare to find one who actually pulls it off, as in still gets a meaning across with concision. Sharp arbitrage of speed and risk, closest thing I can think of to Cicero’s ‘motus continuum animi.’

Probably takes a drink or two to connect like that: he literally paints his senses on the page.”

DBC Pierre (Vernon God Little, Ludmila’s Broken English, Lights Out In Wonderland ... Winner: Booker prize; Whitbread prize; Bollinger Wodehouse Everyman prize; James Joyce Award from the Literary & Historical Society of University College Dublin)





02 July 2011


Chateau Reynella in McLaren Vale, now surrounded by houses. John Reynell's original heritage-listed vineyard site opposite was last year uprooted and pasted over with fresh ghetto by Constellation Wines, in complicity with the McLaren Vale Grape Wine and Tourism Association, Onkaparinga Council and South Australia's Labor government. Geology and rocks like these have always meant more to most winemakers for building than they do for viticulture and flavour ... new geological knowledge is now correcting this imbalance CLICK ON CHATEAU TO WATCH WHITEY TALK ROCK WITH JAMIE DRUMMOND

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South Australia’s most famous wine regions are facing an impossibly complex planning showdown, writes Philip White. He argues the latest scientific findings about geology and flavour should somehow be squeezed into the dangerously hasty and terminally-binding planning discussion.

“The concept of systematic planning, which takes into account all aspects of an area and determines its most appropriate use, has grown steadily since the early 1970s.”

I quote from Geology and the Adelaide Environment, for locals an invaluable little book written by senior government geologist John Selby, and published by the South Australian Department of Mines and Energy in 1984. It is still available for $10 from the Department of Primary Industry and Resources SA.

It’s a pity that we didn’t have the likes of politicians Barnaby Joyce, Nick Xenophon, Bob Brown and Tony Windsor arguing in those days for the retention of important premium farmland ... the one major thing missing from Selby’s good booklet is agriculture.

Agriculture gives flavour.


We are only now beginning to understand the complex inter-relation of geology and flavour in South Australia’s tiny remaining patches of first-class agricultural ground. The belated attempt of government to correct its addiction to urban sprawl suddenly makes it obvious that the flavour of future South Australia could have used a lot more scientific and planning attention in the intervening years.

The Adelaide University, the obvious candidate for getting this job done, is instead a very aggressive developer and sub-divider in itself. The 206Ha Glenthorne Farm it was given for viticultural research amongst the housing estates of McLaren Vale a decade back is never safe from the University's determination to sub-divide, in spite of a deed which repeatedly states this, or even the planning for it, is forbidden.

In 1984, South Australia was abuzz with rumours of an impending mining bonanza, so it was mainly mining materials and geological sites Selby addressed relative to housing. Houses, after all, were made from sand and clay and iron and petrochemicals and stuff, all of which come from under the ground. Cars come from under the ground, too, and we need them to get from one festering malignancy of housing to another. The trick is to get your housing built and dig up the tin for your cars without cementing over a lovely spot for a sand quarry or an iron mine or clay pit. One feeds the other.

But so far, we seem to have overlooked the fact that if we can't feed ourselves, we can't do any of this.

“Geology is important in this planning process,” the handbook continues. “For example, natural resources such as minerals and construction materials need to be identified and preserved to ensure that they remain available for future use and do not come into conflict with other development projects. Sites of geological significance for teaching and research should also be identified and protected.”

We probably weren’t to know then that housing would devour such great swathes of premium agricultural land, but it’s sad that this clever book did not include such ideas amongst its geological references.

South Australia now faces a precipitous moment when all those years of missed opportunity must somehow be fudged over.

It appears that we have lost Mount Barker. The amount of irreplaceable farmland and potential premium viticulture property now being cemented over there is disgusting.

If you need to be convinced of the quality of this land, try any of the wines from the biodynamic Ngeringa, which is almost adjacent to the forthcoming rural ghetto, festering there beside, beneath the new high-tension lines.


And now the Barossa and McLaren Vale, two of Australia’s most significant and profitable wine regions, suddenly have until the 22nd of this month to somehow retrospectively squeeze themselves into Selby’s dry argument.

This is the close-off date for public submissions to MP Leon Bignell’s discussion paper, Protecting the Barossa and McLaren Vale, recently published to discover public opinion about the legislation being drafted to save these great vignobles from villa rash.

John Rau, Deputy Premier, Attorney-General, Minister for Justice, Minister for Urban Development, Planning and the City of Adelaide, Minister for Tourism and Minister for Food Marketing (really) is very keen to have this legislation passed before the end of this year.

Apart from being suddenly expected to produce what professional planners and demographers have failed to do since those days, in determining the appearance, the amenity and feel of their regions, the people of the Barossa and McLaren Vale are suddenly faced with providing new regional boundaries to suit the discussion paper and the legislation proposed.

The regions have had only a decade to get used to the Geographical Indicator boundaries they were forced to devise in order to use regional appellations on wines for export to the European Union. These boundaries, which took countless thousands of scholarly hours and many years to decide, are recognized in international law.

Now, once again, tractor drivers and pruners and peasant-scale grape farmers are suddenly expected also to have town and rural planning and legal genius equal to the highest-paid developers and planning lawyers.


While the proposed Barossa planning boundary is vaguely similar to its GI, McLaren Vale has an enormous decision to make. The northern third of its GI, the part north of the Onkaparinga Gorge, is not in the new planning proposal.

Instead, McLaren Vale suddenly has an extension that goes north along the eastern side of its GI, across the Mount Bold region and catchment and the hilly, forested bushfire zone, to the freeway at Crafers and Stirling. Land that is virtually useless for vineyards. And housing.

And is in fact part of the internationally-recognised Adelaide Hills GI.

In exchange, that northern portion of the McLaren Vale GI appears to be lost to housing. This includes the highly contentious 206ha Glenthorne Farm, the old Reynella vineyards and homestead, Geoff Merrill’s Mount Hurtle Winery, and several other smaller vineyard and winery holdings.

Leon Bignell thinks these should be delineated like islands in the sea of ghetto, but there other breezes to sniff. Of course developers would prefer to get their hands on land on which housing could be built, if only the planning regs could be trashed. The 206 hectares of Glenthorne tends to come to mind. These places are inside the McLaren Vale GI. They should already be protected.

And then, if the low-budget cartographic values evident in the plan's drafts were ever accepted during the drawing of our geology map, this conversation would already be over. There would be no such scientific document.

While the complexity of this is seriously confounding, it’s nothing on the fact that so far, the Minister for Food Marketing seems oblivious to the myriad connections between geology and flavour.

His government’s new plan so far makes no mention of geology.

Since the publication last year of the official PIRSA map of its geology, McLaren Vale has been quietly attempting to digest how this freshly-available natural science influences the flavour, environmental reality, water requirements and profitability of the region’s wines. Jeff Olliver (left, with the author), one of the respected veteran geologists who worked on the map, has consulted to a winemakers and viticulturists’ committee, for example, to devise sub-regions according to this geology, and other factors.


While a place as complex and confounding as Burgundy has three basic geologies which took nearly two thousand years to understand, McLaren Vale has dozens. At current count, I believe the committee is contemplating nineteen sub-regions.

How the geology of these influences the flavours of the many grape varieties already in use will take many years. To investigate the flavours of other varieties which really should be trialed will take longer. The quality of the region’s wine, however, will inexorably improve with such research. Grape-growing and winemaking will become more efficient and reactive.

These long timeframes are to be expected: the McLaren Vale map began in discussion in the Mines Department in the early 1970s. Visionary geologist W. A. Bill Fairburn suggested it was needed back when we worked there in the Geological Survey at the Department of Mines, and he slaved over it over the next 35 years, mainly in his spare time. Current boss geologist in the PIRSA Geological Survey, Wolfgang Preiss, has also spent years on it.


Bill has also mapped much of the Barossa floor: to complete his work to the standard of the McLaren Vale publication would take less than a year. But we know the Barossa geology is much more simple than McLaren Vale, and involves fewer likely sub-regions.

Tastings held in the Barossa over the last three vintages, relating flavour to vague geological groups, are beginning to establish a database of descriptors unique to the wine of each area. McLaren Vale is commencing the same painstaking ritual. In the deliberations, both regions are constantly encountering stuff which makes them question the boundaries they finally agreed upon for their GIs.

The knowledge so gained, however, will be invaluable and irreplaceable for future viticulturers and winemakers.


And yet we have this imminent overwhelming proposal which so far ignores geological science, and expects new boundaries to be accepted without geological reference.

The old rocks of the 650 million year-plus Umberatana Group supplied much of the best McLaren Vale fruit for a century. Apart from the so-far unplanted Glenthorne Farm, this priceless geology has recently been lost to housing, never to return to productive agricultural use. The only bit south of the Onkaparinga is at Seaford Heights (below). Other than a vague mention somewhere of the ground’s capacity to support housing, the vital geological significance of this farmland has never been acknowledged in government’s decision to sub-divide.


This isn’t merely about the flavour of wine. The Seaford Heights fields were famous amongst beer brewers and barley growers for its record-setting produce. It was equaled only by the barley country around Roseworthy, where this government plans to impose 70,000 new residents.

But then, very conveniently, Roseworthy’s just outside the proposed planning boundary of the Barossa, as is the irreplaceable rolling splendour of the Turrettfield research farm, where Matilda the sheep was cloned and McLeod’s Daughters filmed.

So. I suppose that if the proposed legislation can ignore the potential flavours of South Australia’s wine relative to geology, its ingenuity in animal genetics, and its television fame, it might just as well ignore the beer drinkers.

Somehow, somewhere in this plan, there should be some sort of urgent moratorium imposed until some of these glaring oversights can be addressed. Public planning is eternally complex, and eternally changing. Given the realities, the finality and the haste of the current scheme are very scary indeed.

It’s time the Minister for Food Marketing walked around in a circle and had a bit of a chat to the Attorney-general and the Minister for Planning and Urban Development. He can tell them that “Sites of geological significance for farming, teaching and research should also be identified and protected.”

Wherever they are.

John Rau, Minister for Everything, tables his triumph of ghetto over priceless geology of supreme agricultural significance, Seaford Heights, in the McLaren Vale Visitor's Centre. CLICK ON THE MINISTER TO WATCH WHITEY TALK ROCKS WITH JAMIE DRUMMOND


McLaren Vale Grape Wine & Tourism body already on its back: key organization rolls over to flaky and highly unpopular government:

It appears that the McLVGW&TA has chosen not to insist on its internationally-recognised Geographic Indicator boundary being observed by the SA government in relation to the new planning boundaries government seeks to impose on the district. This means the region will now have two totally contradictory boundaries, one of which intrudes for twenty kilometres into the Adelaide Hills GI.

On the other hand, it appears most of the northern third of the McLaren Vale GI extant, the section north of the Onkaparinga Gorge, will be lost to developers immediately upon the legislation's passage. It will then be up to future governments to observe or overthrow this highly-contentious legislation in the remainder of the McLaren Vale GI, and that huge, illogical new lump of it which is actually within the Adelaide Hills GI.

At the same time
, when internal solidarity is paramount, McLaren Vale is rife with accusations and rumours about certain members of the board planning to sub-divide vineyards which they own, but which they are incapable of running profitably in the current glut. Due to ignorance and lack of research, many of these vineyards were planted to inappropriate varieties in the wrong geology for all the wrong reasons.

Important conflicts of interest
issues arise here. In the Vales, the Grape Wine and Tourism Association appears and operates publicly like some kind of unofficial democracy, which government finds easy to treat as if it were representative of the majority of the district's citizenry. This convenient presumption is treacherous. The Grape Wine and Tourism Association is really a marketing cartel of self-interested winemaking stakeholders, many of whom have rarely produced much wine of particular distinction, other than the odd bottle decked with bling they award each other at the annual wine show. They may be the district's biggest employers, but these people are certainly NOT democratically elected by those whom, by omission, they purport to represent.

The best example of this in practise was the destruction of John Reynell's 162 year old vineyard at Chateau Reynella, only last year. The owner for a time, Constellation Wines, the world's biggest wine company, was then active in this district, and obviously such a major contributor to the Wine and Tourism Association's coffers that the organisation flatly refused to assist this writer and local parliamentarian, Leon Bignell, in our battle to save the vineyard, which is now ghetto.

Having taken a dive to the tune of some $1.6 billion in its disastrous Australian exercise, and picked up a mere $5 or $6 million for this sub-division, Constellation has since disappeared from McLaren Vale, leaving two of the region's biggest and most historically-significant wineries in mothballs, its oldest and most historically significant vineyard concreted over, and the Wine and Tourism Association bereft of funds.

This is hardly democracy in action.

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