“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)





28 May 2013


The author with geologist Jeff Olliver working on the McLaren Vale geology map,which is largely the work of Bill Fairburn (younger formations) and Wolfgang Preiss (real old rocks) and the amazing scholars in the cartographic section of the South Australian Geological Survey ... that's the uncomformity in Kevin's Cutting in the background, where the Eocene North Maslin Sands (40-50 million years ago) sit directly atop a paler Precambrian limestone formation 600 million years older - where'd the middle go? ... photo Kate Elmes

Bad trap for young players
Get your facts right before
they're misconstrued, eh? 

“550 million years of history in every drop,” says the headline on James Halliday’s Australian Wine Companion website, referring to the wines of McLaren Vale, where I live.

The doyen of Australian wine promoters, Halliday, a former corporate lawyer from Clayton Utz and Co, is also this country’s most influential wine writer. Millions follow his recommendations. In what appears to be a clean republication of a McLaren Vale Grape Wine and Tourism Association (MVGW&TA) press release promoting the McLaren Vale Scarce Earths Shiraz release, it seems Halliday was faithfully assisting in passing the word along.  While his more recent reportage suggests he knows more about the geology of McLaren Vale than whoever wrote that press release, the damn thing's still there on the internet.

And, oh.  Yes. The numbers of the more recent reportage are screwy.  Methinks James has been informed by people who simply don't understand.  Maybe I should lock them in a cage, and feed them Kurrajong until they can identify its thirty or so specific described massive ingredients, which range in age from 520 million years to at least 1.6 billion.  It's really silly to suggest the Kurrajong is 10,000 years old.  It might have come down in a terrible effluvium comparatively recently, but unlike clay, which is composed of tiny particles,  Kurrajong is composed of big chunks of rock stuff, each of which has a flavour.

It is abject nonsense that there are 550 million years of history in every drop of McLaren Vale wine. Most of this region’s vines are planted in alluvial gravels, sands and clays that were deposited in the Willunga Embayment in the last million years or so.

The vines were planted in the last few decades. A great deal of their dirt was washed into position towards the end of the last ice age, about 10,000 years ago. That’s only 4000 years before the Caucasians were inventing wine in what we now call Georgia.

As the vast polar icecaps melted, the sea level rose. Before that big thaw, a great deal of water was frozen and locked in at the poles, particularly in the Northern Hemisphere. Roughly 22,000 years ago, the surf was 100km away from today’s beach, and the Murray Mouth was at the end of a stupendous canyon system now submerged away off to the south-east of Kangaroo Island. It’s still there, alive with marine species yet to be discovered. Scientists are only just beginning to explore it. It makes the Grand Canyon look silly.

Before the ice melted and that big gulch got submerged, you could walk to Kangaroo Island. You could even walk to Tasmania around 23 million years back, and perhaps a few times since, when sea levels fell for shorter periods. In the big frame of things, that’s not very long ago.

But c'mon, it's long enough to include some spectacular geological yarns if you're seeking bigger, faster and louder for your press releases.

While the very granules, the particles, the specks that make up McLaren Vale’s Willunga Embayment alluviums may be as old as Earth itself, their geology is only as old as the length of time they’ve spent lying where they now lie. It’s like the air of the sky: the atoms and molecules may be as old as time, but when they move, the breeze is new. Wind, pardon the pun, is current.

This callow hack sniffs too much uneasy breeze in this 550-million-year sneeze from Scarce Earths.

Let’s put some zeros in. 10,000 years is four zeros. Obviously not enough. Go seven or eight kays over the range from Willunga, or drill deep enough below it, and you’ll find 1,600,000,000-year-old Palaeoproterozoic basement rocks. That’s nine zeroes, which is a fair few more. Why they chose the number 550 million to promote the age of whatever they think it is their grapes grow in beats me.

If I had been the writer, intent on impressing with big numbers, I woulda gone for 4,540,000,000 years of flavour, indicating an approximation of the age of the Earth. At a pinch, if I were going for real shock-jockery, I woulda said 13,750,000,000 years in every drop, as that’s when the great brains currently think all this universe business started with a bang.

The old rocks outside the Willunga Embayment, erroneously called the Willunga Basin, like those east and south of the Willunga Fault and its escarpment, and those west and north of the Ochre Cove-Clarendon Fault, are all older than 500 million years. This is not hair-brained theory, this is rocks. Within the official McLaren Vale Geographical Indicator, as recognised by international law, there are very few vineyards remaining in these old rocks.

What was the northern half of the region, in these old siltstone/sandstone/quartzite geologies between Happy Valley Reservoir and the Onkaparinga mouth, is all horrible houses. From its beginning, a large proportion of Penfolds Grange came from there. Like the old dry-grown bush vine Shiraz in the mudstone around the Morphett Vale Baptist Church, where my old man would preach revivals in the 'sixties.  Former Grange maker John Duval grew up there on his family's Shiraz blocks.  Max [Schubert] bought their fruit every year.  Loved it.  Along with the real old geology of Seaford Heights, which is now being sub-divided in this Labor government’s single biggest act of determined ecological vandalism, I believe these old rocks were the best grape-growing geology in the region, if not the state. Or the entire bloody country.

James Hook, vine scientist, and the author on the first McLaren Vale geology tour, explaining the significance of the unique Tapley's Hill formation (about 700 million years old) which will soon be buried beneath Labor's new Seaford Heights housing development ... photo Bodhi Edwards

Funny that it was a previous Labor government and planning minister Don Hopgood that permitted the uprooting of the original vineyards at the Grange at Magill to make way for droll dormitoria/twilight farm housing on streets called things like Shiraz and Hermitage. I hope some starving developer’s still got all them pound notes stuffed in a pillow.

Anyway. You can’t blame the current management of the MVGW&TA for letting their region’s best and oldest geology fall to the villa rash and those politicians and developers who are addicted to the voters, Shoppies and lucre that follows it. Those suburbs were growing while those folks grew up. But it’s now three years since the release of the state government’s official PIRSA map of The Geology of the McLaren Vale Wine Region, so you’d think that whoever’s in charge of writing press releases would by now have begun to get the gist of it.

You'd think that if they really were interested in, or knew anything about truly scarce old earths, they would by now have put a halt to the Seaford Heights development, which will bring poxy city/suburban houses right to the entry of the McLaren Vale township.  Deputy Premier John Rau parades like a carousel pony on the glory he presumes is his due for his housing freezes in both McLaren Vale and the Barossa, but these houses are coming in like a giant wave of bile regardless, and they're washing away the credibility of all these hungry mothers who lay claim to Scarce Earth and the right to charge more for their Shiraz because they think they know what geology it grew in.  

Don't think I'm advocating a Liberal party victory at the next election.  When Shadow Planning Minister David Ridgeway came down here in his blue and white striped shirt with the cuffs turned back like a Saints boy, he sanctimoniously declared the battle for Seaford Heights lost.  You could smell him hoping that development would proceed and get local Member Leon Bignell voted out.  There was no precedent, he said, for rezoning land to agricultural purposes once it was zoned for housing.  Wrong.  It was his party which had already done that reversal, giving Trott and Paxton and their lot the Gateway Vineyard just across the road from Seaford Heights.  

It was Leon "Biggles" Bignell, not his cocky boss Rau, that came up with the Barossa and McLaren Vale housing freeze.  The jaundiced observer could easily think Biggles got what he wanted in exchange for the Labor Party's insistence on pleasing the developer, the Pickard family, with the chequebook and the quarry full of old rock building stone not a few kilometres distant from this sacred and irreplaceable agricultural site they are so keen to smother with the sort of overlapping eaves housing which has already eaten our coast. 

Scarce Earths? One look at the map, with its overlay of vineyards, and you’ll very quickly see that most of McLaren Vale’s Shiraz is planted in the most common, flattest, cheapest earth in the district. It is NOT scarce. A lot of it - even the really old bits - are replicated, or re-occur, in the Barossa and Clare.  The truly scarce bits of McLaren Vale are either covered in houses, will soon be covered in houses, or are regarded as too steep to plant or too far removed from the recycled water pipeline (watch Polanski’s Chinatown) for anybody to bother putting vineyards on them.

But there’s little chance of that. Read the rest of this pant: “In McLaren Vale things happen… but not by chance. The region’s passionate wine producers are amongst the most cohesive in Australia, banding together, getting their hands dirty and achieving some incredible feats in the process, proving that two heads really are better than one.”

Wha? Getting their hands dirty? Counting money, or dreaming of counting money? Two heads on every penny? I remember the MVGW&TA e-mail which triggered what eventually became Scarce Earths. It suggested that every local winemaker should be planning a $100 Shiraz.


“Wednesday 1 May marked the release of 23 new-release 2011 Vintage of McLaren Vale Scarce Earth Shiraz wines,” the article says. “These wines have passed three expert tasting panels to ensure they reflect their sense of place and express their true fruit characters.”

It is far too early to decide whether these wines “reflect their sense of place” or “express their true fruit characters”.

In his tenacious wine business weekly, The Key Report, Tony Keys was quickly onto the sniff of something.

“All good stuff but who is on the panels? The butcher, baker, whore house madam and Lutheran minister?” he asked, and then explained one panel included Scarce Earth vendors/winemakers Michael Fragos (Chapel Hill), Chester Osborn (d’Arenberg) and Charles Whish (Serafino); “keeping them honest [were] Huon Hooke (Sydney Morning Herald) David LeMire MW (Shaw & Smith) and Michael Andrewartha of East End Cellars in Adelaide.”

These honesty police are all respected expert tasters, of course, but how they can possibly know that wines presumably tasted blind truly “reflect their sense of place and express their true fruit characters” beats me. It’ll take years of gradual learning before anybody can make such claim, and forensic testing of flavours relative to geology.

The makers of many of McLaren Vale’s best wines have little to do with the impossible MVGW&TA acronym, and those who sail in it. Methinks the real ones are too busy at home, learning their geology, growing and making better wine in volumes they can manage. They have no budget for bullshit. And they don’t charge $100.

Beware young common dirt being flogged as scarce and ancient.

James Hook, the author and Drew Noon MW explaining the difference between common new dirt and extremely scarce old rocks at Gateway Vineyard.  The author is indicating all the scarce old rocks to the north which are now buried beneath horrid suburbia, while the precious 700 million year old Tapley's Hill Formation siltstone at his feet is about to disappear beneath mindless Labor government ghetto.  This is the last old rock scarce earth left in the Willunga Embayment, which most people call McLaren Vale. All the other vineyards are in much younger geology, most of which is not at all scarce ... photo Brad Cameron

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