“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)





06 July 2017


Connor's Farm was not at its most photogenic when I called in the pouring rain ... a brief crack in the sky let some light through but after the driest June on record nobody's daring any rain to stop! ... photos Philip White

Best geologies getting record prices

Treasury Wine Estates last week paid $10 million for Connor's Farm, 102 hectares of gold-chip McLaren Vale vineyard. The vines include large portions of very good Shiraz and Cabernet, along with a smörgåsbord of popular new types, which have been tended by master viniculturer David Gartleman. 

On a brighter day: geological profile at a site nearby Connor's Farm ... and the sorts of bottles often reliant on essential components of McLaren Vale fruit

In the prized limestone, red loams and ferruginous sand country halfway between McLaren Vale township and Maslin Beach, the three blocks had been owned by a local investment consortium of senior wine identities who felt it was time to claim some super and get those feet up. Paul Buttery (Gemtree), Norm Doole (ex-Boar's Rock), Mike Farmilo (consultant), Pip Forrester (ex-Salopian), Ian Leask (Hither and Yon) and John Harvey (Chalk Hill) were very happy to take home a touch under $100,000 per hectare. 

With names like those, the vineyard's in the sort of thoroughbred track-ready condition you'd expect, and it has an ample recycled water allocation. 

"We're noticing a growing demand for vineyards with a track record for high-quality production," said Russell Iles, who brokered the deal for Knight Frank's Agri Business. 

"At $10 million, it's an excellent result. It’s a significant win for McLaren Vale and really sets the bar for future transactions." 

He said vineyards of such quality are attracting intense interest from local investors, but increasingly from foreign purchasers. 

Little secret is made of Treasury's keen interest in the best McLaren Vale sites. From Grange down, Vales fruit has long found its way into the top bottles of Penfolds. Anything that doesn't make that cut happily finds its way into Wolf Blass or other Treasury brands further down their vast product pyramid, where prices tumble and volumes multiply.

Peter Gago and other Treasury winemakers have a particular interest in the limestone and calcrete geologies from Oliver's Taranga south to the Communications Road area near Maslin Beach. Treasury's vine troopers have also moved onto the Kurrajong Formation and planted their own new vineyard on the piedmont at Willunga.

Kurrajong Formation at Roger Pike's Marius Wines, a little up the Willunga  piedmont from a new Penfolds venture ... Treasury bastards used creosote posts, which stank the joint out ... accountant-driven destruction ... pissed-off neighbours ... Treasury seems pretty dumbodork at establishing, running or presenting their winemakers with their own great vineyards ... am I mad? ... their brilliant winemakers should have much more control over their vineyard budgets methinks ... while they don't, at least somebody in there's buying clean vineyards from the masters

I caught Peter coming off an international flight when I called - he had yet to be fully briefed on the final purchase. 

"Allocations of Bin 389 in particular are severely under-delivered in every global market," he said, in an exhausted  superjetlaggederia that reminded me of Stephen Hawking ... "Not to mention other Bins, and higher! Which is a nice problem to have, but … 

"For many many decades McLaren Vale has offered Penfolds an enviable treasure chest of spoils. Limestone, irony sandstone, established vines ... For sale?  Yes please!"

Max and Thelma Schubert, centre, at a bonnie lunch at Angle Vale in the later 'eighties .. we talked a lot about Grenache that day

When Max Schubert was designing Grange on his way home from having his mind blown by France's top winemakers in Bordeaux in 1950, he wanted Shiraz from Morphett Vale to be a critical part of his blend. Like half of it. With fruit from Magill, on Kurrajong. 

Those Morphett Vale vines were in pre-Cambrian water-retentive mudstones and siltstones. That sure worked. But those vineyards are long gone: Most of these priceless geologies have been eaten forever by suburbia: the last bit to go in McLaren Vale proper is right now disappearing beneath the dormitory horror of Seaford Heights.

Siltstone of about the same age in the Southern Flinders Ranges, neatly turned from horizontal to near vertical on the creekline at the bottom, above, and all busted up and tumbled at Bay Of Shoals on Kangaroo Island, below

But in Penfolds country on the plains of the north Barossa the same 650-plus million-years-old sedimentary siltstones survive without houses. 

North of Greenock, west of Kalimna there's been a great frisson over some vineyards sold in this same Tapley's Hill Formation and the similar Yudnamutana Sub-group. 

It started this time last winter when arts entrepeneur John Russell sold his 40-hectare Russell Farm and vineyard there to the Argentinian billionaire, Alejandro Bulgheroni for $1.95 million. Seemed a lot then, but it's piffling now. 

The farm includes a two-storey house and 12 hectares of 100-plus years old Shiraz, Grenache, Mataro and Semillon that was originally planted by the Kalleske family. 

Right across the road from this lies a fabulous vineyard established by David Murdoch, who had been chief viticulturer for Treasury back when it was Southcorp. He was far too enlightened for some new owner or other who summarily tipped him out, so he made work locating, procuring and planting this superlative ground for an investment company. Its fruit has become a stalwart component of Grange, as well as other top-flight Treasury offerings.

Celebrating their purchase of Russell's Farm one short year back in Adelaide: consulting winemaker Alberto Antonini with Bulgheroni Australia MD Amelia Nolan took the press to lunch ... photo Philip White

Bulgheroni employed McLaren Vale viticulture wizard David Paxton to rejuvenate his new oldies and plant another 18 hectares. Packo couldn't believe his luck when the dam-building bulldozer scraped through the topsoil and a layer of limestone to find that precious siltstone beneath. 

One gets the feeling they didn't choose their purchase by looking at your actual geology map, but more according to the perfect scores the powerful American critic, Robert Parker, had been giving Greenock area wines for the decade before his retirement. Now they know their rocks are not only the likely reason for those 100 pointers, but the rocks will be around quite a lot longer than Parker. 

Just recently Bulgheroni sensibly decided to extend his holding and bid at a Homburg Real Estate auction for 16 hectares of old vines right next door. About 75 per cent of this was Shiraz, already contracted for sale to Treasury for less than $3,000 per tonne. Other than that, it all seemed fairly simple. Then a Chinese consortium rolled up and suddenly the bidding was stiffer than anybody's seen in these parts: the local aspirants withdrew long before the Chinese pushed the Argentinian to pay $149,000 per hectare. 

And this for a vineyard whose fruit he's obliged to sell to Treasury, for a measly price, for five more years. 

As with all auctions, the neighbours were there for a stickybeak, including a representative of the de Vito family who owned more remnant Kalleske family plantings on the other boundary. Once the disappointment of the Chinese was evident, during the course of a quiet  chat, they privately snapped up that vineyard at an undisclosed price: a consolation prize for China and a bonanza for the implulsive vendor. 

Which all goes to show that the real estate folks are beginning to understand the importance of geology, if only through its influence on vineyard development cost per hectare and likely price per tonne. The smart investor is certainly beginning to get its whiff, and spend money accordingly. 

The lure of these hard old grounds in the Barossa's western ridges and the Nain Hills at Greenock is due not only to the sublime flavours those ancient rocks offer, but also to the manner in which the vines grow more modestly. Lower yields, managed and deliberate, concentrate the characters the rocks and location provide, putting an extra zero on the price of each bottle if you do it right. 

As in McLaren Vale, the rich clays and sandy loams of the flat floor of the Barossa proper drive vigour which is more aggressive and harder to control. These are largely creek alluviums and sediments from the last 10,000 years or so. 

Local ironstone in the wall of Tintara in McLaren Vale is mirrored in the walls of the Barossa's buildings from Langmeil out west hrough Stonewell and north

Barossa also has its equivalent of McLaren Vale's famous ferruginous Maslin Sands. 

Washed by great effluvia from the same mountain range at the same time - roughly 50 million years back - the Barossa's Rowland Flat Sands are the same as their McLaren Vale brethren. 

And the same stuff as the big sand quarries at Highbury, Golden Grove, Gawler and Rowland Flat. 

You can't build cities or roads without sand. 

Before Don Dunstan convinced David Wynn to sell him the Wynnvale Golden Grove and Modbury vineyards for housing, they grew astonishing wine grapes, too. Same sands.

David Wynn, a bloke who knew his rocks, with Howard Twelftree, aka John McGrath, and the author at Mountadam in the 'early 'nineties ... this photo Adam Wynn

In that north stretch of the Barossa, exposed at the surface, the sands have even formed ironstone, just as they have in the gullies of Blewett Springs in McLaren Vale.  You can see this at Stonewell, Langmeil, and on Radford Road, between Marananga and the Greenock Creek ford. There, in the cutting at the top of the hill at the north end of the Seppelt Mausoleum block, these fabulous grape-growing formations are exposed. 

What has amused, bemused and irritated me, is the fact that somebody's deliberately covering that priceless viticulture ground across the fence with thousands of tonnes of building rubble they're bringing from somewhere else. Maybe they're trying to make the Mausoleum hill taller.

At least in McLaren Vale they'd spread villa rash all over it until the new protection laws came in. These legislations put a hold on mindless housing in the Barossa, too, but they don't restrict people burying rare geology that can grow wine grapes of international distinction at a dazzling profit. 

If whoever's responsible eventually does somehow get vines to grow in that rubble they can lay claim to "unique geology" on their back label. They'll be one of the very few who actually have anything unique in the way of geology going down.

They'll have geology of this new Anthropocene Epoch, made by them.


1 comment:

Richard Warland said...

Great reading Whitey. Your geological knowledge is impressive.

Maybe you can claim most of the $5.4 million that AGWA is wasting on "terroir research"