“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)





11 October 2017


Should the Murray estuary wine folk have a bit of a think about Bordeaux?

Two of the things I learned living in the Bremer Valley as a kid in the 'sixties have stuck with me all my life. Both came in the summer's dusty blast: that rain shadow country where the hills meet the Mallee around Kanmantoo can be brutally hot. Which led me appreciate the value of an estuarine influence: escaping from the sweaty little school bus was even more worthwhile when cool late afternoon sou-easterlies came all the way from the Southern Ocean across the Coorong and Lake Alexandrina to the alluvial plains round Woodchester, Salem and Callington, eventually to relieve Kanmantoo. 

That was Lesson # 1: estuaries are precious.

The second big learn concerned land clearance. 

As the miners of the 1800s had cleared all the trees and scrub around Callington and Kanmantoo to fire the copper smelters the land was bare and troubled. 

The largest local landowners, Charles Burney Young and his son Harry Dove Young ... like imagine that shit ... "oh no this is our land now" ... grew unirrigated bush vines in the local alluviums, eventually to have original owners sending their kids to pick grapes. 

Just by chance the lives of two very heavy dudes overlapped there in the Kanmantoo St George Winery. The Ngarrindjeri genius, David Unaipon, worked there, as did the Burgundian Edmund Mazure, who was developing his recipe for what became Auldana St Henri Claret and eventually Penfolds St. Henri. Mazure named it after his son, Henri. In that barren dust-or-mud backwater, he also made a world champion red there: Kanmantoo St George Claret won top gold at the Paris Exhibition of 1889.Because they were old vines perishing of die-back, Nora Young pulled them out between the Wars.

Summer thunderstorms in the hills to the north of Kanmantoo would dump an inch of rain in just an hour or so. As there was no vegetation to hold it, that water would simply skim off the hillsides to flash-flood our house and wash cars off the main street into the Big Erosion that joined the Bremer four miles downstream at Callington. 

People died. 

(Matthew Abraham, David Bevan and Nick Xenophon may care to learn that while these storms always caused lengthy power blackouts, nobody blamed the local windmills.) 

I don't recall any of the car wrecks being found beyond Callington but the water would rip through there and off to Langhorne Creek. There the vignerons would catch it with levees and deliberately flood their vineyards, grabbing some last-minute deep soil moisture before the flood was eventually let escape into the Lake and down over the barrages through the Murray Mouth into the Southern Ocean. 

Opening a floodgate at Bleasedale ... note windmill to pump aquifer water

There is no creek called Langhorne. The locals don't even call the joint that: their patois usually pronounces it Larncrk. If you wrote it out there was a bridge called Langhorne after a bloke of that name, but it crossed the Bremer. Unless there was a flood, when the bridge became an island near the other one with the pub on it. 

The Old Man would stack us six kids in the car when the vineyards were flooded and we'd drive down there and rubberneck at the water that had filled our house with sheepshit and mud a few days earlier. As the Kanmantoo Vineyards had long gone, these were the first vineyards I can recall. We were taught they made the Devil's Brew and this was his country. 

The Devil was a fairly impressive character to the young White: Potts' Bleasedale winery was probably the biggest building in the district. I quickly figured that's where that sheep-shitty water got turned into wine: Jesus had nothing on it. 

When I went to work for him full-time in the early 'seventies, Mr. D taught me the flavours of the Larncrk wines through those muddy, soulful Bleasedale wonders. I eventually discovered these were made, by default, by time, procrastination and family disagreement more than intent or your actual Ĺ“nological recipe.

(NOTE: Since a shorter version of this was published on InDaily several people have told me I have been unfair to Bleasedale. This is not my intention. I have had delicious dry white Verdelho from that establishment, soulful rustic reds of various breeds, and of course the very old fortified Verdelho is one of the rarest, most exquisite treasures of Australian fortified wine history) 

A young German reffo bloke with a Volksy beetle was also discovering these old vineyards. His name was Wolf Blass. He had a recipe. Soon I was drinking his take on the district: much more polished, impressive and memorable than the traditional Potts' family styles. While I didn't realise then, they were absolutely corseted with the sap of new Quercus alba - American oak - barrels from the Barossa cooper, A. P. John. Sophisticated.

As the mantra of Wolfie's shotgun riding/blending/winemaking offsider, John "The Ferret" Glaetzer went, "No wood, no good; no medals, no jobs." He knew that brash oak seduced wine judges. Those two had watched what Penfolds did with Grange and new American oak. But they needed that special Larncrk fruit.  Soft intensity, with a little more airborne mudflat eucalyptol in the Cabernet.

Although irrigation from the aquifer was handy for commercial success when there was no flood, the vignoble's area was still limited by the flood boundary. 

As the aquifers were more or less buggered with salt from too much greedy extraction through uncontrolled irrigation bores, the government had eventually restricted this practice. This management regime had commenced under the premiership of the brilliant Don Dunstan and his similarly enlightened Minister for Mines and Energy, Hugh Hudson. I know. I worked for them, and took a display caravan around to regional agricultural shows to explain the importance of saving the aquifers.

Winemakers and grape farmers, in their gold button blazers and moleskines, thought I was a representative of the new homosexual communist regime. I remember them all too well. The same lot, and their offspring, now jealously protect their aquifers and sensibly whinge about fracking.

Along came Liberal Premier Dean Brown. When together we officially opened the Willson family's new tasting room at Bremerton, he promised to replace this underground water by permitting the installation of big new pipes to pump fresh water from the Lake. 

I use 'fresh' loosely: often the salinity of the Lake was too high for irrigating plants. 

In 1991, there were 471 hectares of vineyards there on the Lake. In 1997 that hit 2,500 hectares. While the plan was to carefully double that again by 2002, opportunists used the Brown water to stretch the vignoble to 4,317ha by 1999, making a tenfold expansion in eight short years. It's since slowed down; some vineyards perished. I reckon there's around 6,000ha now. 

The author with Wolf Blass and John Glaetzer ... photo John 'Guitar' Preece

Jealous of Wolfie's incredible wood-bound pillage of the national wine show circuit, newcomers had crowded in, planting industrial vineyards on the slightly higher sand-over-limestone country as well as the salty samphire flats. Whatever. Wherever. Nobody seemed to care about the ground. The fascist irrigated petrochem viticulture regime taught then to big squirters at the University of Adelaide was guaranteed to overcome the erratic, threatening nature of your actual terroir.  

Out towards Strathalbyn, at Belvedere, there'd been vineyards in the 1860s, but those pioneers had withered without fresh water. Now there are vineyards there, too, and all over the joint, well beyond the Langhorne Creek boundary, south through the Currency Creek flats (below), almost to Goolwa. 

Water, see? 

Somewhere I have the triumphant press release from Orlando, boasting that under its new French owner, Pernod Ricard, its new Langhorne Creek vineyard cost $30 million, used 200,000 trellis posts, 1,000 kilometres of drip line, and 50,000 kilometres of wire. That was their measure of gastronomic accomplishment. Thankyou France, thankyou Premier Brown. 

Within a few years, the vineyard was on the market. It never sold. Good work, those men. Take a bow. 

Which leads me to a slow-motion spat between the chairman of judges of the local wine show, Murdoch wine critic Nick Ryan, and his friendly Fairfax rival in Sydney, Huon Hooke. Huon had written of his amazement that in the Langhorne Creek Wine Show  Nick and his team had awarded the top golds to a couple of $12 'Classic' Jacob's Creek reds; one also took a trophy.

Nick responded last week with a surly piece on Wine Business Monthly's WBM Online

"I don’t question the awards on the grounds that they are cheap wines," Huon originally wrote on his Real Review blog. "I question the awards because of the way they taste. They’re no more than bronze-medal wines, in my opinion. 

"They are simple, fruit-driven wines with sappy tannins – the latter pointing to less than perfectly ripened grapes. I don’t know what vineyards the grapes came from, but my experience leads me to suspect they came from heavily cropped (high yielding) vines. Such vines often give rise to red wines with underripe tannins, especially in the Cabernet family of grape varieties. And that is how they both taste to me." 

I was honoured to chair the first Currency Creek Wine Show at the Signal Point Gallery at Goolwa in 2012. Here are fellow judges Nick Ryan (left) with Patricia Piccinini's Big Mama, her suckling, and Zar Brooks ... in my speech at the awards lunch I repeated a lot of what I've written here. There was never another Currency Creek show. That was my last wine show. Sounds like a movie ... The Last Wine Show ... photo Philip White ... below: of course it was all very professional and respectful when Ryan and Hooke sat diagonally opposite each other at the Grange tasting ... might be a millennial beard thing

Langhorne Creek, Currency Creek - all those lakeside estuarine flats where the Murray River system meets the sea, are to me the closest South Australia gets to Bordeaux. Sure, it's a little warmer and there's more sunshine, but the feeling of that special  place there on Lake Alexandrina, its alluvial geology, its marine smell, with those cool winds coming off the Southern Ocean, remind me of Bordeaux on its estuary where the Garonne River hits the Atlantic.

I wonder whether Pernod Ricard, having changed Orlando's name to another river-sized creek, this time called Jacob, has ever thought of this? Has the chairman of judges? Do any of the Larncrk locals? Have they considered less water, lower yields, and proper French oak? 

Langhorne Creek, of course, has no nuclear reactor proud on its low embankment like the Garonne. But on the southside of the Garonne I've seen riverine alluviums mirroring bits of the big slow deltas on that east side of the South Mount Lofty Ranges, from Harrogate right down through our house to the Lake.  

Last figures I saw, from the Winemakers Federation of Australia paper, 2015 Production profitability analysis, 77% of the fruit grown in Langhorne Creek sold at a loss. 

The wine show is the least of the region's troubles. But it reflects them well. Ask a kid from Kanmantoo.

Me and Mum with three others of her six, on Mount Barker summit, overlooking the rainshadow country of the Bremer Valley and the Mallee ... if the Old Man had turned the Voigtlander a few degrees to the right, to the sou-east, we'd see Lake Alexandrina ... by the time he'd done a gentle pan back round to west, I was gone mining

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