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New wine adventure with old bones


Whitey’s impressed by the endeavour of the Barossa’s newest international wine investor.

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Alejandro Bulgheroni is worth around $US5 billion, according to Forbes; other pundits put it closer to six. With his brother, Carlos, he built on the fortune his father made through Bridas, Argentina’s biggest private oil and gas company.

As if to add some yang to this yin, Mr Bulgheroni also professes a deep commitment to what is fashionably called “sustainable” viticulture. He has vineyards at home in Argentina as well as more recent additions in California’s Napa Valley, Chianti, and Bordeaux.

Bulgheroni’s also put in a big vineyard in Uruguay, where he also grows what has been adjudged to be among the world’s best olive oils. The sprawling hilly estate’s on extremely old basement geology near the Atlantic Ocean.

Even more adventurous is his new place in Patagonia, where he intends to make ice wine (wine made from grapes that have been frozen while still on the vine). That’ll be the world’s southernmost vineyard, thank you.

Not to stretch the yin-yang cold-warm deal too far, last year he also purchased 40 hectares on the north edge of Greenock. John Russell, founder of the defunct Barossa Music Festival, sold it for $1.95 million, which makes me wish I’d put in an invoice for helping him get that festival off the ground as a favour for David Wynn half a lifetime ago.

Russell named the property Greenock Farm. This baked-hard alluvial country is hardly a cool site unless you think the very words Greenock Creek are cool. Many obviously do: since Robert Parker began handing perfect scores to Michael and Annabelle Waugh’s Greenock Creek Vineyards and Cellars, we have seen BRL Hardy, Torbreck, Two Hands, Warren Randall and numerous littlies cram in around the Waughs at Seppeltsfield/Maranaga until the only bits without vineyards are the palm avenues and the roadways.

While the beginnings of the actual Greenock Creek wander south through the gently-sloping Bulgheroni site, the geology there appears quite different to the clunky old rock outcrops south of the town – the ones that made the Seppeltsfield/Marananga/Greenock Creek wines special in the first place.

Which is not to decry the Bulgheroni endeavour; his purchase includes 12 hectares of run-down century-or-so old Kalleske family Shiraz, Grenache, Mataro and Semillon. This is being rejuvenated by McLaren Vale biodynamic viticulturer David Paxton to biodynamic specifications, a regime also being applied to the 18 hectares of extra vineyard under development.

The ridges of the north-western Barossa – from Nitschke and Roennfeldt Roads through Marananga and Seppeltsfield north-west through Greenock to the Nain Hills – are the oldest rocks in the Barossa proper. They’re Neoproterozoic – older than 541 million years. You can see them in the cuttings at the Greenock overpass. In contrast, the vast part of the Valley “floor” is recent alluvium from the last 10,000 years. During this baby time all the little waterways and creeklines, including Greenock Creek, formed in these alluvial clays, wind-blown and alluvial sands and ferruginous loams.

But let’s talk old. In the North Finders Ranges the youngest formations of the Neoproterozoic, like the Rawnsley Quartzite, contain the remnants of early multi-cellular life; the first large beasties: the history-changing, world-famous Ediacara fossil beds, which Premier Jay Weatherill and Tourism Minister Leon Bignell are wisely planning to open to tourists in a controlled manner.

Go further into the Neoproterozoic, beyond 650 million years, and you hit the siltstones and limestones – more ancient sea beds – of the Umberatana Group, which stretches back to about 750 million years.

In McLaren Vale, the youngest of these layers of muddy old ocean floors is the Reynella Formation. Great for vines, but all under villa rash. Jump further back in time and you hit the Tapley Hill Formation, which stretches, mainly well beneath the surface, from Willunga to the North Flinders. It rears up here and there along the Mount Lofty and Flinders Ranges like a giant ridgebacked serpent.

This Tapley Hill stuff is where many of South Australia’s oldest buildings came from: soon after Edward Loud first mined slate at Willunga in 1840 he was supplying roofing slate and flooring for thousands of buildings whose walls were made from its associated ‘bluestone’ and siltstone.

I see Willunga slate in the grand old buildings of Melbourne and Sydney; it became a huge export item for the young colony and indeed was a major reason for the establishment of the Port of Willunga, 10 kilometres from the quarry as the ox-cart crawls.

Thirsty work … might as well start a wine region, eh?

If it’s not been squashed so hard by the earth’s continual upheavals and foldings that it forms perfectly flat, fairly waterproof slates like we still quarry at Mintaro, this old mudstone remains quite porous, and retains good rainwater for vineyards if it’s a bit broken and rubbly, as it is beneath the Waugh’s Alice’s Block behind the mausoleum at Seppeltsfield.

This illustrates why you should never call your geologies ‘unique’ unless they are. Usually, they’re not. Even McLaren Vale’s famous Maslin Sands are mirrored in the Rowland Flat Sands of the Barossa: same source in the great mountains that have all but worn away; same age; basically the same composition. When exposed to air and washed with ferruginous groundwater, this sand forms the ironstone of McLaren Vale’s best vineyards, the ironstone of Barossa’s Stonewell and the buildings on Langmeil Road, and the capping you can find on the top of the hill above Alice’s Block, behind that Mausoleum.

When Bulgheroni’s winemaker, the famous Italian globetrotting consultant, Alberto Antonini told a press gathering at Orana last week he had limestone on Greenock Farm, I was suspicious. Much of what winemakers call limestone is in fact calcrete. Limestone is old calcereous seabed with fossils, while calcrete occurs in a crusty manner on the surface when acid rain falls on calcereous soil to pull the calcium out of solution.

Put simply, I imagined the property they’d bought was further north, closer to Kapunda, where it’s hotter and drier and nowhere near as attractive for vines. The fruit from up those parts always seems kinda fried. I suspected Mr Bulgheroni had not finished his homework.

Scepticism wasted.

David Paxton gurgled with delight at what the bulldozer has revealed as it carves through the young clay and alluviums of the last 10,000 years.

Whilst excavating for their new dam, the dozer has hit not only the true limestone capping of the Tapley Hill Formation, but indeed boundless amounts of that very good siltstone stuff below. In one scrape, that blade jumped 700 million years.

Which will begin to explain why the fruit of those poor old Kalleske vines has been so sought after by very famous Barossa winemakers for so many decades. Consider those grapes removed from the bulk market. Next time we taste them they’ll have their own brand, they’ll be free of industrial petrochem vineyard sprays and whatnot, and they’ll be made in a brand new winery by a highly intelligent and dead honest winemaker with a wider international oenological understanding than anybody I’ve met.

I can’t wait to see this endeavour grow to its next fruition. As Mr Antonini said, “This will be a new adventure with old bones”.

Jeez it’d be good to have some money, wouldn’t it.


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