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Letter from the vineyards

Wine

Philip White takes a tour of the Vales vineyards, where budburst is looming, locals are dreaming of what variety will be the Next Big Thing, and a long-table winery lunch is highly recommended.

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There’ll have to be some frenzied flashing of pruning snips pretty soon around McLaren Vale: on Sunday some friends transported me from my north-east corner of the region near Kangarilla to the other end of the joint on Sellicks Hill and I was surprised to see how much of the vignoble has not been pruned.

It’s a telling time for the vine perve, this end of winter. Without all that leaf canopy, the vines are laid naked: it’s easy to spot the grower’s degrees of laziness and greed in the way the vines’ canes and cordons are set. After the huge amount of foliage that grew in the extreme wet of last year things look particularly messy.

No wonder so many of these folks have trouble selling their Shiraz: damn berries can’t be much more than bags of leafy water.

It’s also impossible for the herbicide users to hide their stripe of naked earth.

All that marketing guff about sustainability – horrid word – and environmental responsibility look thin when you see how much poison many growers readily pour onto the ground and into the aquifers. That many still proudly brand these glyphosate gardens with bold signage indicates their attitude: they seem happy to know we can see which bottle that crop will fill. Thanks folks!

If last year was any indicator, budburst is maybe a fortnight off, yet half the vineyards we passed on Sunday are knee-deep in weeds and still wild with last year’s tell-tale vine growth.

On the other hand, it’s good to see some vignerons have cleaned up their weeds by mower or sheep and many are grafting to new varieties: the days of mindlessly letting their ground pump ordinary Shiraz at great tonnages and still expecting a profit are dwindling. They seem to think China will simply drink it all without a murmur. Domestically, the market demands smarter viticulture.

After all that excited promotion and glamorisation of a dreamworld gastronomic art, science and business that barely exists when people actually sit down and face the table at mealtime, you eventually find yourself training a market that expects more, whether it knows what that is or not.

The talk in the local watering holes is generally about which variety will be the next Big Thing: everybody’s dreaming of something like Chardonnay or Sauvignon blanc miraculously happening again.

You’d think the more recent fads of Viognier (over) and the even weirder Portuguese Alboriño, most of which turned out to be the inferior Savagnin of Jura, one of the world’s most forgettable vignobles, would have been some sort of lesson against dreaming of the easy fix.

The punter is not a mug.

Without much real research most seem sensibly to be trying the north-west Mediterranean types. At least the climates match.

Newcomers that I consider promising are the Picpoul white and the dark Nero d’Avola; Petrucci’s Colorino started brilliantly but I’ve yet to see a convincing follow-up. Patience, old boy, patience …

To the interested traveller, another blight is the amount of signage that grows like topsy. Within a radius of about a hundred metres around one major rural crossroad I counted up to 40 different instructional signs: fingerboards, hoardings, sandwich boards and whatnot. It’s impossible to absorb the information offered by such a confusing barrage. As a non-driving passenger with the time to conduct such an audit, one cannot imagine how a driver can possibly be expected to notice the actual crossroad.

Messy; dangerous; stupid.

When Gail Gago was still Minister of nearly everything, I drove with her once around these parts, just to discuss this proliferation. “That’s local government,” she’d say of some, “that’s state, that’s private and illegal, that’s …”

While Gail now seems entirely happy with her chosen life on the backbench as she eases towards a well-deserved retirement there’s obviously need for some sort of independent authority to audit and manage this. Messy and complex, sure, but hardly impossible.

Otherwise, all was sunny and glowing in the south: the Gulf was sparkling and bright, the sky wide and blue, the air fresh and invigorating.

Our goal was Sellick’s Hill Wines, the humble Petagna/Piombo vineyard and winery on the piedmont just short of The Victory Hotel. There, at weekends, Annika Berlingieri, formerly of Settlement Wines, serves her trademark long-table Italian family cuisine: steady servings of delicious antipasto, polenta, meats, the region’s best wood-oven pizzas and bread to break your heart.

Long table at Sellicks Hill wines: highly recommended weekend grazing. Photo: Philip White

Paul Petagna’s wines are healthy, characterful and rustic, after the style of winemaking he learnt from his father-in-law. His smart, smooth, complex GSM seemed to be the favourite on the day.

It was heartening, and unusual, to see a table of rival winemakers out to check on the rumours of something new; the room soon filled with the happy buzz of anecdote and humour. Right on cue, a huge buck roo herded his jills past the balcony for the tourists, even stopping for photographs right out the front.

So until those snips start flashing, there’s peace in the valley. Get yourself a booking soon and go graze: if it’s too chilly to enjoy the outside settings, the fire within is always warm and snug.

drinkster.blogspot.com

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