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Mud wrestling at Langhorne Creek

Wine

Whitey wonders whether a recent wine celebrity spat misses the point.

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Two of the things I learned living in the Bremer Valley as a kid in the ’60s 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 to 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 Lake Alexandrina across the alluvial plains round Woodchester, Salem and Callington to relieve Kanmantoo.

That was Lesson # 1.

The second big learn concerned land clearance. As the miners of the 1800s had cleared all the trees and scrub to fire the copper smelters, the land was bare and troubled. Summer thunderstorms would dump an inch of rain in the matter of 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.

(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.

There is no creek called Langhorne. The locals don’t even call the joint that: their patois usually pronounces it Larncrk. 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. They 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’ Bleasdale 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 ’70s, Mr D taught me the flavours of the Larncrk wines through those muddy, soulful Bleasdale wonders. I eventually discovered these were made, by default, by time, procrastination and family disagreement more than intent or your actual œnological recipe.

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, AP John.

As the mantra of Wolfie’s genius blending/winemaking offsider, John “The Ferret” Glaetzer went: “No wood, no good; no medals, no jobs.”

He knew that brash oak seduced wine judges. But he needed that special Larncrk fruit.

By the time I’d returned from worldly wandering to Adelaide in 1991, there were 471ha of vineyards there on the lake. 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 sensibly restricted this practice.

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 take fresh water from the lake. So by 1997 the vignoble covered around 2500ha.

While the plan was to carefully double that again by 2002, opportunists used the Brown water to stretch the vignoble to 4317ha by 1999, making a tenfold expansion in eight short years. It’s since slowed down; some vineyards have been removed. There are around 6000ha now.

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. Out towards Strathalbyn, at Belvedere, there’d been vineyards in the 1860s, but those pioneers had withered without fresh water.

Now there are vineyards all over the joint, well beyond the Langhorne Creek boundary, south through the Currency Creek flats, almost to Goolwa.

Somewhere I have the triumphant press release from Orlando, boasting that under its new French owner, Pernod Ricard, its Langhorne Creek vineyard cost $30 million, using 200,000 trellis posts, 1000km of drip line, and 50,000km of wire. That was their measure of gastronomic accomplishment. Thank-you France, thank-you Premier Brown. Within a few years, the vineyard was on the market. It never sold.

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.”

Langhorne Creek, Currency Creek – all those lakeside estuarine flats where the Murray River system meets the sea – should be making wines much more along the styles of Bordeaux. Sure, it’s a little warmer and there’s a bit more sunshine, but the feeling of the place there on Lake Alexandrina, its alluvial geology, its marine smell, with those cool winds coming off the Southern Ocean, always reminds me of Bordeaux there on the 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?

Last figures I saw, from the Winemakers Federation of Australia paper 2015 Production profitability analysis, showed 77 per cent 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.

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