June 6, 2024
Wine & Dine

History in a bottle

South Australia’s wine story includes many well-worn tales of adventures into the unknown, maddening enterprise and celebrated family sagas. But then there are the more secret histories, which live on today in wines that reflect their colourful stories. Here, we explore the lesser-known side to South Australia’s iconic wine industry.

Whale of a time
Let’s get this secret history business off to a seriously big picture start, with a hefty timeline set at about 34 million years ago. That’s right; no 180-year-old-vines, here … at least, not to begin this story, anyway. It’s an ancient secret that we begin with.

This 34 million-year figure is actually the age of the limestone – determined by scientific dating – wrapped around a fragment of primitive whale bone that was discovered in 2004 inside a cave network under a vineyard in the Wrattonbully region of the state’s Limestone Coast.

This cave network was discovered during ripping of Crayere’s Vineyard (within the Terre a Terre estate of Xavier and Lucy Bizot), adjoining what’s now known as the Whalebone Vineyard (under the banner of Brian Croser’s Tapanappa wines). Both vineyards are set in the East Naracoorte Ranges on the Kanawinka Fault line.

It is thought the area’s caves were formed about one million years ago, just inland of where the shoreline was at the time, before the sea level dropped and caves were completely drained approximately 800,000 years ago, and gradual uplift during the Pleistocene period pushed the ocean 100 kilometres away from the Naracoorte Ranges.

These caves also contain fossils from large marsupials such as giant koalas or kangaroos, with new research suggesting some of them in the Whalebone cave are almost 300,000 years old; the animals stranded in the cave when the entrance collapsed, sealing them off from being degraded by sun, weather or disturbed by intruders.

This extraordinary tale of times gone by has a modern ending, ultimately connecting the Tapanappa and Terre a Terre wines to the limestone-based geology of the region. Both wines here are finely tuned expressions of what is known as the Great Australian blend of Cabernet and Shiraz.

Tapanappa Whalebone Vineyard Cabernet Shiraz 2018 ($55) is crafted from 87 per cent cabernet sauvignon from the Wrattonbully vineyard, as well as 13 per cent shiraz from the Adelaide Hills. Deeply seductive aromas link closely in an interplay of finessed French oak, blue-black fruits, subtle peppery spice and faint suggestions of mint chocolate, all coming together in seamless and delicious harmony.

Terra a Terre Crayeres Vineyard Reserve 2020 ($95, order now to be released in August 2024) is a 78:22 blend of cabernet sauvignon and shiraz from the single Wrattonbully source, savoury and earthy now, though some pretty awesome fruit is brooding underneath. It’ll be a beauty down the track.

Torbreck Hillside Vineyard Barossa

Water works
With another connection to water, but in a different moment of time, comes a unique story of taming a river. Bleasdale Winery in Langhorne Creek has become quite accustomed to receiving topflight awards in Australian wine circles, the latest being named Winery of the Year (2024) in the latest James Halliday Companion, having in the past carved its name on the Jimmy Watson Trophy, the country’s most famous wine gong, as well as countless trophies in major Australian wine shows.

But when it comes to awards, nothing could challenge more for “ultimate niche status” than the winery’s 2017 inclusion on the International Commission on Irrigation and Drainage’s register of historic irrigation structures (this has been set up in similar lines to UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites).

The listing was for the winery’s Bremer River wooden irrigation diversion weirs, a series of levee banks and small timber floodgates used to divert floodwaters of the Bremer River into its vineyards; and by courtesy of the tradition of Riparian rights, further gates through the Langhorne Creek region’s floodplain district allow floodwaters to move into adjoining neighbouring blocks, such as those at Lake Breeze winery and vineyards.

The gradual flooding of vineyards provides worthwhile irrigation and the weirs and floodgates have been acknowledged for their contribution to productivity and historic environmental sustainability.

The first of the weirs was built in the 1890s with four massive redgum logs embedded in masonry piers on the Bremer’s banks. Others followed along the flood plain in neighbouring properties. To gain a sense of the size of the trees used, there’s a jaw-droppingly gigantic old redgum wine press at the Bleasdale Winery.    

Bleasdale The Riparian Vineyard Malbec 2022 ($39) commemorates this history, sourced from a vineyard on the opposite side of the Bremer to the winery. Malbec is one of the Langhorne Creek’s regional treasures, here in a quite full-bodied style yet remarkably mellow in expression, fragrant with the variety’s signature blue florals as well as a distinctive sea-spray note, blue fruits and berry flavours following with a foundation of crumbly earth and fine sandy textures. History made delicious.      

Barossa rescue
Everyone loves good neighbours and in the back streets of Tanunda Village in the Barossa in the early 2000s, a heart-warming story unfolded when a new housing development threatened a block of 320 shiraz vines that had been planted prior to 1860.

Down the road at the Langmeil Winery, the Lindner family set about rescuing them; they had history in this territory, being custodians of the Freedom vineyard, with vines planted in 1843 and considered the oldest-surviving shiraz vines anywhere in the world (today, the heart and soul of Langmeil’s icon wine, The Freedom Shiraz).

Bit by bit, one vine at a time, a desperate mission began in 2006 to free the vulnerable block and transplant the vines within the Langmeil estate on the banks of the North Para River. It took 18 months of replanting and, remarkably, 95 per cent of the vines survived to now be known forever as the Orphan Bank vineyard.

The Langmeil Orphan Bank Shiraz 2020 ($75) now also includes a portion of Eden Valley sourced fruit. It’s classic Barossan shiraz in its rich, sweetly oaked style, big bold dark plum and blackberry fruit with cherry ripe characters, full bodied, turbo-flavoured, and echoing with glorious history.

After the gold rush
In another sector of the Barossa, near Lyndoch, a relatively unknown history has surfaced surrounding a goldrush in the region in 1868 after locals Samuel Potter and John Lawes Springbett discovered alluvial gold along the Para River. Within a week of the Commissioner of Crown Lands being notified of the find, 1500 men were prospecting in the area and a month later there were 4000 licensed and 1000 unlicensed diggers. Three new towns emerged, Yatta, Victoria Hill and Barossa, though all were gradually abandoned over the following 80 years.

Springbett had made a small fortune earlier thanks to prospecting in the Victorian goldfields, enabling his family to buy out the leasehold of the mixed farm and Hillside Vineyard his father had established in 1849, and to develop it into one of the most important properties at the time in the southern Barossa Valley.

After the Barossa goldrush, John and his brother Edward were reportedly the wealthiest prospectors in the district. The Hillside Vineyard property included a fine house, a winery built in 1860 and cellars built in 1890, all of which are currently undergoing extensive rejuvenation by the team at Torbreck Vintners based in Marananga (towards the north-west of the Valley). New vineyard blocks have also been planted featuring heritage clone material.

Meanwhile, the original vineyard fruit is a major component of one of Torbreck’s hallmark wines, the RunRig, which winemaker Ian Hongell says is a link to the history of some of the oldest working vines in the world. Hongell notes: “The Hillside Vineyard is a reference point to the past and to the future – a really important part of the region’s history and of Torbreck’s”.

The Torbreck RunRig 2020 Shiraz/Viognier ($300) is a “time capsule of SA heritage viticulture”, Hongell adds. It’s an expansive wine with waves of crushed dark plum and blackberry fruit with curtains of dark chocolate and anise spice opening as you taste, cedary oak lying in wait at every moment, crumbled-earth and rock-dust tannins adding the kind of mouth-awakening muscle that suggests you could cellar this for a generation to come. Heroically Barossan.

Penfolds Winery in Magill

Penfolds’ iconic home in the Adelaide suburb of Magill attracts countless visitors, topped by an impressive list of foreign dignitaries such as King Charles and Queen Camilla, various foreign prime ministers and premiers, as well as a glittering rock star line-up including Kylie Minogue, Foo Fighters, Pink, Kings of Leon and Tool. But inside the winery there’s a subtle reminder of a little-known visit by famed United States blind and deaf author and crusader for the disabled, Helen Keller. She and a friend, Miss Polly Thompson, visited Penfolds in 1948, and while being shown through the working cellars they came upon a huge 10,774 gallon vat in Cellar 9. When its size was explained to Helen, she decided to “see” it for herself, feeling her way around the whole circumference, arms outstretched. The vat was later inscribed with a marking of her visit, and forever named “Helen Keller”. It is stilll there.

Magill remains the beating heart of the global Penfolds mega-brand, the vineyard now just 12 acres of old shiraz vines left from the original property, which once measured 500 acres, most of it sold off over the years.

Magill’s vines provide Penfolds with one of its few single vineyard wines – most in their elite portfolio are multi-regional SA blends.

The Magill Estate Shiraz 2021 ($165) continues the origin story for Penfolds from its spiritual home, black-berried with subtle background dark chocolate and dried orange notes, delightful palate aromatics reverbing as you sip, with poised French oak characters adding depth and spice its sweet fruit vitality. Always a pleasure.

South Australia’s Riverland was one of the regions where returning World War I and World War II soldiers were offered small plots of land by the Australian Government, so they could settle down and forge a new life after the turmoil they faced in their various battles. The program was known as the Soldiers Settlement Scheme.

One of those blocks, at 171 Jury Road, Berri, was leased to Horace Walpole and Clara Denford Andrews on June 10, 1922, with ownership changing hands several times until Carl Hermann Pech, originally from the Barossa, purchased the land in August 1939. It stayed in his family’s care for 82 years before being sold to Ashley and Holly Ratcliff and their children in 2021.

The Ricca Terra Soldiers’ Land Shiraz 2022 ($30) celebrates 100 years of family custodianship and cultivation of just one small section of land, a positive chapter in a tumultuous story. It’s a gentle giant of a Riverland shiraz with opening wafts of bush and riverbank gums, cola and crushed blueberries, even a note a pepperberry, all of which pivot into a generous mouthful of classic ripe shiraz feels – dark plum, mid-dark chocolate and gently sweet fruit vibes to finish. Fighting fit.   

Above, left to right Some of the wines produced thanks to some more hidden secrets of the SA wine industry include Torbreck’s RunRig 2020 Shiraz/Viognier, Bleasdale’s The Riparian Vineyard Malbec, the Longmeil Orphan Bank Shiraz, the Ox Hardy Slate Shiraz, Penfolds Magill Estate Shiraz, Patritti’s April Red, Tapanappa’s Whalebone Vineyard Cabernet Shiraz, and the Ricca Terra Soldiers’ Land Shiraz.

Suburban bliss
Deep in Adelaide’s southern suburban Marion Council district, a glimpse of a past era remains upright and productive on the busy traffic artery of Oaklands Road next to the old swimming centre. There, the diminutive one-hectare Marion Vineyard, under management of the Patritti family, provides for their impressive grenache shiraz – a mind-boggling rarity from the field’s 1907 planted vines.

Just a couple of kilometres away, the Patritti winery, cellar door and wine bar also stand staunchly as they have done since 1926, when founder Giovanni Patritti built the business after leasing earlier planted vineyards in the Sturt River floodplain district to make wine. It’s now enveloped by suburban Adelaide. While the Oaklands Road vineyard is the most visible, two other remnant blocks in hidden corners of the district, were planted in 1923 at a time when Marion supported a range of farm produce supplying Adelaide with much of its fruit and vegetables. Those plots are now on public land, and also have been revived by the Patritti crew.

One is at the Warriparinga Wetlands, behind the Sturt Police Station on Sturt Road, the other behind the Warradale Army Barracks in the Oaklands Wetlands and Reserve. The first offers tiny volumes of white pedro ximenez and palomino grapes to go into a portfolio of new generation wines, the second is a tiny patch of muscat gordo vines, turned now into an aromatic spirit and gin. Five small batch wines make up what the Patrittis have titled their Urban Vineyard Collection. The back label modern map of the district is worth the admission price to these drinks alone. 

Winemaker Ben Heide notes it’s a boon for local residents. “If you live in one of these suburbs here, you can literally have a wine on your table that has not travelled any more than 10 kilometres – from the vineyard, to the winery, a local bottle shop, our cellar door and to your home,” he says. “That is unbelievably unique.”

Patritti April Red 2023 ($30) is a rare blend of grenache
(93 per cent) and pedro ximenez (7 per cent) which is harvested, vinified and bottled by April of its vintage year. It’s a fun, knockabout kind of style, designed for summery red pleasures, happily chilled as well. It’s all about red fruit vitality, though a little whole bunch contact adds a little body structure and gently finishing mouthfeel. Its sibling Patritti Warriparinga Vineyard 2023 palomino (60 per cent) and pedro ximenez (40 per cent) white blend is a no-frills crisp, citrussy quencher. Who thought such history could be so much refreshing fun?

On the slate
Hidden away from the McLaren Vale’s main visitor hotspots, is a district the locals call Upper Tintara, and is one of the foundation blocks of South Australia’s viticultural history – and a family dynasty whose name is still alive and well in the very same possie today. At the vineyard that Thomas Hardy purchased in the late 1870s, was an original winery with a series of open fermenters lined with slate mined from a nearby Willunga Hills quarry.

The property has remained in the Hardy family ever since, the vineyard housing prized plantings of ancestor shiraz vines, though those slate fermenters fell into disrepair close to 100 years ago. That was, until Andrew “Ox” Hardy decided to resurrect them and begin making a new generation of shiraz in them, hand bucketing and shovelling the crushed fruit in, using a small generator and pump to move the wine out, then back to buckets and shovels to clean out the skins after fermentation.

“It’s definitely a labour of love,” says Andrew. “To think that your great-great-great-grandfather Tom was making wine in the same place as you are is pretty cool. The wine I make from here continues the folklore of the place and the Hardy family story. It’s history in a bottle.”

Ox Hardy Slate Shiraz 2021 ($80) sources fruit from Ox’s much-loved Moreton Bay block in the Upper Tintara vineyard, crushed and chilled before being manually heaved into and out of four slate fermenters, then matured for 20 months in older French oak barriques. It’s royally purple, reeking of crushed dark plums, sage and a spiced oak backdrop – anise top noted. Does that slate bring anything to the party? There is definitely something unique here, compared with its similarly sourced sibling wines. A delicate crushed minerality for sure, with fully integrated tannins and a gently textured finish. Most impressive.


This article first appeared in the December 2023 issue of SALIFE magazine.

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