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At dusk with the anti-Riesling

By |  December 11 2012

There was a smell of moist, strappy leather, and the dry leaf litter under a gum tree. Though the wine was a young one, the aromas were harmonious and serene, unthrusting and unshowy. Coming to the wine was like coming to a clearing in the bush and stopping to rest. You sat down beside it, and it chatted to you, companionably, with nothing but caroling magpies all around. It smelled of Australia: warm, dry, ancient. If time itself had an engine room, idling out the millennia, it would surely smell something like this. I remembered the place well. You drove out of Adelaide and straight up into the hills, past the highlands where they grew pristine Chardonnay, strong lettuces, and celery as thick as your leg.

Then you followed the hill line south as the elevation dropped gradually away: Mount Barker, Macclesfield. By Strathalbyn, you were off those private, intricate, braided hills, where every farm commands a little world of its own, and you’d turned your shoulder, too, on the Gulf of St Vincent. There was no sense of a loitering open sea anymore; instead, delta country beckoned. You could feel the light gathering like gold in a bank vault ahead of you. And eventually, there it would be, glimmering on the other side of wide mudflats: Lake Alexandrina, or what was left of it (not much when I was in Australia, toward the end of an El Niño cycle). If South Australia has an equivalent of France’s Camargue, here it is. We used to come down here regularly; some friends had a shack at an easygoing, camperfriendly place on the lake called Clayton. The frogs would croak us to sleep under a shower of bright stars. Before you got to the lake, though, you’d drive through Langhorne Creek. It was a sudden explosion of vines, clustering around the little roads that knotted themselves just here: around 6,000ha (14,830 acres) altogether, making the place bigger than Châteauneuf-du-Pape. The oldest vines owed their existence to the seasonal river that flows through the town, the Bremer; it rises east of Mount Lofty, the highest spot in the Adelaide Hills, and then drops more or less dead south like a plumb line, down into the lake.

One of South Australia’s pioneer settlers, Frank Potts initially cleared the land hereabouts and diverted the river to provide flood irrigation when it was in spate. That was in 1850, using muscle power. The vineyards that produced this wine are still floodirrigated 160 years later. They had a deep drink in the winter that preceded the 2010 harvest (in July and August 2009).

The soils are free-draining sandy clay loams: exactly what Australia’s 19th-century pioneer wine growers all looked for. The flood fills them with the winter water that splashes out of the sky on dark nights in the Adelaide Hills. Water almost up to the bottom trellis wire will be gone from the surface in 24 hours, but it hides deep in the soils, gradually drying over summer. These need no other irrigation.

Most of Langhorne Creek’s vines, by contrast, lie up off the floodplain, in land that Potts and his mates never considered cultivable. They are dripirrigated with Alexandrina water and run for quantity-"Riverland in a cooler climate," as one grower put it. The quality of Langhorne Creek fruit is always beguiling (it was Wolf Blass’s secret fuel in his ascent to acclaim), but viticulture like that can never deliver the density and profundity that packs cartilage around this wine’s spine.

The fruit comes from the Borrett family’s "20 Rows" vineyard; George Borrett hand-harvests it and personally drives it up to Drew Noon’s farm a little farther north, in McLaren Vale. It’s fermented with natural yeast, and no acid additions; no additions of any sort, indeed, other than a little sulfur. This, in other words, is the essence-what Langhorne Creek Shiraz truly tastes like, left to its own devices.

It was one of the densest wines I have ever drunk. Finding it in my glass was like looking up, in that quiet clearing in the bush, and seeing a grazing sauropod just 20 paces away. Peaceable and companionable, yet astonishing: massive beyond ordinary measure. We sipped it over three days, during which it changed little. It had a necessary 14.7% of alcohol, but its strength lay elsewhere: in a great wavelike heave of flavor, in the flavory synopsis of an unimaginably old land.

It was properly tannic: It hadn’t been hurried into finishing its fermentation in barrel but had loitered in Drew Noon’s vats with its skins. It was rich, deliciously rank, its tarry fruit flavors pressed into complexity by mint, resin, and pine. There was ironstone dust in there somewhere and a faintly saline edge: the sea breach down the road. You couldn’t deny its freshness, either; that natural acidity was all it needed to carry it into the storm of years ahead. It left me with a sense of mingled respect and revelation. There’s nothing else like this.

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