Water into wine: a controversial Riverina miracle, in pictures

Too much wine and not enough water – this is one of the environmental tensions of our times, and it’s in the news again in Australia this week.

As I wrote in First Vintage (2012), the use of irrigation to produce wine grapes in the Riverina is a site of contestation between the people who make their livelihoods from the feats of early twentieth century engineering that changed river courses, and the twenty-first century efforts of governments and regulatory bodies to mitigate against unforeseen environmental damage from the irrigation system.

While there are no easy answers to these tensions it does help to meet the locals, to see this ‘water into wine’ story from inside, rather than outside, as it were.  I did this a few years ago while researching First Vintage.  At Griffith and Leeton – the largely Italian-influenced, century-old settlements of the Riverina wine region – I met several key wine families to talk about their family and business histories.

The photos from this trip have been gathering cyber-dust in my project files for three years now, so it’s high time they saw the light of day!

As it happens, how to meaningfully present these images occurred to me recently as my relatively quiet world of history research collided with the vibrant hipster meliorism of research into film, screenwriting and narrative when mon frere came to stay for a few days to attend a conference of Australian screen production educators and researchers.  I drank wine; he drank coffee. And as we swapped stories from our different worlds, the contagious buzz of his talk of non-conventional story-telling inspired me to share my snaps of Griffith and Leeton in a way that combines wine, history and my brother’s milieu – if not his precise research and practice.

Voila! A PechaKucha that explores the ‘water into wine’ narrative of the Riverina wine region, where fermented juice of the grape runs deep in local history. But since the early 2000s the successful flow of wine from the Riverina turned into a flood of biblical proportions once Casellas’ Yellow Tail spearheaded Australia’s relentless advance on the US wine market and – meanwhile – producers battle against the tides of change in policies on water management in the Murray Darling catchment.

But wait, I hear you say, PechaKucha is an aural presentation of the visual.  (For the uninitiated, PechaKucha entails a 20 images x 20 seconds presentation that suits our time-poor, image-driven, short attention spans.)

In which case – I acknowledge – this is an unorthodox PechaKucha.*

By my calculation, in the 20 seconds I’m permitted per image I could read, say, 40 words, 60 if I speak quickly. Below, then, is a photo gallery of my shots (augmented with a few sourced from elsewhere) with short explanations that together introduce you to the Riverina wine region.

For greater PechaKucha verisimilitude read this aloud…

ONE:  The Riverina in central western New South Wales is a flourishing corner of the wine world.  It’s the state’s largest wine region, in acreage and output. And the absence of hills between Griffith and Leeton gives the impression of a broad carpeting of vineyards under a vast sky.

A Leeton vineyard. Source: Ray White Real Estate

A Leeton vineyard. Photo: Ray White Real Estate

TWO: European Australians began farming at Griffith in the early 20th century when the Murumbidgee Irrigation Scheme redirected water from the Murray-Darling River system.  Even before the water began flowing, J J McWilliam planted thousands of vines in the confidence that the district’s future looked bright. This is a picture of one of those vines.

Griffith's oldest grape vines, planted in 1910 at Hanwood, home of McWilliam's Wines

Griffith’s oldest grape vines, McWilliam’s Wines, Hanwood. Photo: Julie McIntyre

THREE: Before second generation winegrower JJ McWilliam, JJ’s father Samuel planted vines at Corowa NSW in 1877 – spurred by the first wave of wine globalisation and domestic factors, such as land reforms.  In JJ’s wake at Griffith there have been a further three generations, including company chairman, Doug McWilliam.

Doug McWilliam

Doug McWilliam – Hanwood 2011. Photo: Julie McIntyre

FOUR: The cellar at McWilliams’ Hanwood Estate is a library of vintages extending from the company’s beginnings to the contemporary era – when the sixth generation is stepping up.

Doug McWilliam in the Hanwood cellar. Source: Julie McIntyre

Doug McWilliam in the Hanwood cellar. Photo: Julie McIntyre

FIVE:  McWilliam’s Hanwood, a short drive from the town of Griffith, has a welcoming, rustic cellar door crowded with memorabilia but I love the simplicity of this sign on the giant sliding door into the barrel room that houses the oak hogsheads in which thousands of gallons of reds are being transformed into distinctive fine wines.

McWilliam's, Hanwood

McWilliam’s, Hanwood Photo: Julie McIntyre

SIX: … such as this Touriga, which had been in wood for four years when I visited, and has a further eighteen months to mellow before it’s bottled. Touriga is blended with Shiraz to make McWilliam’s 10 year-old Tawny Port.

Touriga from the 2006 vintage - in wood since 2007

Touriga from the 2006 vintage – in wood since 2007 Photo: Julie McIntyre

SEVEN: Back in Griffith township, Bill Calabria and his son Andrew are just one of the families that give the region its Italian flavour in wine and food.  Calabria Family Wines (formerly Westend Estate) produces a range of styles that demonstrate a willingness to experiment with old and new grape varieties.  Since I met these convivial gentlemen, Bill has been awarded an AM in the Queen’s Birthday Honours, 2013.

Bill and Andrew Calabria, Westend Estate Griifth

Andrew Calabria and his father Bill, Calabria Family Wines, Griffith Photo: Julie McIntyre

EIGHT: And a tour through the Calabria’s winery offers an insight into wine making of the recent era that ties current practices with the traditional, artisanal past of production. This  concrete vat is still in use.

Calabria Estate

Concrete fermenters, Calabrian Family Wines Photo: Julie McIntyre

NINE: Speaking of insights into the past: the remains of Penfold’s winery at Griffith are a potent reminder that multi-regional wine companies have a long but chequered history in Australia.  This ‘ghost winery’ would make a perfect museum…

Former Penfold's site Photo: Julie McIntyre

Former Penfold’s site

TEN: Indeed, the old Penfold’s site still contains heritage from earlier wine generations, including this wine vat, labelled in imperial gallons, pre-dating the metric age and the subsequent democratisation and globalisation of wine in which Penfold’s Grange Hermitage has come to represent the penultimate in Australian fine wine.

Historic vats at the old Penfold's site Photo: Julie McIntyre

Historic vats at the old Penfold’s site

ELEVEN:  In the same era as the Penfold’s site at Griffith still hummed with the voices of workers and machines, harvest workers gathered for lunch at Vittorio De Bortoli’s vineyard at Bilbul, another short drive from Griffith.  A generation on, in the 1980s, Vittorio’s son Deen, and Deen’s son Darren created Noble One Botrytis Semillon, the quintessential ‘sticky’ wine, a potent realisation of the region’s glorious sunshine, dry heat and low rainfall.

Vintage workers' lunch, De Bortoli Wines, Bilbul Photo: De Bortoli Family

Vintage workers’ lunch, De Bortoli Wines, Bilbul Photo: De Bortoli Family

TEN: Family dinner at the De Bortoli home in December 2011. (From left) Margot and Darren De Bortoli – the next generation of De Bortolis – and Darren’s mum, Emeri, a first generation Italian-Australian with deep involvement in the business.

Three generations of the De Bortoli family Photo: Julie McIntyre

Three generations of the De Bortoli family Photo: Julie McIntyre

ELEVEN: About an hour’s drive from Griffith is Leeton and another Italian-Australian family that has made its mark in this district. First and second generation Leeton wine growers, Vince Bruno and his nephew Robert are at the heart of Toorak Winery which began with a 50 acre land purchase by Vince’s father, Frank Senior. Vince and his brother, Frank, made their first vintage in 1965.

Bruno and Andrew ... at ... Photo: Julie McIntyre

Vince and Robert Bruno at Toorak Winery Photo: Julie McIntyre

TWELVE: Palm trees and palettes at Toorak Winery.  Palms are a common sight in the region, along with vines and orchard trees – a contrast with the treescape in wine regions dominated by eucalypt forest.

Palms and bottle palettes. Photo: Julie McIntyre

Palms and bottle palettes. Photo: Julie McIntyre

THIRTEEN: … and panning left from the palettes and palms: Vince and Robert at the Toorak cellar door. Like Darren De Bortoli, Robert is a university-trained winemaker, in contrast to previous generations – and his dedication to building on the family legacy with quality wines is obvious in his plans for the winery’s future. A future that depends on water.

Bruno and XXXX

Vince and Robert Bruno Photo: Julie McIntyre

FOURTEEN: This is a water channel near Toorak.   Many dozens of these channels have been dug across the valley to bring water to the region’s farms. (Just last week the vet who looks after my family dog told me a story from his Griffith childhood about a family who would pull water skiers behind cars driven along a channel bank such as this … ).

Irrigation channel Photo: Julie McIntyre

Irrigation channel Photo: Julie McIntyre

FIFTEEN: Vine growing most often uses drip irrigation so that grape production is more controlled than in ‘dry land’ farming. New technologies have been adopted over time to ensure that water delivery from channel to farm occurs as reliably as possible.  Water licences must be purchased, which is why it is possible for farmers to also sell their allocations back to the irrigation system regulatory body in non-drought seasons.

Weir near Leeton Photo: Julie McIntyre

Water delivery control point near Leeton Photo: Julie McIntyre

SIXTEEN: When I visited in early summer 2011, tensions were at boiling point about new restrictions on the quantities of water that farmers were able to purchase for their properties, Drought dramatically increases these tensions as they create more pressure on vulnerable river systems that feed irrigation schemes as well as pressure on farmers to water their crops.

On the main road into Griffith from Leeton Photo: Julie McIntyre

On the main road into Griffith from Leeton Photo: Julie McIntyre

SEVENTEEN: Back in 2011, community anger towards Craig Knowles, chairman of the Murray Darling Basin Authority, spilled over into invective, as this sign shows. Speaking this year about the centenary of the Murray Darling management agreement between the Australian states – Mr Knowles acknowledged the ongoing complexity of his job at the helm of the authority.

An impassioned protest sign Photo: Julie McIntyre

An impassioned protest sign Photo: Julie McIntyre

EIGHTEEN: Much of the affordable wine in the world today is the result of reliable grape yields enabled by drip irrigation systems, from a range of water supplies. This affordable wine is also the result of production on an industrial scale made possible by the invention and manufacture of gigantic stainless steel vats by Griffith company A & R Engineering. Members of the Griffith community are proud of the contribution A & R has made to wine technology. And I’m going to go a little over time here to ask: what do you think when you see these vats?  Most wine companies know you probably don’t find them attractive so they are hidden from tourists’ view. But few wineries today in any region or any country, for that matter, are without such vats in some quantity. The sight of enough of them to resemble an oil refinery is certainly challenging if you’re devoted to the romance of wine – the idea of horse-drawn ploughs carrying baskets of fresh hand-picked grapes to a low ceilinged stone shed to be foot-crushed …

Tanks manufactured by A & G Engineering, Griffith Photo: A & G Engineering

Tanks manufactured by A & G Engineering, Griffith  Photo: A & G Engineering

NINETEEN:  Which brings me to another Italian-Australian family – the Casellas, whose enterprise at Yenda, near Griffith, is Goliath to the Davids of Calabria Family Wines and Toorak.  They are Australia’s largest family owned winery and produce so much wine that at least up until two years ago they had the world’s fastest wine bottling line.  Since it represents the epitome of industrially-produced wine, Casella Wines is very controversial within the industry, especially as Australian companies seek to remind the world that this country produces very fine, as well as cheap and cheerful wine.  Casellas are seen by turns as heroes of massive export volume and economic success and agents of wine quality destruction.

You decide.

As a historian I consider it fascinating that this company co-exists at Griffith with not just one but two of Australia’s First Families of Wine, the McWilliams and the De Bortolis, who together with other multi-generational family companies promote Australia’s achievements in longevity and quality of production…and in raising this I’m well over 20 seconds again!

John Casella Photo: BRW

John Casella Photo: BRW

TWENTY: …this is probably against the PechaKucha rules, but to make up for going over time on the two previous images – this one is accompanied by a meaningful silence – to reflect on the enormity of the Casella enterprise… … … …

Casella Wines Photo: Sydney Morning Herald

Casella Wines Photo: Sydney Morning Herald

So. Bringing water to the sun-parched expanses of the Riverina has created remarkable facets of the Australian wine story.

And much to debate.

But – as they say – don’t take my word for it. Taste the wine, if you haven’t already. Even better, see for yourself. You won’t find draught horses pulling ploughs or tourist carts in these parts, but you will eat and drink in a way that blends some of the essential elements of European Australia: battles to create viable farmland, Anglos and non-Anglos migrating to Wiradjuri country, wide open spaces along wide open roads. It is very complex and very beautiful.


(* Unorthodox too in that, as my friend Kelly Campion pointed out – there are some doubled up numbers in entries.  So much to say!!)







About @DrJulieMcIntyre

Historian of nature/culture through studies of wine production, trade and consumption. Also trans-imperialism, migration, mobilities and business. Budding connoisseur of Semillon and Riesling.
This entry was posted in Australian history, environmental history, wine and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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