Yearly Archives: 2024

111 years on Langhorne Creek’s Metala vineyard still pumps out a winner

Published in The Canberra Times 23 June 2002

The dazzling explosion of Australia’s wine industry is nowhere better seen than at Langhorne Creek, near Lake Alexandrina, South Australia.

What was once home to a few small to mid sized wine producers and grape growers, with combined plantings of just 400 hectares of vines in 1992, is now one of Australia’s biggest premium wine regions.

By 2000, plantings had reached 5,500 hectares, giving Langhorne Creek, even without further expansion, a production capacity of around 4.6 million dozen bottles of wine annually.

With almost all of that output destined to go into bottles selling for $10 to $15 a bottle – much of it in rapidly expanding export markets — Langhorne Creek now sits on a commercial par with the Barossa, McLaren Vale, Padthaway and Coonawarra as South Australia’s key high-volume, high-quality wine regions.

Langhorne Creek’s viticultural history began in 1850 when Frank Potts settled near the Bremer River. His descendent, winemaker Michael Potts, says the first vines, including verdelho, were planted in 1860.

Guy Adams, co-proprietor of the Metala vineyard, planted in 1891, says French vignerons find it hard to imagine how vines survived for more than a century in Langhorne Creek’s meagre 350mm annual rainfall.

For modern, well-capitalised viticulturists, low rainfall’s not an issue. Newcomers to the area simply build a pipeline to Lake Alexandrina, fill a dam and trickle irrigate the vines whenever necessary.

But in the nineteenth century that was not an option for Langhorne Creek’s pioneering grape growers. Vines survived from the earliest times thanks to run off from the Bremerton ‘River’, an often dry creek bed that spills onto the surrounding land whenever there’s substantial rain in the Adelaide Hills to the north.

This run off flows down the Bremerton and the nearby Angas across an alluvial outwash fan that drains lazily into Lake Alexandrina at the mouth of the Murray.

At the Metala vineyard, about fifteen kilometres from the lake, the older parts of the vineyard rise just 6 metres above sea level. Amazingly, says Guy Adams, the Bremerton, running adjacent to the vineyard, is slightly more elevated than the surrounding land. It holds only about ten per cent of the water that tries to run down it, hence the frequent inundations.

The early settlers learned to manage these generally gentle floodwaters, directing them where needed with floodgates and sluices.

Thanks to these frequent inundations, and the attentions of Metala’s owners, three very old vine plots continue to produce healthy crops today. A little under 5 hectares of shiraz and cabernet sauvignon, planted between 1891 and 1893, produce between 7.5 and 10 tonnes per hectare per year.

As reported in some detail here in March 2002, the Adams family sells this fruit, and the majority of its crop from newer plantings, to Beringer Blass. The fruit contributes to a number of Beringer Blass’s products, but the majority of the material from the Metala vineyard – and all of the wine made from the old vines – goes to the famous old Stonyfell Metala label.

Although the Metala label first appeared on the 1959 vintage, the single-vineyard wine behind it (a blend of cabernet sauvignon and shiraz from those old vines), made by Jack Kilgour, was released from 1932 as Stonyfell Private Bin Claret.

Jack was behind those highly regarded reds from 1932 until 1959. Between 1960 and 1966 Bryan Dolan made the Metala vineyard wines. When his 1961 vintage won the inaugural Jimmy Watson trophy in Melbourne in 1962, he designed the enduring Metala label, says his son Nigel, today’s Metala maker. And because he still had stocks of the 1959 and 1960 vintages in the winery at the time, the new label was applied to these.

From 1966 until 1979 the legendary Peter Lehmann made Metala. But after Dalgety’s sold Saltram (by now owner of the label) to Seagram, and Lehmann departed, Metala lost direction. For a while it became a multi-regional blend. But even after returning to its single vineyard origin, the quality, as I saw in a vertical tasting back to the 1951 vintage earlier this week, didn’t get back to the standards set by Jack Kilgour, Bryan Dolan and Peter Lehmann until Nigel Dolan took on the winemaking role.

Nigel joined Rothbury, by now owners of Saltram, after vintage in 1992 and stayed on when the then Mildara Blass group acquired Rothbury in 1996. Guy Adams says that when Nigel took over, winemaking standards lifted several notches. The key to the dramatic quality lift, he believes, lies in Nigel’s close contact with the Metala vineyard.

Management and cropping levels have not changed. But what Nigel did was to work with Guy and Tom Adams to select appropriated harvest times – based on fruit flavour — for the various plots. This delivered the rich but gentle flavours we’ve seen in Metala through the late 1990’s – and in particular in the 1998 and 2000 vintages.

Nigel allows Metala to be limpid, supple, sweet scented and unburdened by overt oak flavours. He allows Langhorne Creek’s subtle ‘eucalypt’ scent to blossom. And he allows Langhorne Creek’s unique, silky-textured fruit and soft, caressing tannins to express themselves in this affordable, pedigreed and delightful dry red.

First published 23 June 2002 in The Canberra Times

Copyright © Chris shanahan 2002 and 2024