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Wine

Under pressure - Wine VS Mine

Winemaker Andrew Margan is standing on a rock on a ridge overlooking his vineyard at Broke, in NSW’s Hunter Valley. The landscape is idyllic: vine rows plunge down the hillside; Wollombi Brook curls through the middle distance; tree-covered ranges rise up steeply behind.

He’s talking about how different this country could have looked had energy company AGL got its way.

“If CSG (coal seam gas) mining had gone ahead here as AGL were planning,” says Margan, “there could have been 300 wells sunk between here and Pokolbin.”

Just five years ago it seemed that CSG was a foregone conclusion in the Hunter wine region. A couple of exploratory wells had already been sunk, not far from Margan’s vineyard at Broke, and AGL were attempting to ingratiate themselves with the local winemakers - buying vineyards, sponsoring a local winemaking scholorship, joining the wine industry association.

But the local winemakers were having none of it. They had serious concerns about the environmental impact of CSG mining. They worried that hydraulically fracturing - or “fracking” - deep coal seams to release the gas could contaminate the local aquifer and lead to geological instability. And they were outraged that, under then-current legislation, the miners would be able to drill among the vineyards and wineries of the country’s leading wine tourism destination.

As fourth generation winemaker Bruce Tyrrell told me at the time: “It’s simple. If any of those bastards come onto the land my family have owned for 150 yrs I’ll bloody shoot ‘em. And I’m still a good shot.”

Eventually, the vignerons’ well-organised protest campaigns - including a high-profile march on the NSW Parliament in 2012 - helped encourage the state government to declare the viticultural and equine industries in the Hunter off-limits to CSG mining: boundaries were drawn around these two newly-declared Critical Industry Clusters that prevented any further resource exploration.

“We won,” says Andrew Margan. “But it was a hell of a fight.”

“The CSG battle almost destroyed us,” admits Andrew’s wife Lisa Margan. “Having to take on such a big issue like that fractures the community, it pulls resources out of the community, it exhausts the community.”

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The Hunter isn’t the only wine region to have tussled with unconventional gas mining in the last few years. Just before Christmas 2013, resource company Beach Energy sank its first exploratory shale gas well just south of Penola, the main town in the famous wine region of Coonawarra, in South Australia’s Limestone Coast.

I visited the region during vintage 2014, a couple of months later, and witnessed that first rig being moved to a second exploratory site west of the main vineyard area. It’s only when you see one of these installations up close - or as close as security will allow - that you get a feel for how much the landscape is affected and what impact dozens or hundreds of such wells would have on the nature of a region: temporary roads carved through paddocks, the four-storey rig itself, the holding ponds dug into the earth to retain contaminated water, lights and sound running 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

“I just can’t envisage co-existence with a gas well like that next to my cellar door,” said Dennis Vice of Highbank, one of Coonawarra’s leading wineries as we watched another truck loaded with drilling equipment roar by. “How can anyone argue that industrialized gas extraction can sit comfortably alongside wine - a brand that’s based on clean green production? Even if they do put a well in and I’m forced to sell, my vineyard would be worthless because of that rig. The implications for landowners are immense.”

During the same visit, local vineyard manager Stuart Sharman, chair of the Limestone Coast Grape and Wine Council’s unconventional shale gas committee, detailed his deep concerns about shale gas extraction - a process that, like CSG mining, involves drilling down through the aquifer and using large amounts of local water in the process.

“We don’t have a lot of confidence that the miners can give us an iron clad guarantee that well integrity will be maintained,” he said. “We know that the wells break down over time - their own documents show that. And (energy company) Santos has just been fined for contaminating the acquifer with uranium up in the Pilliga. If our vineyard irrigation water here becomes contaminated we can kiss goodbye to our sector of the economy: the Coonawarra brand and the whole district will be tarnished.”

When I spoke to him again for this article, Sharman told me the pressure has eased. Not long after my visit during vintage in 2014, Beach Energy announced they had decided to concentrate on conventional gas extraction, and not in close proximity to the vineyards. The level of exploratory drilling I witnessed had “slowed right up”.

But Sharman says it’s the slowdown in the energy market at the moment that’s contributed to the change of heart, not necessarily the very vocal opposition of the vignerons.

“Depressed energy prices are slowing up further expectations,” he says. “It’s just not worth the miners’ while to go to the effort of unconventional gas extraction right now. But I think what we’re seeing is probably a lull, not the end. I imagine it could well ramp up again if the situation changes.”

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It’s a similar story in the Hunter. Yes, says Andrew Margan, with the declaration of the Critical Industry Clusters, winegrowers have had a reprieve. And yes, AGL announced earlier this year that they were pulling out of CSG in NSW. But the state government hasn’t reversed its stand on CSG overall: the exploratory and mining licences haven’t been revoked.

So if - when - the economic climate and the political balance shift, the pressure may build once more to start extracting precious hydrocarbons in the heart of wine country. And if that happens, says Stuart Sharman, there will always be a conflict between the short-term gain of the energy companies and the long-term sustainability of the winegrowers.

“In the wine industry we’re busy spending millions of dollars redeveloping vineyards and setting ourselves up for another 50-plus years,” he says. “The mining guys are very publicly saying they’ll only be here for 20 years. But what’s it going to be like - what’s the impact not only to the physical environment but also the social environment - when they walk out in 20 years time and we’re still here.”

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Meet the Maker – Oliver’s Taranga
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Castagna Wines - Cult Wines & Legends
Words by Paul Diamond on 16 Aug 2017
If you are an Australian wine lover and haven’t heard of Castagna, don’t be surprised. Julian Castagna and his family, located just outside the Victorian Alps town of Beechworth , produce a small range of high quality, biodynamic wines that fly well below the radar. They aren’t in any of the chains and to find them you will have to visit one of the handful of independent wine shops scattered around the country or be sitting in a restaurant looking at one of the few special wine lists that carry them. There is no cellar door that you can ‘just visit’, you have to make an appointment. And, if you are not on his mailing list or buy directly from his site that often has ‘sold out’ next to his products, you will struggle to find them. It’s no accident that these wines are not easy to find. A filmmaker earlier on in his life, Julian understands the value of having to dig to search something out, get to understand and eventually cherish it.

The Genesis range, like all the Castagna wines we tasted, presented somewhat of a conundrum. Old wine that tastes young?! Australian Shiraz that tastes like France?! 

Julian’s Path
Like most Australians full of youth and wanderlust, Julian ventured to Europe, searching for his path. After a stint in Spain, he found himself in London, working in film and advertising, and hanging out with people who were into the wine scene. “I got absorbed,” explained Julian at a recent tasting of his wines at his kitchen table. “They didn’t know very much but pretended to know a lot. “So I started reading, going to tastings and the guy that I worked for who had a lot of money, said “buy me wine” so I did. “So when I went anywhere to taste, I was treated very well, and got to taste a lot of wine because I spent a lot of money…that’s where it all started.” Julian eventually made his way back to Australia to make a film that didn’t get off the ground, so he continued with advertising in Sydney and began buying, travelling and exploring the wines of Australia. After a while he became disenchanted with the advertising world and began asking himself questions about his and his family’s future. “I was sitting in boardrooms and they were paying me so much money that it was a sin,” Julian explained. “But they weren’t listening…research and numbers were becoming more important than experience and creativity and I knew that was the precursor to ‘not’ working. “So I asked myself, ‘What do I know? I know two things. I know wine and film, so if I’m not going to do film maybe I’ll do wine? As he explored, he discovered a lot that he didn’t like, but a chance meeting with a glass of Giaconda Cabernet piqued his interest and led to him forming a relationship with Giaconda’s Rick Kinzbrunner and Beechworth. “I kept coming back to two places; Margaret River and Beechworth, he explained. “I really didn’t want to come back to Victoria having grown up here, but I was wrong.” Putting down roots
In 1996 Julian and his wife purchased land just outside Beechworth, planted vines and built a house. “The intention was to make something really great, but I didn’t know what type of wine I wanted to make,” remarked Julian. “For me the wine that I wanted to make came from the land. “I came here, looked at the land and it seemed to me the wine that would work here would be Sangiovese and Shiraz .” Driven to make wines that were taken seriously, one of the many decisions Julian took to was biodynamics. “I believed and still do, that wine with character comes from the vineyard, not the winery,” he explained. “ Biodynamics as a complete way of farming made so much sense.” Julian is not evangelical about the methodology or its underlying principles. He simply sees it as common sense. It’s a refreshing attitude, given the fervent advocacy behind the current perception of biodynamics and its connection to the natural wine trend. The Castagna website says it best. “The land is farmed biodynamicaly using Rudolf Steiner’s biodynamic principles. We believe this is the best way to achieve optimum fruit quality that best expresses its terroir. Our intention is to make, as simply as possible, wine which is an expression of the place where it is grown.” The Wines
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Meet Chester Osborn from d’Arenberg
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Two Blues Sauvignon Blanc 2014
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