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6 June 2018updated 30 Jun 2021 11:51am

European settlers’ belief that vines could thrive in Australia proved justified

Soil, climate, people, all make a difference, along with that intangible something we can neither name nor forego.

By Nina Caplan

Faith takes many forms; it can have the grandeur of an idol or the shy flicker of a candle flame, and no good wine is poured without a little illogical belief also making it into the glass. When Europeans first came to Australia, they felt certain that a sea channel cut this enormous slab of land in half. An unknown landmass couldn’t be this big and remain so long unfound, they thought – at least, unfound by them. Their imaginary shoreline ran through what is, in fact, desert, and it has a faint, parched echo in the Todd, a central Australian river that’s dry most of the year. The Henley-on-Todd Regatta involves people holding bottomless boats and running, Fred Flintstone-style, along the river bed. A joke or an act of obeisance to the water gods, depending on your point of view.

Australia may have boundaries that are purely imaginary but there are also real divisions that lie unseen. In the Coonawarra wine region in South Australia, winemakers talk about terra rossa, a rich, red soil that is supposed to give particular structure and flavour to Cabernet Sauvignon grapes. This whole south-eastern part of the state is known as the Limestone Coast, and the fossil-laden remains of an ancient sea extend below that cigar-shaped strip of red topsoil, just 1km wide, and far beyond. So in a way, those explorers had it right, after all.

Eden Valley, Clare Valley, McLaren Vale: so many great wine regions cluster about Adelaide, Coonawarra’s nearest city, that this former sheep-farming area 375km from the conurbation gets overlooked, and it probably doesn’t help that Cabernet, a so-called international variety, is currently less trendy than indigenous grapes. Australia, of course, has no varieties of its own. The first vines here were brought from France and Spain in the 1820s, and if it isn’t a leap of faith to pluck cuttings from their native soil, transport them 15,000km in an era before mechanised flight, and plant them in an arid land where the water table was only visible to people dismissed, by the newcomers, as superstitious savages, then I don’t know what is.

If you drive along the Riddoch Highway, the wineries line up in orderly fashion, like market stallholders displaying their wares. Redman, Katnook, Balnaves, Hollick, Raidis, and others; Wynns, probably the best-known estate, is just around the corner. And yet the wines can vary greatly. Soil, climate, people, all make a difference, along with that intangible something we can neither name nor forego. We are as much defined by what isn’t there as by what’s right in front of us, as any Australian must acknowledge. This, after all, is a country described by the first European settlers as uninhabited – though arguably, refusing to see the natives right in front of you was far more superstitious behaviour than any Aboriginal belief.

Between 1801 and 1803, Matthew Flinders sailed around Australia, establishing the non-existence of that bisecting body of water beyond all doubt. Off the south coast, he encountered a French ship. The two pragmatic captains shared information on the strange land before them – which was surely unappreciated by their respective governments, who were at war with each other. Common humanity won out; a victory usually celebrated, among Europeans, by opening a bottle, and in those distant days when Australia’s wines were still impalpable blends of faith, optimism and imagination, let’s hope their ships’ stores allowed them to do just that.

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This article appears in the 06 Jun 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Nuclear Family