Nestled on the banks of the Murray River in South Australia is a beautifully kept, small boutique winery, called 919 Wines. Family owned and run, it specialises in creating small quantities of high quality wines from less common grape varieties. The passion that the owners, Eric and Jenny Semmler have for their craft and for their products shines through, and they are happy to spend hours showing off and discussing their wines. However, this blog is not about them.
We’d just arrived in the Riverlands area of South Australia, and in common with much of our travels around the country, we’d chosen to stay in the region mostly on the basis that it looked like it was away from the tourist trail and vaguely on our route around the country. Other than that, we’d done precisely zero research on where we were going. Nonetheless, after realising that we’d be driving for some thirty minutes and seen nothing except vast vineyards stretching on both sides of the road, it was clear, even to us, to us that we’d arrived in a major wine producing region.
A few miles further on, we spotted what looked like an oil refinery, a huge array of glistening white vats surrounded by pipes and industrial equipment. A big sign declared that this was ‘Kingston Wines’, but instead of an invitation to visit their cellar door and taste their fine selection of wines, big steel gates and tall fences topped with barbed wire and patrolled by security guards suggested that visitors weren’t really welcome. We snapped a few pictures, from across the road, while being watched warily by the guards and drove on.
But if we thought Kingston Wines was impressive, we didn’t need to go far to see something that made it look positively boutique in scale. For, in the next town along, sits Berri Estates, Australia’s largest wine producing facility. Like Kingston, tall fences and barbed wire surrounded the facility, and here the white fermentation vats stretched off into the distance on both sides of the road as far as the eye could see, or so it seemed. Unlike Kingston wines, though, at least they had a cellar door where they were happy to chat and share some of their products. We tasted and bought a few bottles (ok, a LOT of bottles – they were cheap after all) and chatted to the staff, who were happy to explain more about the winery and the region. We discovered that, despite that fact that the Riverlands region rarely appears on any wine region map, it dwarfs the production of every other region, including the much better known Barossa Valley, McLaren Vale and Margaret River regions. In fact, nearly 30% of Australian wine comes from this area, much of it destined for the overseas market. And yet, examine a bottle of wine produced in the Riverlands and you would be hard-pressed to know where it was from.
As we were researching the wine edition of ‘Bush Cooking’, we were delighted when we were asked if we would like to have a tour of the wine production process the following day.
The harvesting of the 2017 vintage had just started (a little later than usual because of cold weather) and the Cellar Door manager fitted us with hi-visibility vests and led us through a tunnel under the road and into the wine production area. On the day we were being shown around, the Chardonnay harvest was starting to get into full swing and we could see that trucks laden with grapes were starting to queue up, with more constantly arriving.
On arrival, each truck is tested to verify the sugar content and quality of the grapes. Berri wines doesn’t own any of the actual vineyards – independent producers grow the grapes and then sell them to the winery. On our tour with us was one of the local producers who was curious as to what happened to his crop once it left his property, and by all accounts, it’s a pretty marginal business. You need to have a lot of land under the vine to make any money and smaller producers struggle to make a profit.
As each truck is tested and given the ok, it then joins a queue to unload the grapes into one of the crushers – a large stainless steel pit where a large auger crushes the grapes and separates out the leaves, stems and other bits that you probably don’t want to find in your glass of Chardonnay.
We watched as a truck of grapes was unloaded into the crusher. Each truck can carry about 20 tonnes of fruit, and it took less than five minutes to dump the load into the crusher. Within a further 5 minutes, the initial crushing was complete and the crusher was ready for the next lorry to unload.
From the crusher, the juice is pumped into one of the vats where a winemaker will take over and dictate precisely what type of wine will be made. Red wine will have the skins left with the juice to impart the tannins and colour, whereas white wine has the skins removed at an early stage. The skins, pips and other MOG (material not grape) is used in the vineyards as mulch and fertiliser.
And you won’t find any rows of beautifully crafted oak barrels for aging the wines here, either. If a wine is due to be ‘oaked,’ then barrow loads of oak chips are dropped in to the fermentation vats. Berri Estates, and similar types of commercial production are all about producing vast quantities of consistent, low cost wines. The statistics of this one winery are staggering. The winery has over 1500 fermentation tanks, each of which can hold about 166,000 litres. That makes a total capacity of over 260 million litres (the equivalent of over 100 Olympic size swimming pools of wine).
Of this industrial scale production, each year some 100 million litres are sent overseas, much to the UK, with about 30 million litres being sold domestically. And yet, despite this gargantuan output, you would be hard pressed to ever find a bottle of wine labelled ‘Berri Estates’. For Berri’s biggest secret is that it would prefer to remain a secret – at least to the majority of its consumers. Most of the wine will end up on the shelves of supermarkets and their subsidiaries, where you might find it with a quaint label such as ‘Kangaroo Creek’, or ‘Emu Valley’. Each of the supermarket chains wants its own unique labels which it can market and pretend are from single estate wineries, for no-one wants to buy a bottle of wine that looks like it came from an industrial scale production facility. As consumers, how are we to know where the wine originated from, and if it tastes ok, should we care? It’s not like we worry about this for most of the packaged products we buy in the supermarkets although there is good reason why perhaps we should care more than we do.
So that’s why it’s great to see that small family owned vineyards like 919 Wines can still make a living while surrounded by the huge industrial sized production outfits of Berri Estates and Kingston Wines, even though their production costs are vastly greater and their opportunity to market their wines is so much smaller.
But the next time you buy a bottle of wine in your local supermarket, and the label says ‘Product of South Australia’, there’s a good chance that it started its life in the crushers of Berri Estates.