History in a bottle – Whale of a time

Author: Tony Love
Source: SA Life
Review Date: Jun 2024

South Australia’s wine story includes many well-worn tales of adventures into the unknown, maddening enterprise and celebrated family sagas. But then there are the more secret histories, which live on today in wines that reflect their colourful stories. Here, we explore the lesser-known side to South Australia’s iconic wine industry.

Let’s get this secret history business off to a seriously big picture start, with a hefty timeline set at about 34 million years ago. That’s right; no 180-year-old-vines, here … at least, not to begin this story, anyway. It’s an ancient secret that we begin with.

This 34 million-year figure is actually the age of the limestone – determined by scientific dating – wrapped around a fragment of primitive whale bone that was discovered in 2004 inside a cave network under a vineyard in the Wrattonbully region of the state’s Limestone Coast.

This cave network was discovered during ripping of Crayere’s Vineyard (within the Terre a Terre estate of Xavier and Lucy Bizot), adjoining what’s now known as the Whalebone Vineyard (under the banner of Brian Croser’s Tapanappa wines). Both vineyards are set in the East Naracoorte Ranges on the Kanawinka Fault line.

It is thought the area’s caves were formed about one million years ago, just inland of where the shoreline was at the time, before the sea level dropped and caves were completely drained approximately 800,000 years ago, and gradual uplift during the Pleistocene period pushed the ocean 100 kilometres away from the Naracoorte Ranges.

These caves also contain fossils from large marsupials such as giant koalas or kangaroos, with new research suggesting some of them in the Whalebone cave are almost 300,000 years old; the animals stranded in the cave when the entrance collapsed, sealing them off from being degraded by sun, weather or disturbed by intruders.

This extraordinary tale of times gone by has a modern ending, ultimately connecting the Tapanappa and Terre a Terre wines to the limestone-based geology of the region. Both wines here are finely tuned expressions of what is known as the Great Australian blend of Cabernet and Shiraz.

Tapanappa Whalebone Vineyard Cabernet Shiraz 2018 ($55) is crafted from 87 per cent cabernet sauvignon from the Wrattonbully vineyard, as well as 13 per cent shiraz from the Adelaide Hills. Deeply seductive aromas link closely in an interplay of finessed French oak, blue-black fruits, subtle peppery spice and faint suggestions of mint chocolate, all coming together in seamless and delicious harmony.

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