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Regional Studies
Part 2 - Detailed Mapping in Australia Offers Clues on Soils, Rocks and Taste
Thursday, 20th February, 2014  - David Farmer

I started in the wine business in 1975 and no one was in any doubt that France made the best wines. I became a believer in the idea of terroir, as after all the definition so broad who could not like the idea, and I was attracted to the notion of soils and geology being likely to have a role in producing wine flavours.

Not only the role of storing moisture but perhaps in some as yet undefined way soils enhanced the quality of the grapes and this might help in explaining the quality grading of vineyards.

In the late 1990s I thought I could advance these thoughts by studying vineyard regions in Australia. I reasoned that even if soil differences were of a subtle chemical nature they should show physical changes that could be observed and outlined. As well perhaps the underlying bedrock played a role and this would also be revealed by detailed observation.

Selecting a Vineyard Region for Study

To select the first vineyard region to study the following factors were considered important:

1. A geologically simple area with many vineyards.

2. A region known for its soil types which were considered to influence flavours.

3. Preferably a flat region to lessen the effects of meso and micro climate thus making conclusions about the role of soils easier.

4. A region where it was considered some vineyards were making better wines.

5. The possibility that the region could develop the complex quality grading of Burgundy.

There was such a region which is Coonawarra and it had the additional benefit that the geology had not been studied.

The Photo Mosaic of the Vineyards of Coonawarra 1996

Coonawarra is one of the few places in Australia where the vineyards completely cover the main physical feature which is the red soil. There are some great vineyards sites such as St George and Limestone Ridge. Can this region be divided up into a grading of vineyards?

The Red soils of Coonawarra

This map divides the soils by a colour grading and shows the A grade bright red soils forming the central spine grading to the D grade grey-black soils to the east and west. This map clearly outlines the shape of the famous terra-rosa soils. The boundaries are gradational and as such are one person's interpretation. Apart from colour no other physical difference was noted though of considerable interest is that the thickest calcrete zone underlying these soils has developed below the A grade soils.

A depiction of Coonawarra as it may have looked at 680,000 years.

This map shows the West Naracoorte Dune to the east, dated at 780,000 years and the Harpers-Stewarts-Cave Range Dunes to the west dated at 680,000 years. The main features are the large salt water lagoon with open ocean access that formed behind the younger dune range, the beach sands observed to the east of this lagoon and the interpretation that swampy land completed the landscape eastward to the West Naracoorte Dune.

This diagram shows the position of the Coonawarra red soils which have been superimposed upon the previous landscape interpretation map. This shows that the red soils have formed just to the west of the beach rocks and are on top of rocks deposited along the lagoonal edge.

This was unexpected as you might have thought the red soils would correlate with a mappable geological unit such as beach sands or a weakly formed dune ridge. If you accept, as I did at the time, that the red soils were likely the result of a pre-cursor underlying rock why wasn't it more distinctive?

The landscape setting of Coonawarra, a lagoon behind a dune ridge, is likely to have been repeated many times across the limestone platform which extends from the West Naracoorte Dune to the present coast line. Why then have no other red soils been found in a similar geological setting as that of Coonawarra?

A picture of the Penley quarry in the beach sands that underlie the eastern edge of the Coonawarra where the soils are grading from C grade pale brown colour to the D grade of gray and black colour.

This is a very important cutting east-west across Coonawarra.

This cutting named 'Drain C' illustrates the brightness of the soil and the variable thickness of the calcrete cap and particularly the thicker relationship of calcrete with the brighter A grade soils. The western edge of the calcrete red soil cap drops about half a metre onto a black soil inter-dunal plain.

This road quarry in the West Naracoorte Dune was recently excavated (2005?) to become the Gartner Winery and is now the Greatstone Winery.

The red-soil sink holes along the western wall are of interest as it was here that samples* were taken which showed that the composition of the red soil indicated that the source of the soil could not be entirely from the underlying bedrock. Proposed instead was a wind-blown source. My initial reaction was to query this idea as it might be applied to Coonawarra but now have the view that it does indeed explain many of the features of Coonawarra and is a very important contribution. *Refer: Age and origin of Terra Rossa soils in the Coonawarra area of South Australia; Aija C. Meea, Erick A. Bestlanda, Nigel A. Spoonerb, Geomorphology, 2004.

In places along the western edge of the Coonawarra rise there is a half metre drop off into the black soil plains. Shown is Drain C and the drop off at the western end of the Coonawarra rise.

I will return to the significance of this photo in a later section. Click here for detailed information on Coonawarra.

The Hunt for another Coonawarra and Red Soil

The study of Coonawarra posed the question of why similar soils were not duplicated between the other dunal ranges east of Coonawarra to the coast. While it was highly unlikely they had been missed I decided to investigate further and travelled extensively through the South East.

This led to the thought that the most likely region in which to find an undiscovered 'Coonawarra' was across the border in Victoria.

This map is a compilation from published geological maps and highlights the sequence of dunal ridges that extend across the south-east plain from Portland (Victoria) to the mouth of the Murray River.

Visits to the South East continued for a number of years with detailed observations of Padthaway and the much younger weakly coloured red soils of Mount Benson and Robe. Excursions were also made into Victoria to trace the dune geology along the western border of Victoria.

A very large area of bright red soils associated with dunes, thus the setting is different to Coonawarra, occurs at Dartmoor and this was carefully mapped. This is ideal vineyard country and led at one time to the crazy idea of purchasing land.

A map of the Dartmoor dune. At this stage it is not correlated with any of the named South Australian dunes but is perhaps the Victorian extension of the Mingbool dune.

[Note September 2013. I told the tale of the significance of the Dartmoor red soils on the evening and will publish this at another time.]

At this time, about 2001, I had not reached any conclusions about soils, bed-rock and wine flavours and decided to extend the study to a completely different region where the soils and geology were far more variable and complex and commenced observations in the Barossa Valley in 2002.

Looking for Answers in the Barossa Valley

This map was produced after extensive observations of the Barossa Valley. It is not a geological map but rather a portrayal of geology, soil and landscape divisions and the idea was to draw these elements together to provide a basic reference map. The thoughts behind these 'mappable units' are given elsewhere.

This map provides wine-makers and others who are interested in the sub-regionality of the Barossa with starting points for the development of this idea. It also depicted my ideas at the time of 'mappable units' which may be reflected in the flavour of wines. The length of the Barossa Valley is about 35 kilometres.

The Barossa Valley has many interesting landscape and geological features and following graphics show a few of the highlights.

(Photos of Barossa-The Stockwell Fault)

The Stockwell fault defines the eastern edge of the Barossa Valley and is a very important control of the origin and shape of the valley. This is the only exposure I have found and is just south of the town of Stockwell. The sediments are what I term the 'Lower Quarry Sands'.

(photo-North Para River at Rowland flat)

The North Para River flows northward along the Eden Valley then breaks into the Barossa Valley just north of Angaston. It then makes a U turn across the valley floor and by Nuriootpa is flowing south. From this point till Rowland Flat the North Para River defines the western edge of the Barossa Valley (in landscape terms not vineyard terms).

At Rowland Flat the North Para River carves its way out of Barossa Valley with a right angle bend which leads through an impressive gorge. As this gorge has deepened it has set off up- stream erosion which has turned the once even floor of the Barossa Valley, south of Tanunda, into a rolling, erosional surface.

This is a compilation of the soil maps prepared by the CSIRO (Northcote et al) in the 1950s. They illustrate the complexity of the soil types which you would expect in such an old region and provide a nice comparison to the simple soils of Coonawarra. This mapping is very accurate.

For more detail on the landscapes of the Barossa Valley go to History of the Barossa Valley and Its Landscapes.

The variability in the landscapes, the soils and the geology of the Barossa Valley is very confusing and as I extended the study into the surrounding hills of Eden valley and beyond the view began forming that whatever the role of soils and bedrock had in wine flavours it was complex and uncertain.

During this time I was also gathering clues from elsewhere.

Final Thoughts: A 40 year Adventure in Geology, Soils, Landscapes and Wine.
Part 5 - The New Wine Regions of Australia

Final Thoughts: A 40 year Adventure in Geology, Soils, Landscapes and Wine.
Part 4 - Terroir Makes Little Sense and is a Term Best Left to the French

Final Thoughts: A 40 year Adventure in Geology, Soils, Landscapes and Wine.
Part 3 - Clues from Other Regions, New Zealand, Argentine and Australia

Final Thoughts: A 40 year Adventure in Geology, Soils, Landscapes and Wine.
Part 1. Understanding the Topic, Terroir and the French Experience.

Introduction: Wine Flavours, Climate, Weather, Soils and Geology

Coming Soon - Part 5 - The New Wine Regions of Australia.

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