The Brothers' vines of St Laurence

A hidden vineyard in the heart of Adelaide

By Sam Russell
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Brother Brendan in the St Laurence vineyard in North Adelaide, South Australia

Brother Brendan in the St Laurence vineyard in North Adelaide, South Australia


Hiding in the churchyard of North Adelaide's St Laurence church is a religious treasure – a shiraz vineyard that is teaching local school children the skills of viticulture.

Thirty years ago one of Adelaide’s myriad pleasures was to find vineyards flourishing cheek by jowl with suburbia. These were the remnants of the glory years of Adelaide grape growing.

In the 1860s the town boasted more than 50 vineyards and in 1925 there were 1570 hectares under vine. It was said that only Vienna had a larger area devoted to metropolitan viticulture.

In more recent memory Hamiltons had grapes just 10 furlongs from suburban Morphettville racecourse. Patritti was not far from the sands of Brighton beach.

But today, few vines have survived. Penfolds’ blocks in the Magill foothills remain the spiritual home of Australia’s iconic red Grange, just seven kilometres from the GPO. Along the road at Stonyfell there is a small acreage. There are vines used for research at the Waite Institute in nearby Urrbrae. But that’s about it. The rest of the heritage vines have fallen to the developers and the demolishers.

Yet in one of life’s curious twists there is a new Adelaide vineyard. It is just 10 minutes’ stroll from cricket’s hallowed sward at Adelaide Oval. And it is so obscure not one in a thousand locals would know it is there. It is a delightful discovery.

In the grounds of St Laurence’s in Buxton Street, North Adelaide the black friars – the Dominicans – in 2001 established a tiny viticultural footprint by planting 150 shiraz vines.

An 800 year old order, the Dominicans are the Order of Preachers or OP. Their vocation is to teach and preach.

To one side of this little vineyard is their 110 year old priory, home to a small community of friars.

On the other side of the vines is upmarket suburbia. Within these North Adelaide parklands are tree-lined streets, spacious federation classics, snug row cottages -- and a fast-rising median house price of $530,000.

The Dominican vineyard, scarcely noticeable from the street, is an uplifting viticultural oddity. The size of a suburban building block, it is probably Australia’s smallest vineyard. It is certainly the most ecumenical.

The vineyard came about, says Brother Brendan O’Hearn, because there was idle land alongside the priory. Why not plant grapevines?

“There was a very old vine there,” he says, ”probably dating well back into the 19th century. So the soil might have been used for growing grapes before the Dominicans’ foundation here in 1898.”

Brother Brendan teaches at nearby Blackfriars Priory, a school for boys. It interacts closely with other schools, not only in the Catholic system. Growing grapes and making wine seemed a logical educational project in this wine-conscious part of the world so Blackfriars added Viticulture to its vocational education offering.

A group of like minded local teachers also took to the idea with enthusiasm. St Mary’s and Christian Brothers are Catholic colleges for girls and boys respectively. Wilderness is a leading non-denominational girls’ school. Adelaide High is a co-educational state school.

Year 11 students, with teachers and volunteers from the schools, prepared the church’s land, installed recycled-plastic posts and trellises, planted the vines and in due course harvested the grapes.

There’s no shortage of winemaking expertise in Adelaide; enthusiastic parents and friends made the wine offsite.

“Since our first crush in 2003 we’ve had a vintage every year,” says Brother Brendan.

“Our wine is called Priory Block and our brand is St Laurence Wines. Students designed the label.”

In a favourable year the vines yield 50 or 60 cases. They are sold among the various communities involved in the project and the range has been broadened by blending the priory’s shiraz with cabernet from elsewhere.

Australia has some gargantuan vineyards. At the Nanya blocks in Renmark, Angove’s Wines has rows five kilometres long – hence its Long Row label. Down Padthaway way, Hardy’s Stonehaven vineyard exceeds 450 hectares -- more than double the entirety of North Adelaide.

Compared to these behemoths, the 0.1 hectare shiraz vineyard of the gentle North Adelaide Dominicans seems insignificant.

But for those who believe in nurturing a civilised interest in wine among tomorrow’s generation, the friars and their friends are showing that ‘back to the future’ is a good way to go.

Regions

  • Adelaide (SA)

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