Alister Purbrick: The winery and the wetland

Behind every fine drop of red, as all winemakers know, are many drops of that vital clear stuff: water, or "blue gold" as it's sometimes known. But at Tahbilk, Australia's oldest winery, water has more than dollar value. It's also the lifeblood of a thriving 700-acre wetland that's a safe haven for a menagerie of native wildlife.

Alister_0Established in 1860, the winery has recently embraced eco-tourism. Boat cruises, boardwalks and bird hides on the Tahbilk Lagoon, adjoining the Goulburn River, allow close encounters with local flora and fauna. Pelicans cruise the glassy surface, wallabies drink from the water’s edge and goannas waddle through the reeds. The gum trees are home to sugar gliders, and the lagoon supports the rare native Watershield Lily, found nowhere else in the world.

Tahbilk Lagoon’s wetland and wildlife reserve has had help to reach its current healthy state. “We blocked off both ends in 1984, and since the early 1990s it’s been in near-pristine condition,” says CEO Alister Purbrick, a fourth-generation winemaker raised on the family property.

As well as abundant native birdlife, reptiles and amphibians, says Alister, the lagoon has fish numbers three to five times higher than the Goulburn River, a breeding platypus colony and Australia’s most southern catfish population. There’s a small but healthy koala population here, too; Alister is working with neighbours and the Koala Foundation to create native habitat corridors, so Tahbilk’s koalas can mingle with nearby colonies to keep the gene pool strong.

A decade ago, when plans for a reserve were hatched, Alister admits they weren’t environmentally driven. “We’re not saints. We had this wonderful piece of land and water, and thought – what else can we do here?”

Since the reserve opened two years ago, annual visitor numbers have doubled, to around 150,000. “Eco-tourism plays an enormously important role for us, and it really seems to have struck a chord.” The estate also has a heritage museum, original underground cellars and waterside café-gallery.

Winemakers are facing tough times. Like most producers in the region, Tahbilk is on a 15 per cent water allocation. The winery draws on its backwaters, but is careful not to stress this source. “We’re buying temporary water, adding a huge amount to the bottom line,” says Alister. “Everyone’s waiting for a big spring, but we’ll just have to see how the season unfolds.” Along with last year’s frosts, water shortages have reduced Tahbilk’s vines to just a quarter of their normal yield.

The winery, named after the Aboriginal phrase tibilk tabilk (“many waterholes”), fronts 11 scenic kilometers of the Goulburn River. But Alister worries about the river’s health: “In places it’s become little more than a channel. The ecology’s been greatly degraded, and it won’t improve if we keep artificially raising and lowering the water levels with the [Goulburn] Weir. When water levels sink in winter, which is the reverse of natural, frost kills the Ribbonweed that provides food for breeding native fish.”

This area grows around one-third of Australia’s food, notes Alister, so caring for the river is a long-term prospect that concerns us all: “The Goulburn is the artery that keeps this region alive.”

Story by Meg Mundell, 2007.