Gas versus grapes in mining stoush

Huon Hooke
Safety doubts ... Hunter Valley winemakers fear the environmental impact of coal seam gas mining.
Safety doubts ... Hunter Valley winemakers fear the environmental impact of coal seam gas mining. Photo: Peter Braig

UNCERTAINTY ABOUT THE FUTURE OF coal seam gas exploration and mining in the lower Hunter Valley has winemakers up in arms. The O'Farrell government has refused to restate its pre-election commitment that CSG mining would not be permitted in the vineyard area. As well, the biggest CSG explorer, AGL, is accused of engaging in a PR campaign to enlist the support of the Hunter wine industry.

In addition to recent purchases of vineyards totalling about 100 hectares, including the original Poole's Rock vineyard in the Broke Fordwich sub-region, AGL has divided winemakers by having 400 tonnes of grapes made into wine in the 2012 vintage by contract winemakers, several of whom have since abandoned the mining company. In what is seen by many as window-dressing and PR, the gas company instituted a scholarship for Hunter winemakers. The 2012 winner was Daniel Binet, winemaker at Ballabourneen. Binet will again make wine for AGL in the 2013 vintage, on behalf of Wilderness Wines. Binet applied for the initial scholarship because he believed in safeguarding the future of the AGL vineyards, formerly known as Poole's Rock and Spring Mountain.

The Hunter Valley Wine Industry Association (HVWIA) president, Andrew Margan, says AGL's scholarship and winemaking activities are an attempt to cosy up to the Hunter wine industry.

The scholarship was initially backed by Hunter wine veteran Brian McGuigan, whose vineyard contracting company manages AGL's vineyards. McGuigan Wines winemaker Peter Hall, contractor Greg Silkman (of Monarch Winemaking Services) and Usher Tinkler, who recently left Poole's Rock to focus on his family's Tinkler Family Wines, have removed their support for AGL.

AGL was this year expelled from the HVWIA, the only expulsion ever, as ''their activities were considered prejudicial to the interests of the association'', Margan says.

The vineyard association's position is that CSG is totally incompatible with viticulture, winemaking and wine tourism. It is concerned about the possible pollution of water, land and the environment by hydraulic fracturing for CSG, and says that while doubt about its safety remains, it should not occur at all.

AGL recently announced that fraccing will start in the Hunter vineyard area soon.

Winemaker Bruce Tyrrell says: ''Our industry has been in the Hunter for nearly 200 years and, along with wine tourism, we are a fully sustainable industry that can prosper for another 200 years and beyond. The CSG operators will be gone inside 50 years and no one knows how big a mess they will leave.''