Going south to find a real peach

If you should drop into the tasting room at Boston Bay Winery, sloping down to the waters of expansive Port Lincoln in the south of Australia, make sure you mention you come from Hong Kong. The owner, Graham Ford, will probably pour you a glass of his rather nifty chardonnay and head for the kitchen. He reckons the pale yellow wine with a taste of peaches and cream is a prime companion for succulent abalone.

So as you savour this rare wine - only 394 dozen cases were made - Ford slices the canned shellfish into thin wafers and brings it back on a bed of locally grown pak choi. 'Goes well with Chinese tucker,' he says.

He should know. For most of his life, the nuggety grape-grower made his living diving for abalone along the jagged and formidable South Australian coast, until one day he had a brush with a giant white pointer shark.

He decided that winemaking was a good choice for a career change. He's still involved with a firm that exports 60 tonnes of abalone a year, mostly to Hong Kong. His wine comes here, too, the '96 merlot and cabernet sauvignon, both at $178, and chardonnay at $174 from Kedington Wines (Fax: 2898-9183).

He was the first grape-grower in the area when a decade ago he planted riesling, merlot, cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay on fields that lead down to the beachfront. But Ford wasn't the first person to see the potential. In 1803, French explorer Nicholas Baudin probed the coasts of the Eyre Peninsula and wrote that it would one day produce prime wines. It took almost two centuries to come true.

Ford has a keen eye for soil as well as shellfish. When he came ashore, he bought these acres 10 kilometres from the town of Port Lincoln. The soil is poor, so vines like it. There is not much water, so the roots go deep. Irrigation is needed; most of the 432 millimetres of rain comes in the winter. The summer is long, with the sun still taking warmth to the grapes until 8.30pm, almost right up to picking in February. But every day there is a cooling wind from the Great Southern Ocean and because the land is semi-desert, at night the temperatures fall sharply. Grapes love it.

When it comes time to pick them, much of the town's population drives down the road to the vineyard. The chilled fruit is trucked 400 km to the Clare Valley where noted winemaker David O'Leary produces the vintage.

The cool climate - by Australian standards - produces notable reds. The cabernet sauvignon is aged for 18 months in French and American oak, giving hints of vanilla to add to the ripe fruit flavour. The merlot has a nicely balanced plummy flavour.

When he planted grapes back in 1984, it was the first time the South Australian wine industry had moved over the Gulf of St Vincent to the Eyre Peninsula.

In 1987, he picked and pressed two tonnes of fruit. This year, the crop will be more than 50 tonnes and his present 12 acres of vines are expanding with new plantings on a further six acres.