by Rod Smith MW

More Rayas Than Raisin

For many people in the UK getting into wine in the 1990s Australia was new and vibrant. The ‘sunshine in a glass’ mantra, coupled with labels in English, often with cute animals on them, helped sell a lifestyle-liquid and establish the country as a source of reliable, easy-to-drink wines. The geography was not relevant to people in far-flung export markets, despite the fact that Australia comfortably covers a greater land mass than Europe. Tasmania was devils and Boags beer and if there was any wine, it didn’t escape – any more than the Tasmanian tiger escaped its fate at the hands of the colonisers.

Principally, two places captured the imagination: Coonawarra and the Barossa Valley. The former probably because of its photogenic, ghost-like railway station and white-training shoe-ruining red soil, named – for no entirely obvious reason – in Ferrari-like Italian: Terra Rossa. The Barossa Valley’s export fame in no small part was because of Barossa Valley Estates, the large company who were responsible for many of the value wines imported by Oddbins, before the supermarkets Jacob’s Creekified everything.

The Barossa was the home of Shiraz, but also Cabernet, Chardonnay, Riesling, Semillon and so much more. Bit by bit, Coonawarra became known for its distinctively After Eight scented Cabernet Sauvignon. The blockbuster rich Barossa Shiraz wines, many from the oldest vines in the country, similarly came to define its region of origin.

McLaren Vale, however, had something of an over-diversity image issue. The biggest producer going south from Adelaide was Penfold’s in its magnificent Magill Estate, and plenty of visitors stopped there and went no further south, despite McLaren Vale, certainly Clarendon and Blewitt Springs, being barely a few kilometres down the road. And then there was Seaview Estates. Initially one of the bargain Australian wines of all in Oddbins was Seaview Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon which sold for £4.99, but was a wine worth double that, presumably a result of then managing director John Ratcliffe’s ‘persuasive’ buying manner.

There was a bigger issue. Seaview (born out of the region’s second longest established Hope Estate, and long since subsumed into the Penfold’s/Rosemount, and then Treasury Estates groups) was famous, above all its other wines, for its rich Traditional Method sparkling Pinot Noir/Chardonnay. A search on Seaview McLaren Vale in Google still produces more results about this wine than anything else. Sparkling wines from Pinot Noir and rich reds do not come from the same place, do they? Can they? How could consumers grown up on the idea that Crémant de Bourgogne is not as good as Champagne because it is ‘too warm’ there accept the dichotomy of a region which produced great fizz and big reds from adjacent vineyards?

Seaview still exists of course. It remains a brand owned by Treasury, although sales seem mainly domestic, while simultaneously being one of the sub regions of McLaren Vale, whose other producers are not allowed to use the name on their labels. This, understandably, annoys some of them. Because sub-regions are the future. And to see that we need to look to the past, or at least its geology..

The Districts project in McLaren Vale has been running since 2009. Using samples of young Shiraz made in the same style, with minimal (new) oak and from single or adjacent vineyard blocks from various producers, wines are blended annually to represent their District. For the moment these are unnamed but carry Hunger-Games like numbers. Gradually, distinctive styles are emerging, certainly according to Drew Noon MW of Noon vineyards: “It’s really interesting because we can consistently taste differences between some of the districts.” All the great winemakers take part in the tastings and agreements are being reached, especially about sand content in the subsoil, as well as the more obvious conditions of aspect and altitude. But sand content in soil affects how much irrigation is or is not required and the fact that the project requires wines made in the same style with similar oak treatment exposes the obvious fact that it is often yield and winemaking which makes more of a difference to both the quality but also the style of the resultant wine. But it remains an exciting experiment to see just how the very varied geology of McLaren Vale is influencing the wines and where this might go in the future.

Shiraz still accounts for over 50% of the plantings in McLaren Vale, and so it is an obvious choice, but the Barossa also has Shiraz, and arguably even more famously. Much of the excitement is coming from some of the amazing Grenaches, especially those from old dry-grown vineyards. Grenache was once derided as a far lesser grape. It can overcrop, and even when concentrated by pruning or from low yielding vines, it has a propensity towards the alcoholic and certainly was often swamped in far too much American oak flavour. But a new style is appearing. More Rayas than raisin. Even Michael Hill-Smith MW, once a hater of Grenache: “Too porty mono-dimensional and big” and proponent of the fresher wines styles of the Adelaide Hills and Tasmania, has launched a new Blewitt Springs project, MMAD with Martin Shaw, Adam Wadewitz and David Le Mire MW, including a spicy, but airy and fresh Grenache.

The king of Grenache in McLaren Vale, however, is Stephen Pannell. Although from Margaret River, and widely travelled throughout Europe, Stephen was the head winemaker for BRL Hardy, and responsible for many an Australian classic. With his wife, he founded S.C. Pannell wines in 2004, and now offers a taste of the present and future of McLaren Vale, as well as its past. He majors on elegance in the wines, making Grenache in a range of styles using no, some, or total whole-bunch (a good way of capturing the lighter style of Grenache). “If you think Pinot Noir is ripe – you missed it. And I apply that to Grenache”. Steve’s entirely whole bunch Grenache, however, is labelled “Clusterfuck’ and it’s not likely to see that on a Burgundy label any time soon. He is also a fan of the newer plantings of more Mediterranean varieties which he believes to be of greater suitability to the climate: Fiano, Aglianico, Touriga Nacional and others. “If I could change all the Shiraz in Australia over to Montepulciano in a minute, I would!”

At Lloyd brothers, the affable Sam Temme has also planted also planted some ‘new’ varieties and expanded the property and winery. One of his introductions is Picpoul, and in McLaren Vale it is fair to say it is producing wines with more character and zesty flavour than those of its southern French homeland. “It helps that it is easy to say”, Sam comments, but more important is that it is also easy to drink. Matthew and David Lloyd also have a considerable olive grove, producing kalamata olives for the table rather than their oil, from trees first planed on the site in 1960s.

One of the landmarks in McLaren Vale is the d’Arenberg ‘Cube’. This has managed to put the region on many a tourist ‘must-see’ list and so credit and thanks are due to the imaginings-made-flesh of the larger than life Chester Osborn. A visual voyage through his mind is rewarded with the most astonishing tasting room with a view to the sea and hills. D’Arenberg is a McLaren Vale institution, with its longstanding history, distinctive name reflecting the aristocratic French origin of Frances Helena d’’Arenberg (Chester’s grandmother) and red-stripe labelling designed by Chester’s father, d’Arry Osborn, who passed away late last year at the age of 95. They were among the first to label the wines with an individual name, usually ‘The’ something, and their top Shiraz, ‘The Deadarm’ despite being named after a vine disease (Eutypa) and containing the word ‘dead’, has deservedly become an icon in its right.

Partners Joch Bosworth and Louise Hemsley-Smith of Battle of Bosworth are also the owners of Springs Road on Kangaroo Island, an idyllic if water-starved continuation of the Fleurieu Peninsula south of McLaren Vale. Joch is a stalwart of the Districts project and all his vineyards in McLaren Vale are farmed entirely organically. Their Shiraz wines are more Syrah than Shiraz, exemplified by the oak and preservative-free ‘Puritan’ label.

Wirra Wirra is at the heart of McLaren Vale. Founded in the 1890s, and rebuilt by Greg Trott in the 1960s, this was one of the first Australian producers to propose the importance of sustainability, and Greg was especially keen on careful water management. His legacy – he died in 2005 – are some of the most sustainable practices of any Australian winery, with careful commitment to waste water treatment and biodynamic principles in the vineyards. One of Greg’s first wines from old vines around the small Bethany church, just across from the winery ‘Church Block’, is one of the most affordable of Australia’s ‘classic’ labels, and consistently garners very high praise. Unusually, it remains a Cabernet Sauvignon dominated blend (with Shiraz and Merlot).

As Australian wine continues to diversify and belie its appealing, but over-simplistic ‘sunshine in a glass’ reputation, it seems McLaren Vale is accomplishing in decades, with science, what took Burgundy centuries using largely ecclesiastical dry stone walling. Although in both cases it was how the wines tasted which was the final arbiter. Which is how it should be.

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