If you are driving down to McLaren Vale, along the scenic route, you will pass through Aldinga and Maslin’s beach which are two beautiful places to sit down and relax with a glass of regional wine. The sand in summer on the beach light and flurry, while the warmth of the sun will ensure you don’t need a jumper to keep you warm. You may even see families packing up their belongings and while their sand castles are still standing from a massive day of constructing that would surely involve a mote to keep the tide at bay. These two places along with others and activities that are in operation around the region are quintessential to the production of the high quality wine and the style of those regional wines. Let us look at the lifestyle within McLaren Vale so we can understand what impact that has on the style of wine from the region.
McLaren Vale was first established in 1837 and named after the Colonial |Manager of the South Australian company, David McLaren. David first arrived into South Australia Kangaroo Island where he set about procuring land for livestock. Quickly he moved to Adelaide and set about forming a trade route from Adelaide to Kangaroo Island. David identified the area of McLaren Vale as an ideal location for the expansion of those farming lands and thus the township of McLaren Vale was formed. During summer, McLaren Vale generally experiences warm sunny days with the average January temperature being 22.3 degrees. Due to the close proximity to the Mount Lofty and Sellicks Hill ranges, the cool air slides down into lower areas which means that nights in the Vales can be cold even during the hottest summer periods during. As the area is a short distance to the ocean the chance of frost or drought is reduced resulting in an abundance of local produce year round.
Today McLaren Vale hosts one of the oldest and largest farmers markets in Australia where local produce is the order of the day. There is a large organic beef, deer and lamb farm only 10 to 15 minutes from the township so expect to see the owner at the markets with his wares neatly packaged in cold storage for you to buy and in many cases cook that night. There are also local bakers, charcuterie specialists, butchers and olive growers. Olives and olive oil was one of the first products to be made in the area and due to the Mediterranean climate is still one of the leading lights within the area. In fact at a recent olive oil tasting held by some of the top chefs in Australia, the top three olive oils all came from McLaren Vale. Seasonal vegetables are in abundance and many of the local restaurants take full advantage of this fact and showcase as much as they can in their menus. The focus on top quality produce is evident in the Harvest festival which occurs once a year. Many top chefs come from all over Australia to conduct cooking courses for the public that showcase their skills but also highlights the produce that is grown up the road and is shipped all over Australia for the top kitchens to use. As the focus is on growing vegetables in ideal conditions and once they run out they are planting the next season’s produce and this is why many of the restaurant menus change frequently.
For a region that only has 2,000 residents, the number of top quality restaurants is staggering. No other location including other wine regions can boast such a quality to population ratio. The three restaurants that best showcase the flavour of the region are Fino, d’Arry’s Verandah and Elbow Room. Fino is located in Willunga, a district within McLaren Vale, and boasts a provincial style rustic earthy menu. The restaurant is housed in a 1980s cottage but the décor makes it feel entirely modern. Expect the menu to change weekly as they only serve what is grown or caught fresh. D’Arry’s Verandah is a modern interpretation of Australian cuisine but both restaurants have received major awards. The new comer to the group is Elbow Room but the head chef and owner, Nigel Rich, was the head chef at d’Arry’s for a long time. All of these players are heavily involved with nurturing the fruit, vegetable and livestock producers within the region and have a menu that matches the wines that are produced around the Vales.
Whilst food and livestock production relies on fertile soils, quality grape production is heavily influenced by poor soils. As with all soil types, the formation of soil occurs over an extended time period. The top soil is formed by plant, leaf and animal decay along with rocks and moss. These younger soils are fertile and heavily influence high production of agricultural products. The lower sub-straight soils are formed over 1000s of years if they are left disturbed. Erosion and natural disasters can set back the ageing process for the formation of ancient soils but luckily in Australia this hasn't occurred. This means that Australia has some of the oldest soils in the world that are used for wine production. The aspects that make these ancients soils so special is two fold. Firstly, in a scientific study that was conducted around the world it was found that the biological elements in McLaren Vale were scarcely encountered anywhere else in world. Secondly, that the diversity within a small area was very unique, which if studied, could result in vastly different wines within the same geographical area. Within McLaren Vale there has been 16 districts identified based on the ancient soil sub-straights. Over time these ancient soils loose the fertile aspects and all that remains are the minerals. These minerals are taken up by the vines and influence the flavour spectrum and structural component of the wine. So do the wine makers know how these ancient soils change these components? No but a board has been set up to investigate this phenomenon. The members of the scarce earth project each year receive samples from each winery in the districts. The processes of documentation and evaluation of wines has been conducted over the past 3 years by a panel of industry veterans and masters of wine. Wines are then selected based on quality to be presented to the public under the umbrella of the scarce earth project wines.
Oliver’s Taranga is a relatively new winery but they have been growing top quality grapes in the Vales for a while now. This year they celebrated their 170th anniversary in the Vales in style. They hosted 170 people in the barrel room and opened 170 bottles for them to taste. The occasion was grand so the extravagance level was big with every big name in the wine industry invited. The event kicked off with musicians, sparkling wines and then moved to an art exhibition with guests having to participate in the show. It would be easy to conclude that their was a lot of frivolous fun that occurred at that event and I can understand why they would want to show everything off as 170 years in the region is a huge achievement. When I interviewed Corrina Wright, who is part of the Oliver family and the head winemaker for the business, she spoke about her team as being one unit and I can see why this winery has fastly developed a reputation for producing high quality wines. Don, the father, is one of the most well respected vignerons in South Australia and produces some of the best quality grapes in the Vales year in year out. In 2011 75% of Grange will be from the Oliver’s vineyard which is a recommendation in itself. Next in the team is Corrina who has one of the best palates in the region and who sits on the scarce earth development board. Corrina has worked at Penfolds previously as a research winemaker in charge of developing all their wild yeast fermentation projects. She is also a virement advocate of finding the right varieties to pair with the appropriate soils and climates. As such Oliver’s experiments with alternative varieties and clonal selections and all of the wines from these successful experiments have regularly been awarded the top wines in the nation for their variety but they are under other people’s labels. I wouldn’t be surprised if everyone has tasted the fruit from Oliver’s without knowing it. The most interesting story that Corrina told was one where in 2011 she rejected the fruit from one of her vineyards only for Penfolds to come in and take the whole lot for Grange. Does that go to show that the HJ Shiraz from Oliver’s Taranga has higher standards than Grange? One can only imagine.
Stephen Pannell has a huge history in shaping the quality of Australian wine. He was awarded top 50 most influential winemakers in the world by Decanter magazine, and the first thing that stands out is his thirst for knowledge. He is a fervent believer that if you haven’t tried something before you should try it to see what happens and I’ll give you an example . A parcel of Shiraz comes in to the winery and it feels big and bold in the mouth and another winemaker says I wonder what this would taste like with greater acidity. Stephen says let’s try adding acid after ferment, co-fermenting with a high acid variety and a base wine of Shiraz standing alone. When all the wines were ready they tried them blind and made up their own minds about the quality of each of them before they discussed their thoughts. Now I don’t know what the outcome was for that particular wine but I know that these type of experiments have lead Stephen to develop his wines under his own label. During his upbringing Stephen has worked at many different high profile wineries which include Domaine des Comtes Lafon in Burgundy, Chateau Mouton Rothschild in Bordeaux and G.D. Vajra in Barolo. On the home front Stephen has helped establish Wirra Wirra, Hardy’s, Shaw & Smith and Seppelts Great Western as household names in the Australian wine world. However, it is only recently that I have come across his name. Why would this be? I think there are two reasons for this phenomenon and the first ishis phenomenal work load. Stephen is a prolific wine judge around Australia and donates a lot of his time to judging and assisting in raising the profile of Australian wine in our home country and abroad. Secondly, Stephen lets his wines do the talking instead of marketing his wines to death like so many other wineries do. He is down to earth but with a clear knowledge and understanding of what he feels high quality wine should look like. The wines Stephen produces are not huge but they have elegance and length with a balance of acidity and tannin built into the body. He plans to increase his production a little but due to the fact that he works for one of the biggest McLaren Vale wineries, Tinlins, he won’t stretch his legs too far and only work on producing high quality regional wines of interest.
Like Stephen Pannell, Justin Lane, the wine-maker and owner of Alpha Box & Dice, exudes masses of passion and enthusiasm for McLaren Vale but he has striped back his winery only to the bare essentials. When I first saw it I thought I had time travelled back into the 1950s with open top fermenters with no temperature control and wine left on extended skin contact for months instead of your conventional 2 weeks. Justin has come to the realisation that more needs to be done in the vineyard. Justin thinks this begins with selecting grape varieties that suit the climate and geological outlook of the area. This has resulted in Justin using a lot of Spain and Italy as his base and then blending them with each other or other more traditional French varieties. On tasting his wines it is easy to feel the melding of both worlds coming together. Justin has honed his skills by working with a large variety of people and in a diverse range of places such as Hardys in the Vales, to Moldova in the former USSR. Instead of only working with people that have varieties that Justin wants to work with, he has now focused on assisting people change what they plant to suit the needs of the environment. This has meant that he will soon produce an Aglicanico from the Vales. In McLaren Vale he has formed a strong friendship with Drew Noon and has based his business plan on the Noon’s model. This would suggest that Alpha Box & Dice will be producing a large selection of high quality affordable wines that will be accessible to everyone.