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McLaren Vale - a Rhône angle

The fortysomething Melbourne Immigration official snapped shut my passport, looked me in the eye and stated, "so you have been writing about Australian wines?" Before I could muster a reply, she added the damning verdict, "they're all mass produced." Wham! The issue in a nutshell. Previously the words from the growers themselves had been "we must avoid the amorphous middle ground" from Tony Brooks, father of the great questor Zar Brooks, who lives in the Adelaide Hills.

"My emotional variety is Grenache, I grew up with that. My 1934 Grenache vineyard is sheltered, its exposure north to south, its tannins firmer than the 1943 Grenache which is planted east to west on ironstone, white quartz - that Grenache is lighter, more spicy, the fruit more aromatic." This is terroir talk from Drew Noon, whose estate is one of the quality pillars at McLaren Vale.

Chapel Hill's winemaker Mike Fragos takes up the "new Australia" theme: "we are moving towards more specific plot vinifying, smaller vats, and earlier picking around here is also occurring." Rachel Steer, the Chapel Hill vineyard chief, adds: "we now use minimal herbicides, and are doing under vine mulling. We are trying to build the soils, so apply marc, mulched stems, seeds, skins plus 5-10% low key manure, and some gypsum to neutralise the sodium in the soil."

Across a ten day visit to McLaren Vale to act as the International Judge at the annual Wine Show, such discussions and comments were numerous. McLaren Vale, the coastal region south of Adelaide, is pressing ahead at establishing sub-regions within its compass of a compact 25 miles (40 km) north to south, and 12.5 miles (20 km) west to east. Its eastern, inland, lining is set by the Willunga escarpment, part of the Mount Lofty ranges that run into the Riesling-friendly Adelaide Hills region. It is thus a coherent area that naturally lends itself to such plans.

It is also a place where I would heartily recommend a visit, since there are airs of California about it if you choose spring or autumn. Ten years ago, the shops would shut at 5 pm, there was one good place for coffee and people only drank beer after the 5 pm closing. Now there are good eateries, a wide selection of fresh food stores, shops and wines, even a small caviste wine shop offering St-Joseph from a small Rhône estate. Progress indeed. So the backdrop for a change of mentality is in place.

To prise a wider consumer mentality away from mass production, the sub-region angle is a good start for this 80-odd estate enclave. There are six different sub-regions whose soils and underlying rock formations differ. Blewitt Springs at the north-eastern end of the Vale is markedly sandy, on top of ironstone, with old vine roots deep enough to obviate the need to irrigate. There are spots, though, where the sands have been blown away by the winds over time, and yields in these places can be very low. Fragrance and elegance are possible from these wines, with a "beautiful minerality and fine tannin" in the Cabernet Sauvignon, according to Chester Osborn. Nearby Sea View to the west has red clay 18 inches down, dark sand and loam on top.

McLaren Flat's soils are more alluvial and richer in limestone;its wines are concentrated in the moderate to hot years, and do well in the hot years. Meanwhile, the Willunga Hills, near the local fault line, and largely left uncultivated because access is a little harder than for the plain lands, are said by geologists such as Philip White to possess some of the most promising sites for the whole region: "the vineyard area is moving towards the Willunga Hills, which are over 1 bn years old, where there is a lot of slate," he affirms. "I am convinced that the best vineyards are from the fault line escarpment there."

The other two sub-regions are McLaren Vale itself - calcareous sandstone - and in the south-west, the Sellicks Foothills - flat land, grey-green clay, water retention, but unlikely to be a prime site.

With growers now focusing on the Vale's true long-term potential, roads lead towards the Rhône and away from Bordeaux. 60% of the vineyard is Shiraz planted, with Cabernet Sauvignon the next most widely planted variety at around 8%. But life beyond Shiraz is also occurring, with Grenache receiving a little more attention, while Mourvèdre is starting to show up in people's awareness. Kay Brothers used to grow Mourvèdre in the 1880s, but it disappeared, probably because it stresses and gets sunburn more than the Grenache. A clay sub-soil, such as that next to the d'Arenberg cellars, allows a slow release of moisture, so the Mourvèdre there dates from 1920. Precise geological charting will allow such explicit soil and variety matching in the future.

Rhône varieties such as Counoise are set to be planted, as is Cinsault, of which some exists from the 1950s - a good move, given both vines' low alcohol profile. One of the few cultivators of old Cinsault is Chester Osborn of d`Arenberg: planted in the 1940s in Blewitt Springs, this is on a sandy hill, with marl limestone and clay below down to about 3 feet, then sand. "Coulure - failure of the flowers to convert into fruit - is a problem," says Chester. "We bought it in 2007, and are working to reduce its vigour and consequently its yields. If you prune it, the berries pump up, so we scoot out underneath, and leave the top vegetation alone in order to keep the berries small. It has an aroma of pale, fragrant blossom, and a violet wine that is elegant in mid-palate, without the sweetness and indeed fragrance of the Grenache there. We pick it quite ripe - at 14° to 14.5°, and find that it keeps its acidity even when really ripe. The lichen you see on the vines is an indication of the moisture levels here."

The Cinsault crop used to be sold to Southcorp, but now the Osborns put it in their Grenache blend Cadenzia (9%), and into their Sagrantino (also 9% of the wine).

At Yangarra, 2 acres of Carignan were planted in 2008, on what is called semaphore sand, wind blown and smelling like being on the beach with marine sediments in it. This runs to a depth of a metre and a half at the bottom of the hill, and 2 metres at the top, where the Craignan stands, with loam and clay underneath, and then sandstone topped by ironstone. The tendency is free draining therefore, but the clay acts as a humidifier. At the bottom of the hill Yangarra have also planted Grenache blanc and Cinsault, so their Rhône interest is loud and clear.

As mentioned, a little Mourvèdre can be found, with the ubiquitous Chester Osborn working 3.5 acres of west-facing 1920 Mourvèdre right beside his cellars. The Osborns have used no synthetic chemicals since early 2008 on their established vines, and between the rows grow rye grasses and veld grasses. There is no lichen on the vines here, either: "there are cool winds from Mt Lofty, so we are 2 to 3°C lower at midday. At Blewitt Springs the nights are cool, which encourages the lichen. The sand here lets in 75% of the rainfall, whereas the capillary action of clay would only let in about 25% of an inch, with the moisture very gradually released, a little bit over time. We pick it a week or two after the Grenache, around the first week of May."

In the 1880s there was apparently quite a lot of Mourvèdre to be found - not just the Kay Brothers - but it was vinified at low degree, as was the fashion of the time. The result was herbaceous wines, the taste for which disappeared. The usual method for regenerating Mourvèdre now is to overplant, as was done by Yangarra in 2003 on Cabernet Sauvignon. The only missing element was the accent grave (è), with the word Mourvédre (é, the acute accent) featuring on the label!

White varieties such as Roussanne and Viognier are also gradually moving to the fore. Viognier has been cultivated for some years by the likes of Oliver`s Taranga and Yangarra, but now estates such as Tatachilla are growing it in their Clarendon vineyard, where red clay lies about three feet above hard siltstone. This neat vineyard - 12 hectares or 30 acres at a relatively fresh 250 metres - with its rolling hills and dairy setting around it, is reminiscent of the Maconnais region north of Lyon in France.

One of the established names for Viognier is Yangarra, where it is grown east-facing - their soil is classic sandy ironstone - the sand about 4 feet deep, the ironstone deeply inset. Set in the most north-easterly part of the whole McLaren Vale region, this vineyard, too, has cooling wind influences, leading it to ripen up to one month behind McLaren Vale itself, cold air from Mount Lofty and the altitude ranging from 150 to 211 metres playing a central role in that delayed ripening. Yangarra are converting to biodynamic practices, and their wines should be followed in the years to come.

"Grenache growing in ironstone is rare at McLaren Vale," comments Peter Fraser, the Yangarra winemaker and general manager. Chester Osborn has a bit, but we consider that this soil will give the Grenache a different flavour profile. I believe there can be more finesse going on with the Grenache than the Shiraz, too. In addition to our 40 acres of 1946 Grenache, we are planting 25 acres, some of it from cuttings taken from 10 acres of 1890 Grenache Clarendon Hills Winery, where it grows in clay. We are also putting 2 acres of Roussanne straight in and 2 acres on top of some 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon - that is in sandy ironstone soils as well."

"Since Grenache is a poor self-pollinator, we leave the middle rows to self seed, and to encourage insect activity, and hence more cross-pollination. We have also brought down the trellis height from the usual 1 metre to half that - the greater vegetation allows more shaed above the vines, while in compensation there is more heat from the ground."

The biggest surprise for me during my stay was the Grenache. While this variety is being made into a sweeter and sweeter, high alcohol event in places such as Châteauneuf-du-Pape in France, in McLaren Vale growers are consciously attempting to achieve elegance and freshness. Many of the Grenaches I tasted were impressive, and also very good value for money. The age of the vines, with their roots set deep down through sandy soils, is important: "the old Bush Vine Grenache hold their natural acidity well, and help the wine keep its structure," comments Mike Fragos of Chapel Hill.

There is plenty of decades-old Bush Vine Grenache knocking around McLaren Vale - its fruit originally sold for Port or Australian Burgundy, where it was blended with the ripest Shiraz. "Our 1967 Burgundy won 29 Gold Medals and 7 Trophies," recalls Chester Osborn of d'Arenberg: "it was 75% Grenache, 25% Shiraz, but the Grenache was never recognized in its own right, unlike the Shiraz." In those days, what was known as Australian Claret was in fact early-picked Shiraz, so neither of the main Rhône red grape varieties truly possessed its own identity until later.

Grenache also carries baggage in terms of local perception. It is not all plain sailing, with Peter Fraser of Yangarra commenting as follows: "I know three vineyards with 50-year Grenache that have pulled out the vines in the past three years - people do not understand it." It is pretty amazing that varieties like Sauvignon blanc and Spanish and Italian varieties have been brought in, but not the wider range of Rhône varieties to follow in the footsteps of the well-established Shiraz. I found that growers had a remarkably low level of knowledge outside the main superhighway, mainly because so few had actually spent weeks or months in the Rhône, something that converted Chester Osborn on his legendary trip to France (and the Scotch Whisky areas of the Highlands) as a young man.

Paul Carpenter of Hardy's Tintara is also a Grenache fan, but explains: "Grenache is very hard to sell. The connotation is of high alcohol, thin, dangerous, headache wines. That stems from the cheap wines of the early 1980s, when cropping was early on under-ripe grapes - and yields were too high." His Tintara Reserve Grenache is a delightful wine, remarkably pure, while Corinna Wright (née Rayment) of Oliver's Taranga is actively working with Grenache now, as did her ancestor William in the 1800s: "our oldest Grenache dates from the 1960s, but our new plantings are hand grafted, massale vines. The Taranga Cadenzia, the name used at McLaren Vale to denote Grenache or Grenache blend wines, has sinew and clarity in its 2007, with Corinna stating "I want to be particularly pure to the fruit - thus it is medium-bodied, not super-ripe."

Charlie Melton was the first grower to put the word Grenache on his labels, and by the mid-1980s the Osborns had followed suit with their Ironstone Pressings wine. But media excitement about it dulled after two poor vintages, 1999 and the drizzly 2000. The Grenache style can vary from the juicy fruit of the Noon Twelve Bells 2008 (1943 Grenache) to the freshness of the Samuel's Gorge Grenache (1950s Grenache) to the intense, savoury notes of the Chapel Hill Bush Vine Grenache 2008 (mid-1920s and 1960s Grenache, but part in clay) to the broad shoulders of the Yangarra High Sands Grenache 2008.

In blends with Shiraz, the Grenache also plays an important role, according to Chester Osborn: "The palate length of the Grenache is often greater than the Shiraz - its fruit tannins are longer then the Shiraz fruit tannins as a rule in McLaren Vale, and the fruit length itself is also longer." There are of course many Grenache-Syrah-Mourvèdre wines, the highest profile being the successful Rosemount, but for future region-specific progress, the single variety, single vineyard route would appear to be preferable.

Shiraz remains the king of the Rhône varieties at McLaren Vale, and, some would say, the key to its future. A fascinating insight into the potential for the sub-region framework is provided by the work of single vineyard Shiraz at Tintara, a division of Hardys that was sold to the leviathan Constellation in 2003. Tintara are left considerable elbow room, it appears, and produce three different Shirazes in amounts of 4-6,000 bottles each - from Blewitt Springs (1950s, elegant generosity), Upper Tintara two hundred yards away (1898, schist style clarity) and McLaren Flat (mid-1960s, dense, powerful). All express different nuances, and a trio such as this, setting aside the different vineyard ages, indicates a possible road ahead - that of making wines that have individuality and which are sold to consumers on a personal, not mass produced, level. 

From 2008, the accomplished Chapel Hill winery also moved towards further plot-specific precision through the making of two Shiraz wines from vineyards a mere 50 metres apart. The Gorge Block is 1988 Shiraz from east facing, water retentive soils: its 2008 bears juicy, pliant fruit but is backed by assertive tannins. The House Block Shiraz - half the production of Gorge Block at 1,200 bottles - comes from 1979-88 Shiraz that grows in partly north facing, draining soils. It is a manly, muscled and more overtly rich wine than the Gorge Block. Little by little, therefore, estates are becoming more prepared to move away from large scale production and to more closely follow an established European model of plot-specific identity.

The Shiraz does not perform well across the entire McLaren Vale region, even if the vines can be incredibly old. "There is 1840s Shiraz on the alluvial soils of McLaren Flat, but the alluvial soils do not help to make it great wine - they are too rich for that."

Other eyecatching Shirazes tasted included the 2008 III Associates Decendant Shiraz, possessing a fine bouquet, very ripe fruit, drinking well already; the succulent, oaked 2007 Nashwauk  Shiraz; the 2008 Lake Breeze Bullant Shiraz from Fleurieu at the southern end of McLaren Vale - pure, ripe fruit - and an interesting 2007 Shiraz-Mourvèdre blend from Marius Symposium, where the Mourvèdre contributed extra compact depth and length in its typical fashion.

Practical reasons drive the leaning towards Shiraz at McLaren Vale as well - the vine's reliability. Michael Scarpantoni of Scarpantoni Brothers: "if I could keep only one vine, it would be Shiraz. It is good to very good every year, never bad. Cabernet ranges from unreliable to fantastic." As short a time ago as the early 1980s, the Scarpantonis, for instance, would make Vintage Port from their 1930s and 1940s Shiraz on Block 3. By the end of the decade they had switched to table wine from that esteemed parcel. We are talking relative youth here, via first generation exposure to the vines and the wines themselves - serious lags behind the role model of the Rhône, where many vigneron families are at least fourth generation.

To achieve the goal of more terroir in the glass, growers are going to have to develop their mentality beyond just that of talking variety A against variety B, which is what Australian consumers carry in their heads. Export may well be the answer - addressing drinkers who understand single vineyard wines, who are keen to lap up the story behind the wine. At the same time, there is the local leaning towards all things big to contend with. This, as put by Joe Grilli of Primo Estate, is: "Australians have to get used to wines you can see through - and get away from this macho "blackest wine is best" culture, which is especially bad in South Australia."

Instinct was a prime feature of a Rhône grower's mentality when I first visited it in 1973, and that is something not yet established in the make-up of many McLaren Vale growers. To work less from the "book of adjustments" and to work truly more in synchronisation between vineyard and cellar would be a mighty step forward. If that were to occur, there would certainly be more underpinning to the laudable sub-region enterprise - resulting in more varied, nuanced wines, ones with finesse and a certain mystery. A little mystery never did anyone much harm after all, apart from victims of crime novels. 


******  2004 Tintara Upper Tintara Shiraz  2026-28  10/09  classy 
*****  2007 d`Arenberg Dead Arm Shiraz  2033-36  10/09  near 6 stars 
***** 2009 Chapel Hill The Chosen House Block Shiraz 2023-25 06/13 a BEAUT; near 6*
*****  2008 Chapel Hill House Block Shiraz  2025-28  10/09  muscle, solid 
*****  2008 Chapel Hill The Vicar Shiraz  2018-19  10/09  juicy, breezy 
*****  2008 Leconfield Richard Hamilton Shiraz  2019-21  10/09  Euro finesse 
*****  2005 Oliver`s Taranga HJ Reserve Shiraz  2023-26  10/09  tasty 
*****  2006 TJV Wine Co The Old Faithful Shiraz  2018-19  10/09  pure, long 
*****  2006 Wirra Wirra Chook Block Shiraz  2027-30  10/09  plump, refined 
****(*)  2007 d`Arenberg Ironstone Pressings  2021-24  10/09  classic form 
****(*)  2008 Chapel Hill Gorge Block Shiraz  2023-26  10/09  juicy, assertive 
****(*) 2007 Chapel Hill The Vicar Shiraz  2020-21  10/09  mineral grace
****(*)  2007 Noon Eclipse  2020-22  10/09  fine-tuned 
****(*)  2007 Pertaringa Over the Top Shiraz  2017-19  10/09  big, rich 
****(*)  2004 Tintara Reserve Grenache  2019-21  10/09  pure 
****(*)  2009 Tatachilla Shiraz  2024-27  10/09  clear, poised 
****(*)  NV Woodstock Very Old Fortified  to 2030  10/09  great drop 
****  2009 Chapel Hill The Chosen Road Block  2019-20  04/12  Mauves, Tournon . . 
****  2009 Chapel Hill Shiraz 2022-24  07/13  intense, elegant
****  2008 Chapel Hill Shiraz  2016  10/09  bold, pure value 
****  2007 Chapel Hill Shiraz  2015-17  10/09  interesting; fine