McLaren Vale: Rhône flair, Aussie finesse

McLaren Vale, Australia, Rhône People & Places Articles
  • Monday 24 May 2010

John Livingstone-Learmonth’s natural habitat is the Rhône. So how would McLaren Vale, Australia’s closest replica, compare? The grapes were familiar, but the attitude was a step removed – and not in the way you might think…

The immigration official snapped shut my passport, looked me in the eye and said, ‘So you’re writing about Australian wines?’ Before I could muster a reply, she gave the damning verdict: ‘They’re all mass produced.’ Wham! The issue in a nutshell.

Prising consumer mentality away from ‘Australia = big brands’ in a region as individual and nuanced as McLaren Vale in South Australia is a hot topic. The sub-region angle – closer definition of zones within this 80-estate enclave – is a good start. Across a 10-day visit to McLaren Vale to act as the international judge at the local annual wine show, talk of terroir and sub-regionality was plentiful. For some, like Drew Noon of Noon Estate, it has always been central to his thinking.

‘My 1934 Grenache vineyard is sheltered, its exposure north to south and its tannins firmer than the 1943 Grenache vineyard, which is planted east to west on ironstone and white quartz. That Grenache is lighter, more spicy and the fruit more aromatic.’ Such precision will be required of many more growers in the future.

McLaren Vale, the coastal region south of Adelaide, is pressing ahead in establishing six sub-regions within a compact 40km north-to-south and 20km west-to-east area (see p66). Its eastern, inland line is set by the Willunga escarpment, part of the Mt Lofty ranges that run into the Riesling-friendly Adelaide Hills. It is thus a coherent area that naturally lends itself to such plans. ‘Sub-regionality is our first step towards more precise charting, in the vein of appellations,’ says Joch Bosworth of Battle of Bosworth and Chalk Hill.

It takes time, though, for such intricacies to filter through to the market, so for now Shiraz remains king, and thinking remains varietal. There is definite stirring towards the Rhône, and away from Bordeaux: 60% of the vineyards are Shiraz, while Cabernet Sauvignon – though the next most widely planted variety – has just 8%. Certainly, Grenache is receiving increasing attention: its purchase price has doubled in the past two years after steady rises – in 2002 it was A$500 a ton, now it is A$2,750 a ton.

Mourvedre is just starting to show up in people’s awareness. Kay Brothers used to grow Mourvedre in the 1880s, but it disappeared, probably because it stresses and sunburns more than Grenache. A clay subsoil, like that next to the d’Arenberg cellars, allows a slow release of moisture, and the Mourvedre there dates from 1920.

Precise geological charting will allow such explicit soil and variety matching in the future. Varieties such as Counoise are set to be planted at Yangarra, as is Cinsault – of which some exists from the 1950s – a good move, given both vines’ low-alcohol profile. White varieties such as Roussanne and Viognier are also slowly moving to the fore.

Grenache: new elegance

The biggest surprise for me during my stay was the Grenache. While it is being made into an ever sweeter, high-alcohol event in places such as Châteauneuf-du-Pape, 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.

The age of the vines, with their roots set deep down through sandy soils, is important: ‘The old bush-vine Grenaches hold their natural acidity well, and help the wine keep its structure,’ says Mike Fragos, head winemaker at Chapel Hill.

There’s plenty of decades-old bush-vine Grenache in McLaren Vale, its fruit originally sold for Australian ‘Port’ or ‘Burgundy’, where it was blended with the ripest Shiraz. ‘Our 1967 Burgundy won seven Trophies,’ recalls Chester Osborn of d’Arenberg. ‘It was 75% Grenache, 25% Shiraz, but the Grenache was never recognised in its own right, unlike the Shiraz.’

Grenache also carries baggage in terms of local perception.

Paul Carpenter of Hardys Tintara is a fan, but explains: ‘Grenache is hard to sell. The connotation is of high alcohol, thin, dangerous, headache wines. It stems from the cheap wines of the early 1980s, when yields were too high and grapes were under-ripe.’ His 2004 Tintara Reserve Grenache is a delightful wine, remarkably pure (see box, overleaf).

Corinna Wright of Oliver’s Taranga is actively working with Grenache, as did her ancestors in the 1800s. ‘Our oldest Grenache dates from the 1960s, but our new plantings are hand-grafted, massale vines.’ Her 2007 Cadenzia, the name used in McLaren Vale to denote Grenache-based wines, has sinew and clarity, with Wright stating: ‘I want to be particularly pure to the fruit – thus it is medium bodied, not super ripe.’

The Barossa’s 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. But critical excitement about the variety dulled after two poor vintages, 1999 and the drizzly 2000.

McLaren Vale’s Grenache style can vary from the juicy fruit of Noon’s Twelve Bells (from Grenache vines planted in 1943) to the freshness of the Samuel’s Gorge Grenache (1950s); from the intense, savoury notes of Chapel Hill’s Bush Vine Grenache (mid-1920s and 1960s Grenache) to the broad shoulders of Yangarra’s High Sands Grenache.

In blends with Shiraz, Grenache also plays an important role, according to Osborn: ‘Grenache’s length is often greater than Shiraz and as a rule its fruit tannins are longer in McLaren Vale then Shiraz’s fruit tannins. The fruit length itself is also longer.’ There are of course many Grenache-Syrah-Mourvedre blends, the highest profile being Rosemount’s successful GSM, but for future progress, the single-variety, single-vineyard route appears, to me, to be preferable here.

Shiraz: reliable leader

Despite what Grenache has to offer, Shiraz remains king of the Rhône varieties in McLaren Vale, and, some would say, the key to its future. A fascinating insight into the potential for sub-region framework is provided by the single-vineyard Shiraz at Tintara, a division of Hardys that was sold to Constellation in 2003.

Tintara is left considerable elbow room, it appears, and produces three different Shirazes of 4,000 to 6,000 bottles each – from Blewitt Springs (1950s-planted vines; an elegant generous wine), Upper Tintara, 180m away, (1898, schist-style clarity) and McLaren Flat (1960s; dense, powerful). All express different nuances and, setting aside the various vineyard ages, indicate a possible road ahead – that of making wines with individuality, sold on a personal, not mass-produced, level.

Other eye-catching Shirazes I tasted included the 2008 III Associates Descendant of Squid Ink (fine nose, 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 a 2007 Shiraz-Mourvedre blend from Marius Symposium, where the Mourvedre contributes extra compact depth and length in a typical fashion.

There is a practical reason, too, that drives the leaning towards Shiraz – the vine’s reliability. Michael Scarpantoni of Scarpantoni Wines says: ‘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 would make a Port-style wine from their Block 3 1930s and 1940s-planted Shiraz.

By the end of the decade, they had switched to table wine from that esteemed parcel. We’re talking relative youth here, via first-generation exposure to the vines and 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 will have to develop their mentality beyond just that of comparing 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 and are keen to lap up the story behind the label.

At the same time, there is the local leaning towards ‘all things big’ to contend with. ‘Australians have to get used to wines you can see through,’ says Joe Grilli of Primo Estate, ‘and get away from this macho “blackest is best” culture, which is especially prevalent in South Australia.’

Instinct was a prime feature of a Rhône grower’s mentality when I first visited the region in 1973. It 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 more truly in synchronisation between vineyard and cellar would be a mighty step forward.

If that were to occur, there would certainly be more underpinning of the laudable sub-region enterprise, resulting in more varied, nuanced wines; wines with finesse and mystery. After all, a little mystery never did anyone much harm.

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