To the casual observer, McLaren Vale looks like a sleepy, bucolic, contentedly successful wine region. But to many wine commentators (well, to this wine writer at least), McLaren Vale is a dynamic microcosm of the modern Australian wine industry.
In this small pocket of South Australia, you can see how the whole country has been engulfed by a frantic wave of development over the last decade – and how this has brought both a sense of prosperity and a sobering note of caution.
Less than an hour’s drive south of Adelaide, the region is home to gently undulating vineyards, old groves of olives and almonds, relaxed country restaurants and welcoming, family-owned cellar doors. There is an unusual bonhomie between winemakers here, a generosity of spirit that seems to find its way into the region’s wines, particularly its flagship wine style – soft, sexy, rich Shiraz, currently riding the crest of a popular wave worldwide.
McLaren Vale growth
But while the public face of the region seems relaxed and laid back, there has been furious activity, especially in the vineyards. Put simply, the McLaren Vale vineyard has more than doubled in a decade. In 1990, 20,000 tonnes of grapes were picked in the region; in 1999 that figure had jumped to 50,000 tonnes. While the difficult, rain-affected 2000 vintage saw only 35,000 tonnes come off the vines, this was definitely a blip. By 2003, the region’s winemakers are expecting to process 70,000 tonnes of grapes – that’s more than four million cases of wine.
Importantly, much of the fruit being processed in McLaren Vale (and Australia-wide) over the next few years will come from young vines – quite a contrast, given that many of the region’s best wines (the wines which helped forge McLaren Vale’s reputation) were sourced from some of the oldest vineyards on the planet. For many of the region’s winemakers, this impending influx of young vine fruit is worrying, as young vines can overcrop, if not checked, producing dilute, unexciting flavours.
The wine makers
Steve Pannell is chief red winemaker at Hardys, which owns century-old wineries at Reynella, in the very north of the McLaren Vale region, and Tintara, slap bang in the middle. He is particularly cautious of the increasing amount of young vine fruit making its way into wines labelled as McLaren Vale. ‘Currently, only 20% of the grapes we take in from McLaren Vale at the Tintara winery is from vines older than five years,’ he says. ‘You have got to be careful with this young stuff, keeping yields low to get good flavour and quality. The danger – and the irony – is that just as the concept of regionality (which is currently being explored with great enthusiasm in Australia) begins to take hold in the consumer’s mind, McLaren Vale wines may not be showing all that they’re capable of.’
This view is echoed by Mike Farmilo, chief winemaker at the relatively new Boar’s Rock contract winemaking facility based in McLaren Vale. Farmilo has 35 clients, mostly McLaren Vale growers who have seen the wine boom taking off and decided to produce, or have produced for them, a label of their own (a new wine label appears on the Australian market every two or three days). He’s already noticed a change in the fruit coming into the winery. But there’s more change on the way. ‘It’s one of the biggest challenges for Australia over the next few years,’ he says. ‘If we’re not careful, there could be a lot of very ordinary wine out there. At the moment, people are being picky: what we’re seeing is the good wine (in bulk) selling quickly (to other winemakers on the open market), while people hesitate over the younger-vine, higher-yielding stuff. But we will certainly see a lot more young vine material next vintage and the vintage after that, and although sometimes wine made from young vines can sometimes surprise with how good it is, often it just doesn’t have the characters you’re after.’ According to Ben Riggs, winemaker at Wirra Wirra, McLaren Vale has a natural limitation that will, hopefully, ensure most of the region’s new growers aim for quality rather than quantity in the vineyard. ‘Water is the biggest issue here,’ he says, echoing the view of almost every other winemaker in the country. ‘McLaren Vale is more fortunate than most in that in the north we can get access to town water, and in the south people are using recycled water from treatment plants. But across the board we are simply too restricted to be able to pump it on. In other words, water restrictions force people to grow McLaren Vale quality fruit rather than Riverland quality fruit.’
What’s at stake, of course, is a reputation stretching back over a century. ‘The heritage of McLaren Vale is one of its greatest assets,’ says Chester Osborn, fourth-generation winemaker at d’Arenberg wines. ‘If an area has been making wine since the 1860s – through depression, through tough times – this proves, at the very least, that people have always wanted to drink it.’ Osborn is one of a handful of McLaren Vale red wine producers leading the charge at the upper end of the price spectrum, with small quantities of powerful, blockbuster red wines: rich, fruit-bomb Shirazes such as Rosemount’s Balmoral, Fox Creek Reserve, and Coriole Reserve; single-vineyard wines from Clarendon Hills, and d’Arenberg’s Dead Arm; and deeply earthy Grenache-based reds such as d’Arenberg’s Ironstone Pressings and Noon’s Eclipse (a 16% alcohol monster of a wine). No young vine wines here. Rather than just promoting the heritage of the place, or resting on old vine laurels, Osborn (and others) are looking carefully at the future. In d’Arenberg’s case, that future could possibly be white.
‘We’ve 40 hectares (ha) of Marsanne, Roussanne and Viognier planted,’ says Osborn. ‘So far, the wines we’ve made from these grapes have been really encouraging. It seems this region is perfect for Rhône varieties – and we’re not just talking Grenache and Shiraz.’
Many growers are also looking towards Italy and Spain for inspiration, trying to match grape varieties to the region’s diverse soil types and subtle temperature differences. As well as the ubiquitous Sangiovese, pioneered in Australia by McLaren Vale winery Coriole, the lesser-known Italian red varieties of Sagrantino and Nero d’Avola are being planted, as is Tempranillo, the great red grape of Rioja and Ribera del Duero in Spain. McLaren Vale has a very exciting future – as long as those boisterous young vines are kept in check.