The McLaren Vale is one of the great and oldest names of Australian wine, one that ranks with other classic regions such as Coonawarra and the Barossa. The birthplace of wine in South Australia, it lies just south of Adelaide and offers a multiplicity of soils which bask under a benign Mediterranean climate. For decades it has been lauded for its ability to produce brilliance from an array of noble varietals – everything from restrained, yet generous Cabernet Sauvignon, rich but refined Shiraz, an exciting array of alternative varieries like Fiano and Nero d'Avola, and its undoubted star performer, Grenache. With its natural beauty, embarrassment of winery riches and enough great restaurants to keep the fussiest gourmet traveller happy for the rest of their days, it would be easy for the Vale to rest on its ample laurels. As we shall see however, the McLaren Vale is a classic region that’s determined to stay contemporary.
McLaren Vale – 180 years of wine excellence
McLaren Vale’s reputation as a wine producing area dates back to the late 1830s and it takes its name from either (depending who you believe) John McLaren or David McLaren of the South Australia Company. As with so much of Australian wine its instigators were recent immigrants; notably two English farmers from the noticeably vine-free county of Devon, William Colton and Charles Thomas Hewett. Drawn to the area by its fertile soils and the availability of fresh water, it was here that the two men established adjoining farms that would become the Oxenberry Farm which is still producing award-winning wines to this day. Initially the settlers’ focus wasn’t on vines but on cereals and cattle.
Then in 1839 another young Devon farmer, James Reynell, established South Australia’s first commercial vineyard. He was joined in this endeavour 1850 by a young man whose name was destined to become legendary in Australian wine circles, Thomas Hardy. Hardy learnt a huge amount from his time working for Reynell, knowledge he used when establishing his own property Bankside in 1853. Shiraz and Grenache produced around 600 litres of wine in 1857 which was exported to England accompanied by Hardy. At the time this was the largest bulk wine export to England and it's successful sale inspired Hardy to plant more vines, the humble beginnings of one of the world's great wine names.
Like any emerging region, McLaren Vale had to produce what the market wanted and so most of the early production was given over to facsimiles of European classics. By the turn of the century, in keeping with the Victorian age’s yearning for all things sweet, production became focused on the contemporary demand for fortified. Business boomed and with money in the bank some wineries began investing in bottling lines and selling wines via the cellar door rather than through bulk merchants.
This marked a quality watershed for the McLaren Vale; one that coincided with fresh immigrants, this time from post-war Italy. This latest influx bought with them olives and a food culture that has added so much to the region’s reputation as a centre of gastronomy, but new vines and methods of production. These have subsequently become woven into the fabric of the area and are now adding fresh vitality into this classic region. Along with so many other Australian regions, it was the 70s and 80s that saw McLaren Vale’s wines take their place on the world stage. On the back of traditional classics such Shiraz, Cabernet and Grenache, the region saw the number of wineries rise toward today’s total of around 88 and its reputation for fine wine start to take root.
Today, although it has over 7,500 hectares under vine and with demand for its wines at an all-time global high, it retains much of the innovative spirit that it was born with. Much of that spirit of innovation stems from the fact that the Vale still has many (genuine!) boutique wineries who are continuing to push the boundaries in the search for perfection.
Soils and climate: mother nature’s gift
The McLaren Vale is a geologist’s idea of heaven and complex isn’t the world. Over the past half a billion years or so, Mother Nature has imbued this beautiful and undulating area with no fewer than 40 separate geological configurations, all of which combine with climate, vine and man to create its tapestry of outstanding wines.
Overlying soils range from loamy sands underpinned by everything from yellow clay to lime and there are some sites were friable loams can still be found. The one thing these soils have in common is that they are fairly free draining and as such they are perfectly suited to the production of top quality grapes.
McLaren: Australia’s Med
Most people describe McLaren Vale’s climate as ‘Mediterranean’ and with its warm, but seldom hot, summers, mild winters and seasonal rainfall mainly coming in the late autumn and winter that’s a fair description of the place. As you would expect in a region of its size, geological and topographical complexity it does, however have its fair share of micro and meso climates. The Mounty Lofty Ranges that straddle the south and east and the Gulf of St Vincent to the west all add further intricacy and allows vineyard elevations within the region to run from 50 up to 150m. In common with many Mediterranean sites wind - in particular local winds - are a factor, and blow down from both the slopes and in from the Gulf to cool and dry the vines.
McLaren Vale’s climates and soils allow it to lend itself to all manner of vines. Shiraz is often show-stopping, though given the range of sites it’s planted on it can be anything from full-blooded with pronounced spices, bitter chocolate and berries to medium bodied and nuanced with raspberries. The region’s Cabernets have recently been been likened in terms of quality to those of Coonawarra and Margaret River. This is a far cry from the days when critics were apt to condemn McLaren Vale Cabernet for being over-extracted and ponderous, but then times have changed in the region generally. The Italian migrants of the ‘50s and ‘60s recognised that vines from their native land could flourish in this idyllic Mediterranean climate and they, and younger, well-travelled winemakers, have found sites to suit vines such as Barbera, Fiano, Sangiovese, Zinfandel and Vermentino to name but a few. One thing that hasn’t changed is the brilliance of McLaren Vale Grenache. As James Halliday puts it, ‘McLaren Vale Grenache is its secret weapon, not merely Australia’s best, but every bit as good as that of the Rhône Valley.’
Winemakers and the on-going (r)evolution
With so much to offer winemakers and with its natural propensity toward change and experimentation, it’s not surprising that that McLaren remains a draw for some of the most creative winemakers around. Take Bernice Ong and Julian Forwood of the marvellously named Ministry of Clouds whose wines are innovative but respectful of the traditions of McLaren Vale. Self described as ' two piss fit, corporate refugees chancing fate on the ever so wild and wicked world of wine... relinquishing of past security and structure for the beguiling freedom, independence and adventure inherent in this, their own voice.' And they aren’t the only ones who’ve chosen McLaren Vale for their vinous adventures.
After 10 years working as one of NYC’s top sommeliers Brad Hickey came to Australia for vintage in 2007. After finishing up vintage Brad stuck around for long enough to fall in love with McLaren Vale and local vigneron Nicole Thorpe. They now have a beautiful 17-acre vineyard with Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon and Nero d’Avola and for their Brash Higgins. They push the boundaries of what is possible in the region, so it may come as no surprise that their most lauded wine is a Nero d’Avola fermented and aged on skins for six months in 200L beeswax lined clay amphora. These are just two of the myriad of producers who are evolving the McLaren Vale story. James Erskine at Jauma is a former sommelier crafting thoughtful, considered and engaging wines. Steve Pannell left behind a ridiculously successful career as a corporate winemaker to explore the potential of McLaren Vale at SC Pannell, making wines to match the food he loves to grow, cook and eat.
The region has even attracted established wineries like Shaw + Smith from the nearby Adelaide Hills. They started The Other Wine Company to give their winemakers the opportunity to make wines from varieties and/or regions that fall outside of Shaw + Smith's rigorous definition, including an exceptional McLaren Vale Grenache. Exciting times for an exciting region.
McLaren Vale: the ‘apple’ of Australia’s wine eye?
The Vale has brilliance, beauty and a focus on quality that and innovation that has allowed its wines to stay relevant, contemporary and in some cases the must-have Australian wine experience. Like Apple, it has stuck to the belief in giving people what they want and through innovation and experimentation, of giving consumers what they didn’t even know they wanted...
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