McLaren Vale – Special Report

Embracing Change

By John Szabo, MS (with wine picks from Sara d’Amato and Michael Godel)

This feature was commissioned by McLaren Vale Grape Wine & Tourism Association.

As climate grows more erratic and extreme, wine regions throughout the world are rising and falling to challenges with varying degrees of success. As far as models go, one South Australian region has become the paradigm to follow: McLaren Vale.

A comfortable 45m drive south of Adelaide at 34º latitude south, McLaren Vale enjoys a warm, sunny Mediterranean climate with over 30 kilometers of pristine coastline framing the western side and a low range of undulating hills forming the eastern border. The region’s first grapevines were planted in 1838 by John Reynell and Thomas Hardy, two years after the colony of South Australia was founded, and the same year in which McLaren Vale was established following a survey conducted by John McLaren. The proximity of the ocean serves to naturally mitigate extremes of heat, one of the region’s greatest assets. But this doesn’t mean it’s free from challenges.

Drought and water shortages have become a growing threat to viticulture here, as it has in many parts of Australia (and elsewhere, for that matter). But the vintners of McLaren Vale have been rising to the challenge through a series of sensible, adaptive and innovative strategies. These include a re-think of the varietal mix, as well as the implementation of world-leading water management and strong movement towards sustainable viticultural and winemaking practices. There are important lessons to be drawn from their successes.

Finding the Right Mix

An obvious, but not necessarily easy, solution to implement is to plant more drought resistant varieties. It can take up to five years or more to switch a vineyard from one grape variety to another, a non-productive period that many wineries simply cannot afford. And replanting with unproven varieties comes with both commercial and technical risks. But here, McLaren Vale was better positioned than many regions to cope from the start.

From the beginning, McLaren Vale focused on hearty red table wines, later turning to fortified wines as much of the country did at the turn of the 20th century. The most widely planted variety, then as now, was shiraz, a grape well suited to Mediterranean climates. The oldest shiraz vineyard in the region was planted in 1887 – Paxton’s Old Block – according to the McLaren Vale Old Vine Register. And indeed, the top ten oldest vineyards, all well over a century old, are planted to Shiraz.

But other varieties introduced early on were equally well-suited to the warm, dry climate, namely mataro (monastrell) and grenache, as well as varieties like “sangiovese Brunello” and sagrantino, the latter two planted as early as 1935 at d’Arenberg’s Ege vineyard, which would foreshadow the recent turn towards southern Italian varieties.

Today, of the region’s 7,308 hectares (18,058 acres) of area under vine, shiraz accounts for 54 per cent, followed in importance by cabernet sauvignon and grenache. Combined, red varieties account for over 90% of the region’s annual harvest.

Turning to The Mediterranean: “Southern Italy and Spain Made Sense”
-Corrina Wright

While the last decade has not seen much growth in vineyard area – there’s little suitable land left to plant – what has changed significantly is the varietal mix, with an aim to improve both quality and sustainability. Regarding the plantings of “new”, drought-tolerant Mediterranean varieties, particularly from southern Italy and Spain, Corrina Wright, winemaker & director of Oliver’s Taranga wines believes that McLaren Vale has been the one of the most innovative and experimental regions in the country.

“There are a number of reasons,” she explains. “Firstly, climate change impacts mean that we need to look at varieties that hold their natural acidity, are drought and heat tolerant- so looking to southern Italy and Spain made sense. We also live a very coastal lifestyle here, and there was a desire by the winemakers of the region to make wines that went better with our coastal eating – we didn’t always want a big shiraz to have with our fresh caught whiting! Also, there was a desire to look at something new, that we hadn’t seen before in the country or region. We have some very ‘blue sky’ thinking characters in our local wine community like Mark Lloyd [Coriole], Chester Osborn [d’Arenberg] and Steve Pannell [SC Pannell].”

Blue Sky Thinking

Touriga nacional from Portugal, and Sangiovese from Italy, for example, have doubled in crush size in the last decade, according to Jennifer Lynch, General Manager for the McLaren Vale Grape Wine & Tourism Association (MVGTWA). Meanwhile, merlot dropped by half over the same period. Fiano, from Campania in southern Italy, and Vermentino, grown throughout the Mediterranean, especially in Corsica and Sardinia, and Provence where it’s known as Rolle, were not even registered on the regional grape crush report from 2011. “We now have a dedicated Class of Judging in our annual Wine Show for Vermentino as we receive such a high number of entries,” says Lynch.

Wright is equally enthusiastic about vermentino, which she describes as “a great, lighter style that works really well with seafood, with high natural acidity, tough skins, and high drought and heat tolerance,” making it a win on all counts. And fiano is “probably the best of the newer varieties, with loads of texture, thick skins, slightly later ripening, super high natural acidity – I even make a methode champenoise from it!” It has become a mainstay of South Australian restaurant wine lists, as sommeliers prize it for its savoury character and broad texture, and high natural acidity.

At the same time, white varieties like chardonnay are losing ground, despite McLaren Vale being one of the first regions of Australia to plant it in the early 1970s. “Chardonnay is still the most planted white variety,” says Wright. “But it’s reducing fast. It’s very early ripening and is one of the more disease susceptible varieties. Acid drops away very quickly before harvest. You can make nice tropical styles, but not much else. It’s much better in Adelaide Hills, Tasmania, Yarra, Margaret River,” she reveals candidly. “Sauvignon Blanc is also a little too tropical where we are, and perhaps lacks the grassy characters and tight acidity of the cooler climes.”

Italian varieties like barbera, montepulciano, nero d’Avola, and aglianico, and Iberian grapes such as tempranillo and mencía are just some of the other red varieties that have gained ground in the last decade, while falanghina is touted as another promising white variety, which, like fiano, is widely planted throughout Campania. The availability of such diverse material for planting can be credited to South Australia’s forward thinking vine nurseries like Chalmers and Yalumba, who had started bringing in varieties decades ago with the growing awareness of climate change coming into sharper focus.

Adapting to Changing Markets as Well as Climates: The Grenache Paradigm

At the same time, there’s been an adaptive stylistic change in the well-established grapes, especially grenache, which has been one of the most exciting McLaren Vale stories to follow. Once decried as heavy and alcoholic, modern McLaren Vale grenache is anything but – try the likes of Heirloom’s or Alpha Box & Dice’s, available in Ontario and reviewed below, for a sense of the style.

One of the early influential producers in the paradigm shift to more delicate, ethereal and perfumed grenache is Steve Pannell, now of SC Pannell, who took the position of winemaker at Hardy’s McLaren Vale-based Tintara winery in the mid-1990s. Pannell had spent most of his career prior to that making pinot noir and chardonnay and credits his father for his love of “medium bodied wines”, who took him to France in 1985. Subsequent stints in Burgundy at the likes of Domaine de La Pousse d’Or in 1991 (in which his farther had an interest), and Comtes Lafon in 1994 helped further shape his vision. “When I got to Hardys There was no Pinot Noir and I thought well I’m just going to make Grenache like I do Pinot Noir,” says Pannell.

Around the same time, Chester Osborne of d’Arenberg wines advertised in the local paper for grenache old vine material at $1000 a tonne, which was unheard of at the time. “A lot of people thought he was crazy because no one took grenache seriously,” recalls Pannell. The change was on.

Another winemaker in the grenache revolution is Pete Fraser, who’s first grenache vintage was 1998 at what is now known as Yangarra. “I would say that in and around those years, we were probably picking a bit riper than we do now,” Fraser shares, reflecting the philosophy that still prevailed with grenache at the time. “However, I would say 2011 was a real game changer for us, one of the coldest and wettest ripening seasons on record. Those wines showed that we could do picking earlier.” Fraser also points to Pannell’s “deft touch with grenache” as inspiration, as well as the widely acclaimed grenaches of Ochota Barrels, especially the Fugazzi Vineyard in McLaren Vale. Fraser once remarked at a seminar some years ago, that “Taras [Ochota, owner winemaker at Ochota Barrels] made me brave with his he approached grenache”, referring to the courage to pick early. Today, McLaren Vale grenache is defined by its freshness and purity.

Similarly, cabernet sauvignon has evolved to meet changing market demand while holding its ground as a consumer favorite. “Cabernet has been and continues to be a climatically appropriate variety for McLaren Vale,” says Jennifer Lynch. “But the way in which it is produced has changed over the years. It’s not McLaren Vale trying to be Bordeaux. Our lifestyle is Mediterranean – the way we live, eat, drink, and work – and so McLaren Vale Cabernet is approachable but true to the variety; lighter in style for cabernet, presenting great acidity and firm tannin, but certainly not like a Bordeaux.” It offers a more generous expression than those from, say, Margaret River or Coonawarra, though has certainly evolved in freshness and balance. As for shiraz, considering its prominence, styles run the gamut of modern Australian examples. Though I find them generally a little lighter and fresher than traditional examples from the Barossa Valley, but certainly sunny and generous in their own right.

Towards True Sustainability

The advantage of planting non-traditional, ‘new’ varieties in South Australia, aside from a more diverse consumer offering, is of course their better suitability to new climate realities. Water has always been in short supply on the planet’s driest continent, so climate-appropriate grapes that are resistant to drought are a huge advantage. But some irrigation is still needed in most circumstances, and here McLaren Vale has become a world leader in water management practices.

World-Beating Water Management

McLaren Vale was the first region in Australia to actively manage its underground water resources, developing a water allocation plan so that it would be self-replenishing. In addition, McLaren Vale built the first and largest reclaimed water network in Australia so that 100% of all irrigation used for agriculture in the region is from a sustainable resource other than river water, that is, recycled water or desalinised sea water.

McLaren Vale has likewise been on the forefront of the sustainability movement. “The program that we developed locally with our growers and producers from early 2000’s was gifted to our national grape and wine organisation in early 2019,” Lynch says. “It’s now a considerable foundation piece of what is Australia’s national sustainability program for all grape and wine producers, Sustainable Winegrowing Australia (SWA).”

Ever Greener

Fifty-four percent of the region’s area under vine is now registered in the SWA program, and nearly one-third of those – some 1129 hectares – are officially certified sustainable. It follows that McLaren Vale lays claim to being Australia’s ‘greenest’ wine region, with the highest number of certified biodynamic and organic vineyards representing 39% of total area under vine, compared to a national average of 5%, and globally about 4%.

“Our region lends itself to being as sustainable as possible due to its beneficial climatic conditions,” says Wright. “There’s generally no risk of botrytis, no frost, no real pest pressure. We only really have to ensure protection against the mildews, which can be controlled with organic sprays.”

But the list of sustainability initiatives is much longer than just water management and organic viticulture. There’s a growing shift to solar power, carbon neutrality, the elimination of plastic and styrofoam packaging materials, the use of grazing sheep in vineyards or under-vine mowers to reduce or eliminate tilling, and a McLaren Vale “Biodiversity Project”, where volunteers remove feral weeds across the region and replant with native species. “The landscape is changing, where indigenous flora encourages the return of indigenous fauna, particularly native birds,” says Chris Thomas, Dowie Doole’s chief winemaker and managing director. ‘They have less impact on the vineyard and are better for the environment,” he explains. “Our holistic approach is to have native vegetation and viticulture sitting side by side.”


And even on the very topical subject of reconciliation, McLaren Vale has taken a leading position by initiating a regional, indigenous “cellar door project”. The project aims to bring the stories of the local aboriginal Kaurna people of the region to light. As Jennifer Lynch includes in her email signature, the MVGTWA, “acknowledges the Kaurna People as Traditional Custodians of the McLaren Vale Wine Region and their connections to land, sea and community. We pay our respect to their elders past, present and emerging, and extend that respect to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples today.”

It’s All Very Real

Climate change is very real, and winegrowing is on the leading, most sensitive edge of that change. There is an existential threat to grape growing worldwide. Doing nothing is not an option. McLaren Vale, has identified and resolved many of the challenges the industry faces, and many regions would do well to draw some lessons from the region’s many successful initiatives.

And as importantly, wine style, quality and diversity are also evolving to meet modern standards, while faithfully reflecting this sunny, southern stretch of dazzling South Australian coast. It’s both feel good and good drinking, a definite 21st century paradigm.

Buyer’s Guide: McLaren Vale: White

Dodgy Brothers Juxtaposed Fiano 2020, McLaren Vale, Australia

$34.95 LCBO #116532 Le Sommelier Inc.

John Szabo – This is well-made, fleshy, concentrated, flavourful fiano, with authentic smoky flavours, balanced acids and firm phenolic structure. Although delicious now, I suspect this will improve and gain positively over the next year or possibly two. An exciting direction for the region.

Buyer’s Guide: McLaren Vale: Red

Heirloom Vineyards Alcala Grenache 2020, McLaren Vale, Australia

$49.95 Consignment Nicholas Pearce Wines Inc.

John Szabo – From Heirloom’s top McLaren Vale grenache vineyard, this displays the marvellous perfume of whole bunch/stem inclusion in the ferment, a technique also often used on pinot noir to bring about the more floral, spicy, lifted aromatics that both varieties possess. Here the mix of ripe red berry fruit, dried orange peel, white pepper and carnations is utterly enticing, as is the lush but firm palate framed by very fine-grained, sandy tannins and comfortably positioned acids, fully enmeshed in the ensemble. Length and depth are excellent. Drink or hold into the mid- to late-twenties.

Sara d’Amato – A generously perfumed grenache from Heirloom’s top McLaren Vale site. Crunchy with a notably violet, floral aroma with notes of cracked black pepper and bramble. Featuring flavours of anise, black currant, and velvety tannins on the palate with the pleasant warmth of alcohol. Slightly salty, rousing, and mouth-filling. The complexity suits the price. Vegan friendly.

Pirramimma 1892 Shiraz 2019, McLaren Vale, Australia

$29.95, LCBO #986452, Noble Estates Wines & Spirits Inc.

John Szabo – This is a deep, dark, lush and satisfying shiraz, with noted spicy-resinous oak influence, though nicely integrated into the ensemble. Black cherry, black plum, and black raspberry flavours lead in the typically ripe Aussie/McLaren Vale style, though it stays this side of jammy or raisined. Acids are a bit tense, further tightening the tannic grip, but another year or two in the cellar should sort that out.

Sara d’Amato – One of McLaren Vale’s oldest wineries, Pirramimma can trace its roots back 129 years and still operates in its original site. This most recent incarnation of the 1892 shiraz offers a spicy, meaty and rather dense experience with a compelling broody darkness. Quite dry and with firm tannic definition. Quite a lot to unpack at present so be sure to give this some air before consuming.

Dodgy Brothers Juxtaposed Old Vine Shiraz 2016, McLaren Vale, Australia

$38.85 LCBO #116540 Le Sommelier Inc.

John Szabo – An old vine shiraz sourced from the Kangarilla and Sellicks foothills sub-regions of McLaren Vale, this is immediately inviting, dark-fruited, firm and balanced, deep shiraz with excellent length. I love the licorice and black cherry flavours, the ripe, silky-firm tannins and the crunchy acids keeping the ensemble in the frame. Length and depth are very good. Drink or hold into the late ’20s.

Sara d’Amato – This gracefully maturing old vine shiraz from the Kangarilla and Sellicks foothills sub-regions of McLaren Vale exhibits considerable weight and intricacy. Bold but not forceful with distinctive salty and savory notes that balance the richness of the fruit. Tannic presence does not go unnoticed but has softened enough for immediate enjoyment.

Michael Godel – Juxtaposed as in bringing together two sub-regional fruit sources, they being in this case Blewitt Springs and Clarendon. The Dodgy bros 2016 gets straight to the meaty point with a real beef stock, rich demi-glacé of a shiraz with a mineral streak boring straight on through.

Alpha Box & Dice Tarot Grenache 2020, McLaren Vale, Australia

$27.26 Consignment Le Sommelier Inc.

John Szabo – From the pretty, pale red colour to the open, perfumed nose, this is classy grenache the way it should be. Fruit is all red and sweet-fresh-tart, like strawberry coulis and spiced cranberry chutney, with a touch of orange peel and white pepper to add interest and complexity. The palate is properly fleshy without turning soft, supported by succulent acids and very fine, ripe, sandy tannins. Length, depth and complexity are excellent in the category.

Sara d’Amato – A departure from the heavier McLaren Vale grenache of old, this juicy, sensually aromatic incarnation offers an abundance of cassis jelly and compelling fruit spice on the nose. Red fruit and saltiness dominate the engaging, upbeat and characterful palate. Complex without the trappings of excessive winemaking and heavy oak spice. Despite its characteristic level of alcohol, this grenache has an almost ethereal tread.

Michael Godel – Grenache in a fresh, open-knit, fragrant and crunchy McLaren Vale red fruit style. Honest, proper and the way wines should be. Pour this for your neighbours on Hallowe’en.

Zonte’s Footsteps Love Symbol Grenache 2018, McLaren Vale, Australia

John Szabo – Here’s a pretty, well-priced, flavourful and representative grenache, a little darker and riper than the post-modern mean (14.5% alc. declared) with a light sheen of chocolate oak influence, secondary however to the fruit and spice. The palate is broad and plush, dark and satisfying, with an ease of drinkability and refreshing succulence about it. A hybrid traditional-modern expression; chill slightly and enjoy.

Michael Godel – You’d better know what you’re up to when you invoke the name of a Prince Album. The record with the second track called Sexy M.F. and that is what this grenache is all about. Cherry red, fruit all sweet, just drink it and be happy.

Mitolo Savitar Shiraz 2018, McLaren Vale, South Australia, Australia

$40.75, LCBO #659581, Lifford Wine & Spirits

Michael Godel – Savitar is clearly the bigger, burlier and grippier of the two single vineyard expressions from Mitolo in a shiraz comparison with Angela as the other. The vintage (2018) is also a bigger one with meatier fruit and more formidable structure. Will age longer and commands great respect.

David Lawrason – This almost opaque shiraz shows a very soft, deep and even nose of ripe almost stewed black cherry, prune, olive, licorice and gentle oak spice and vanillin. It is full bodied, dense and lush but remains well structured and excellent fruit concentration, focus and length.

Dogridge Pup Shiraz 2017

Dogridge Pup Shiraz 2017, McLaren Vale, South Australia

$21.95 Consignment Le Sommelier Inc.

David Lawrason – This a lighter shiraz that I might expect from cooler McLaren Vale. It is also a touch sweet and very polished, smooth and easy going with very fine tannin. Fairly warm alcohol and fine tannin, easy and smooth.

Zonte's Footstep Chocolate Factory Shiraz 2018

Zonte’s Footstep Chocolate Factory Shiraz 2018, McLaren Vale, South Australia

$19.95 LCBO #396481, Cru Wine Merchants

David Lawrason – This packs generous flavours into a streamlined, almost elegant frame. Lifted cran-cherry fruit nicely fitted with vanillin, pepper, spearmint, menthol and yes chocolaty notes right from the factory. It is medium-full bodied, polished, spicy and peppery.

John Szabo, MS

This feature was commissioned by McLaren Vale Grape Wine & Tourism Association. As a regular feature, WineAlign tastes wines submitted by a single winery, agent or region. Our writers independently, as always, taste, review and rate the wines – good, bad and indifferent, and those reviews are posted on WineAlign. We then independently recommend wines to appear in the article. Wineries, wine agents, or regions pay for this service. Ads for some wines may appear at the same time, but the decision on which wines to put forward in our report, and its content, is entirely up to WineAlign.

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