Introduction to McLaren Vale

McLaren Vale Feature Week

What makes McLaren Vale such a magnet for wine tourists? Its handy proximity to Adelaide city, or the quality of its wines? Both, no doubt, and more.

Just a 45-minute drive south of the city, it’s also renowned for its beautiful beaches with sparkling white sands, dramatic cliffs and gentle surf. Being slap-bang next to the sea, with 30km of coastline, this region has an extremely maritime climate that favours the Mediterranean grape varieties such as those of southern France, Italy and Spain. These include shiraz, grenache, mourvèdre, montepulciano, tempranillo, sangiovese, barbera and nero d’avola for reds, and in whites, viognier, roussanne, marsanne, fiano and vermentino. This list seems to ignore the great record cabernet sauvignon has in ‘The Vale’. In fact, many of the greatest wines of the past and present contained at least a proportion of cabernet.

In recent years, the region has refocused on what it does best, which means red grape varieties predominate, accounting for about 90% of the vines.

In recent years, the region has refocused on what it does best, which means red grape varieties predominate, accounting for about 90% of the vines, at the same time jettisoning many of the cooler-climate varieties such as sauvignon blanc, chardonnay and riesling, which never truly suited the conditions. The maritime climate means there are fewer extremes of temperature—nights are warmer and days cooler than might be expected. This results in red wines notable for their soft tannins.

Accessibility to Adelaide also guarantees high visitor numbers, which in turn means there are plenty of good places to eat and stay and cellar doors are well set up to cater for wine tourists. Indeed, there are more than 80 cellar doors and more than one-third of them offer local produce integrated into the tasting experience. They range from high-end, starred restaurants to basic places offering simple platters. There’s wine and food to suit pretty well all tastes.

The first grapevines were planted by John Reynell and Thomas Hardy in 1838, just two years after the colony of South Australia was settled. Many of the early settlers were Italian, which partly explains the enduring interest in Italian grapes. The region is also noted for having a large number of organic vineyards: the warm, dry climate suits the organic protocols.

No Australian region has explored its geology more thoroughly, but then, few regions have a geology as interesting and varied as McLaren Vale. Detailed exploration has resulted in soil maps, and the identification of rock sub-strata. The upshot is that many wineries produce subregional bottlings of some varieties, especially shiraz, and some are named after the geological formations that gave rise to their terroir.

Red wine strengths

Despite the recent resurgence of grenache (since 2020, for the first time, the average price of grenache grapes has overtaken shiraz), shiraz is the star grape of the region. There is nearly three times as much shiraz vineyard as cabernet and grenache combined.

McLaren Vale shiraz is a hedonistic wine: people love its generosity, its opulence, its sun-ripened succulence. Apart from the spectrum of flavours, which ranges from fruit cake to ironstone to pepper to blackberry and dark chocolate, it’s also a distinctive wine structurally. The palate is full-bodied, rich and dense. It has a viscosity that comes from fully ripe grapes with generous glycerol and high alcohol strength—typically a good 14% and often more. At these alcohols, derived from fully ripe grapes, winemakers achieve the desired density, opulence, fruit-sweet flavours, supple tannins and smoothness of mouth-feel. This texture is not achieved as readily in cool-climate shiraz. The trade-off is less of the higher aromatics, the pepper and spices that we see more in cooler climate wines. The tannins are supple and ripe-tasting, contributing a fleshy texture.

McLaren Vale has been described as “the middle-palate of Australian wine” because its wine was highly valued for blending—to give softness, richness and fruit-sweet middle palate to the multi-region blends of the past, which is where most of its wine ended up in days of yore. Today, McLaren Vale has a very strong identity and its wines are more likely to be unblended regional wines than unaccredited components of multi-regional blends.

Soil and subregions

McLaren Vale is composed of a number of subregions and its soils vary. The altitude of the vineyards also varies. From 400 metres at the highest point, on the edge of the Adelaide Hills region to the north-east (Clarendon, Bakers Gully), it grades down to almost sea-level on the edge of the Gulf of St Vincent. The climate varies accordingly.

Organic and biodynamic viticulture is spreading rapidly, and McLaren Vale could probably claim to be the leading Australian region in this regard.

The soils are also varied, from the white sandy soils of Blewitt Springs in the east to the deep, rich loams of the fertile foothills, and sandy clays over ironstone in the McLaren Flat area. In the Seaview area, the thin topsoils of low-fertility on the hilltops are highly varied and it’s probably the high, exposed micro-climate that gives the wines their distinctive, spicier characters.

Trends

The trend of the past 25 years towards red varieties and away from whites has been marked and has probably plateaued.

More Mediterranean varieties and alternative varieties are being planted. While they are still a tiny minority, they are adding valued colour to the region’s wine palette. These are varieties that tolerate warm, dry climates. They include fiano, vermentino, roussanne, marsanne and viognier (white) and sangiovese, barbera, nebbiolo, nero d’avola, tempranillo, cinsault, carignan, sagrantino, aglianico, mencia, touriga, montepulciano and the already well-established grenache and mourvèdre (red). Wineries tend to source grapes for their cool-climate whites such as chardonnay and sauvignon blanc from the Adelaide Hills.

Newer and younger winemakers have in recent years reinvented McLaren Vale grenache in a softer, lighter tannined, less-oaked, juicy style that is accessible when very young. Winemakers such as Rob Mack of Aphelion, Giles Cooke of Thistledown and Stephen Pannell of S.C. Pannell have emerged as masters of a modern style of grenache that presents this grape in a way that is more delicious than ever.

Organic and biodynamic viticulture is spreading rapidly, and McLaren Vale could probably claim to be the leading Australian region in this regard. Prominent practitioners include Yangarra, Paxton, Gemtree, Battle of Bosworth, Spring Seed, Angove (some wines), Kangarilla Road (some wines) and D’Arenberg (some wines).

Vital statistics

  • Vineyard area: 7,438 hectares. This is 5% of Australia’s vineyards, 9% of South Australia’s.
  • Proportion of red grapes: 91% (Australia 46%).
  • Altitude: 0 to 417 metres a.s.l (above sea level).
  • Mean January temperature: 21.2°C.
  • Average annual rainfall: 622mm.
Main grape varietiesPercentage (%)
Shiraz62%
Cabernet sauvignon16%
Grenache6%
Chardonnay3%
Merlot3%

 


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