If you think South Australia’s McLaren Vale is all about super rich, high alcohol reds, now is a great time to challenge your preconceptions. According to wine critic Huon Hooke, McLaren Vale is “alive with a new surge of vitality and is making superb wine.” (Red Means Go in the Vale by Huon Hooke, Good Food, SMH, 6 August 2013)
The seeds for transformation were sown around 15 years ago when the region’s top wineries began shifting their plantings to better suited, mainly red wine varieties. But confidence really started to surge about five years ago, coinciding with the release of the area’s first detailed geological map!
First detailed geological wine map released in 2010
In 2010, after decades of research, geologists confirmed what top winemakers like Clarendon Hill’s Roman Bratasiuk had long intuited. McLaren Vale was an incredibly ancient land with an unusually diverse range of soils and underlying rock formations that are capable of imbuing the wines with very individualistic characters.
The map identified nineteen distinct soil and rock districts within six geological and mesa-climate subregions: Blewitt Springs, McLaren Flat, Seaview, McLaren Vale, Willunga and Sellicks. According to Wine Australia’s regional director Aaron Brasher, no other Geographical Indication (GI) in Australia has been so extensively mapped!
Scarce Earth Project promotes terroir-focused wines
To prove that these subtle and not-so-subtle differences in soil type, climate and elevation can find expression in the wines, a group of the region’s most prominent wineries formed the Scarce Earth project in 2010.
Participating wineries were asked to isolate single blocks of land planted to shiraz (the vines must be at least 10 years old) and produce wines representing a true reflection of their terroir or sense of place. Now in its fifth year, wines are submitted for blind-tasting to an expert panel of winemakers and critics. For the 2012 vintage, 37 of the 55 wines tasted were approved.
By necessity wines that show too much oak or alcohol are rejected by the panel because typically high levels of both can mask regional or vineyard expression.
Consequently, many winemakers are now using less interventionist approaches to winemaking. Hooke reports that “the trend towards biodynamic and organic viticulture is also big in ‘the Vale’, and growing.” In fact, only producers who are members of Sustainable Australia Winegrowing can submit wines for consideration to Scarce Earth.
Influx of young winemakers spearheading innovation
An influx of young winemakers, many of whom have planted new vineyards or started their own small wineries, has also helped to revitalise the area. Innovative winemakers like Brash Higgins‘ Brad Hickey, for example, is having great success with Italian red varieties and novel winemaking techniques. He ferments his critically acclaimed Nero d’Avola in bees wax-lined clay amphorae with wild yeasts for up to six months.
McLaren Vale’s transformation is winning high praise from the critics. Last year, the Wine Advocate’s Lisa Perrotti-Brown focused her South Australian report exclusively on McLaren Vale, arguing that “perhaps more so than any other GI in Australia, this region has made huge strides towards clearly defining and differentiating itself in recent years with remarkable results that can be tasted in the wines.” (Australia’s McLaren Vale: Geological Wines by Lisa Perrotti-Brown, Wine Advocate 28 February 2014)
by Merrill Witt, Editor