The Great Red Hope

The recognition that Australia's McLaren Vale, and its Grenache, deserves may be just around the corner.


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The recognition that McLaren Vale, and its Grenache, deserves may be just around the corner

There's a lot of leaning over fenceposts here," says Tony Hoare, viticulturalist and vineyard manager for Wirra Wirra Vineyards, by way of explaining how common it is for area wineries to share not just vine cuttings, but also advice on how they should be grown. But his comment applies just as easily to nonviticultural matters. "There's not a lot of secrets in McLaren Vale."

Don't I know it. There are only about 20,000 people living in this 190-square-mile South Australian Geographical Indication (GI) just 22 miles south of Adelaide. The winemaking community is small, but is a major factor in the region's economy. Everyone here knows everyone else. When folks at one winery give me directions to another, on the other side of the region, they say it is "only five minutes down the road," even when it is more like twenty. Half of the women here, it seems, are pregnant, and they all want to be surprised about the genders of their unborn children. These children are McLaren Vale's only real secrets, but they contribute to the hushed sense of expectancy that pervades the region, as though something inevitable but nonetheless miraculous were about to happen.

Not that a lot hasn't happened here already. It has been almost 170 years since John Reynell first established a vineyard at what he called "Reynella." Other legendary names followed, including Thomas Hardy, Dr. Rawson Penfold and Dr. Alexander Kelly.

Today, this Fleurieu Peninsula region has about 12,000 acres under vine, which is twice what it was just 10 years ago. Last year's crush was the region's biggest. Local wineries are abuzz with renovation projects, new vineyard plantings, and plans to raise the profiles of their brands. These are wonderful developments, to be sure, but they're only the beginning of what McLaren Vale has in its sights for the future.

Open for business

In what sounds like a lot like Tourism Australia's "brand Australia" campaign, McLaren Vale, too, is intent on building its brand.

According to Andrew Buttery, manager of Gemtree Vineyards, over 370 local wineries, grapegrowers, innkeepers and restaurateurs belong to the McLaren Vale Grape Wine & Tourism Association. Buttery, as the Association's chairman, will helm the effort to develop "brand McLaren Vale."

The initiative is something "we can't do as individuals," explains Rosemount winemaker Briony Hoare. "We have to do it as a group. When people step off the plane in Adelaide, we have to give them a reason to come south, rather than going north to Barossa and Clare."

"We recognize that our region hasn't received the publicity of, say, Barossa," says Buttery. "But...the obvious key [to changing that] is ensuring that, viticulturally, we are leading the charge and continuing to improve."

Though no one here wants to see the day that tour buses clog the area's main thoroughfares (the odd one now and again is bad enough), new developments and attractions are sprouting up in anticipation of an influx of people who have turned away from hot Barossa. Chapel Hill winery's new gourmet retreat and guesthouse had opened the week before my visit. John Davey had just hung a few signs promoting his Shingleback wines at his cellar door, inside the tourist centre. There were murmurs, too, that a full-scale resort, one that will outclass the area's bed and breakfasts and few small hotels, may not be far down the pipeline.

As Buttery indicated, local wineries are also in a state of steady improvement. Wirra Wirra is building new facilities, and Tintara is about halfway through an $18 million redevelopment scheme that "started with an 8,000-ton production and will end with an 8,000-ton production," says winemaker Rob Mann, meaning that their high-tech changes all have the goal of improving quality, not quantity. The skeleton of the 150-year-old winery still stands, but is now home to 50 new stainless open fermenters, and a state-of-the-art ventilation system. Almost everything will be computerized; the winery's 12,000 barrels will be barcoded. In the subregion of Clarendon, Clarendon Hills winemaker and proprietor Roman Bratasiuk is planting a 35-acre vineyard to Syrah—the first and only one he plans to own himself. At present, fruit for his exclusively single-vineyard wines all comes from contracted growers, so this is big news. The "absolute pure mineral and powerful" fruit from this vineyard, which will yield under a ton to the acre, will eventually go into a new flagship wine. Outdoing Astralis, Clarendon Hills's current 95-point, $375 flagship Syrah, is one tall order.

The eastern part of the McLaren Vale GI, which includes Clarendon, rises about 300 meters above sea level. Just south of Clarendon are Kangarilla and Blewitt Springs, similarly high in elevation. To the west and southwest, are the Flats, Tatachilla Road and Seaview. Each of these areas has its own mesoclimate, and soil types that can vary from one street to the next, which is why it is often hard to describe the flavors of McLaren Vale wines in broad terms.

McLaren Vale enjoys a temperate Mediterranean-style climate—with long, dry summers, and winters in which frost is unheard of—making it, in the words of one grapegrower, "the best viticultural clilmate to grow vinifera well" in the country. The region is known, in fact, for being able to grow a wide range of vinifera varieties well.

A Case of McLaren Reds

95 Clarendon Hills 2003 Blewitt Springs Grenache (Clarendon); $80. This tremendous Grenache is a vibrant pink-purple color and has deep peppery, fruit-sweet aromas. On the palate it's massive but controlled, like a rhinoceros behind a steel wall. Intense plum and cherry fruit warms the palate. Dry tannins persist through the long, minerally finish. Drink after 2010. Cellar Selection.

92 Noon 2003 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon (McLaren Vale); $55. Alluring aromas of black pepper, vanilla, chalk and a streak of eucalyptus kick off this excellent wine. Tannins on the palate are still young and dominant, but the wine's attractive black plum and soil flavors will show through with some bottle age. Finishes long and smooth. Drink 2007+.

92 Oliverhill 2003 Jimmy Section Shiraz (McLaren Vale); $33. This is one sexy, concentrated wine. Aromas are rich and perfumed, featuring purple fruit and black pepper at the fore. It's still fairly tannic and young, but in a few years' time the purple fruit and wheat flour flavors will unfold beautifully. 1,280 cases imported to the U.S.

92 Yangarra Estate Vineyard 2003 Grenache-Shiraz-Mourvèdre (McLaren Vale); $20. An abyss of black pepper on the nose, with some whiffs of white cotton. Imagine strapping an eight-cylinder engine to a basket full of berries and black peppercorns and watching it go: That's what this wine tastes like. It's full-throttle and fruit-ripe, with lifted fruit, spice and black pepper on the finish.

91 Geoff Merrill 2000 Pimpala Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon-Merlot (McLaren Vale); $33. My favorite of the Geoff Merrill wines, and the only one with estate-grown fruit. A singular, fresh mint or gumtree note pervades the wine; supplying its weighty core is mixed plum fruit. This minty note won't appeal to everyone, but it does me. It has its own character, like it or not, as a single-vineyard wine should.

91 Coriole 2001 Lloyd Reserve Shiraz (McLaren Vale); $65. Estate-grown; Coriole's flagship wine is the only one of their line to go through malolactic fermentation in barrels, rather than in open fermenters. Dark and meaty on the nose, this quietly powerful, sexy Shiraz has plum fruit at its core; the same plummy chord resonates on the finish.

90 Battle of Bosworth 2002 Cabernet Sauvignon (McLaren Vale); $28. Ballsy one moment and then suave the next, Joch Bosworth's Cabernet is an interesting wine for a number of reasons: his vineyards are organic, and a small percentage (which varies between 2 and 7%) of the fruit for this bottling is cordon cut on the vines and left to dry, Amarone-style. Plus, this Cab just flat-out tastes good: it's brawny and plummy, with the cordon-cut fruit adding extra richness. Finishes with chocolate-mocha flavors. Drink after 2006, as the nose is still pretty closed and the tannins still substantial.

90 d'Arenberg 2002 The Twentyeight Road Mourvèdre (McLaren Vale); $35. Classy, not sassy or brassy. Aromas are of sturdy red fruit and get sweeter, like meat marinade, with air. Bramble, oak and fresh herb nuances dress up the plum fruit on the palate; has some hold here on the tongue, and a chalk-claylike feel.

90 Tintara 2003 Reserve Grenache (McLaren Vale); $49. This is Tintara's first varietal Grenache to be released in the U.S., and what a splash it'll make. Lifted cherry and violet aromas have a light wheat-biscuit accent. The palate follows suit with the same violet and black cherry notes. It's fresh and vibrant, with a chalky-mineral finish. "It's really hard to get people to notice it," laments winemaker Rob Mann of the variety. With a wine like this, Mr. Mann, your troubles are over.

90 Kangarilla Road 2003 Shiraz-Viognier (McLaren Vale); $21. The Viognier contributes beautiful floral aromatics to this wine, and the Shiraz, plenty of black pepper. The palate surges with berries and cherries—taut, fresh and pure. Smooth and firm on the finish. Nicely done. 90 Rosemount 2000 Balmoral Syrah (McLaren Vale); $50. Solid and excellent, as it almost always is. Plum fruit dominates, with anise accents; tannins are smooth. Wood is present but subtle—mouthfeel is textured more like clay than oak. (12/31/03)

88 Gemtree 2003 Cinnabar Grenache-Tempranillo-Shiraz (McLaren Vale); $25. Light white peppery aromas usher in peppery plum fruit on the palate. Has a nice, sturdy feel in the mouth, and firm tannins on the finish. A 60-20-20% blend of Grenache, Tempranillo and Shiraz. This bottling is the winery's entry into the Cadenzia challenge—so don't be confused if you find a Cinnabar bottle with "Cadenzia" on the label, and Zork in place of cork.

VARIETY IN THE VALE

The goody bag that I am given upon my arrival in McLaren Vale, courtesy of the Association, is emblazoned with a bright logo that reads, "McLaren Vale Shiraz: Everybody's doin' it!" And they are. A few wineries, like Oliverhill, are only doing Shiraz. The region's renditions of the wine are less showy than are Barossa's, and are generally characterized by a chalky, minerally feel, tremendous grip on the midpalate, and the capacity to age. Cabernet, too, can be excellent here, with a mouthfeel similar to that of the Shiraz, oftentimes with mocha-chocolate, eucalyptus or black-soil nuances. Some of the best are Noon's Reserve Cabernet, Geoff Merrill's Pimpala Vineyard Cabernet-Merlot, and the Battle of Bosworth Cabernet.

White wines are not the region's strengths, but there are some good bottlings. D'Arenberg's Chester Osborn is a big proponent of white Rhône varieties. Simon Hackett's Brightview Semillon, Gemtree's Citrine Chardonnay, d'Arenberg's Olive Grove Chardonnay, Coriole's Chenin Blanc, and some of Fox Creek's whites are very good white wines. Though Fox Creek's Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc are both comprised of McLaren Vale fruit, the staff there gave a knowing look when they said that they prefer to leave the broader "South Australia" appellation on the label. The area's biggest winery, Rosemount, produces millions of cases a year at its McLaren Vale facility, none of which are white wines bearing a McLaren Vale appellation. Their whites are made in Hunter Valley.

The fact here, as anywhere, is that market demands have a lot to do with which wines are made, distributed and exported, but the chicken-and-egg conundrum is this: There just won't be demand for wines that consumers do not know exist, have not tasted—or have not tasted from this region. There is a grape that probably grows better here than it does anywhere else in Australia, and it is little exaggeration to say that no one wants to buy it.

A THIN SKIN BETWEEN LOVE AND HATE

Grenache is the temperamental, cast-off red-headed stepchild of a grape here—"one of those love-hate varieties," is how Mann describes it. "Love-hate," in truth, could be rephrased as, the winemakers here who can tame it, love it. As for everyone else—consumers, importers and even the press—well, to hear the winemakers tell it, not so much.

"In Australia, Grenache doesn't have a very good reputation because people remember the old horrible Grenaches that used to be around 20, 30 years ago," recalls Bratasiuk, in other words, the Grenaches that were once blended into cask wines, fortified wines, or in the best cases, rosés. These days, varietal Grenaches or GSMs (Rhône-style blends of Grenache, Shiraz and Mourvèdre) are among the best wines made in the region, now that winemakers have figured out how, and where, the variety should grow.

"The vines have to struggle," asserts Bratasiuk, be it on rocky hillsides, as are his plantings, or in earth that is less soil than it is beach sand, as is the case at Yangarra Estate Vineyard. Irrigating the variety, or planting it in fertile soil, yields heaps of swelled-up berries with thin skins—in other words, wines without character.

"When you've got bad Grenache fruit, there's nothing you can do," says Yangarra's winemaker, Peter Fraser, who also warns that the grape is susceptible to botrytis, which can give it the "nasty cough-syrup character" of lesser Grenaches that turn so many consumers off. Try a wine made with good Grenache fruit, as much of it is in McLaren Vale, and you'll be blown away by what is in the glass. Typically, the wines are characterized by lifted cherry and floral aromas, and vibrant black cherry, blueberry and raspberry flavors. On the palate, the wines can be tremendously concentrated, their high alcohol balanced by lively acidity, as is the case with bottlings like Clarendon Hills's Blewitt Springs Grenache, Yangarra's Grenache (and GSM), and Tintara Reserve.

Freshness, not heavy oaking, is key, as often is decanting or cellaring. With some bottle age, says d'Arenberg winemaker Chester Osborn, Grenaches "turn into more interesting wines, more obviously complex." Osborn is widely regarded as one of the region's Grenache specialists, no small feat considering that "Grenache is not quite one-quarter" of his production, and d'Arenberg bottles 34 different wines.

As difficult as the grape is to grow, "it's not an easy sell," laments Geoff Merrill winemaker Scott Heidrich, which is why the winery no longer makes a varietal Grenache. And the grape's reputation is as dismal on the export market as it is in Australia. Wirra Wirra sales and marketing manager Andrew Tierney says that the winery used to make a Grenache, "but it got deleted out of the range," after which they toyed with Grenache-Shiraz blends, "but we didn't want Shiraz to dilute the pretty Grenache fruit."

Wineries who work with the grape are stuck in a damned-if-they-do Catch-22: The best fruit is from 60- and 70-year-old, low-yielding bushvines ("a great heritage in McLaren Vale," enthuses Tony Hoare), which is too good to be blended away, but oftentimes makes too expensive, and too unfamiliar, a wine for consumers to buy without some coaxing. Yangarra Estate Vineyard, which is owned by Kendall-Jackson, is lucky enough to have "a sales force to hand-sell Grenache," says Fraser, "but most others have distributors and importers that won't show it any love." The feeling that their importers would not get behind one of their best products was a sentiment echoed at many local wineries, where complex, Grenache-based reds and quaffworthy Grenache rosés are being left behind in favor of "safer" bets—Shiraz, Cabernet and Chardonnay. This frustration is probably what has thrust the Cadenzia challenge, an attempt to bring McLaren Vale Grenache the recognition it deserves, into full motion.

The Cadenzia challenge, which is the brainchild of Australian wine journalist Philip White, was devised to encourage area winemakers to make the best Grenache-based wines ("with their own signature," adds Buttery) that they can. The name "cadenzia" is borrowed from "cadenza," which is a term for an opera soloist's creative improvisation at the end of an aria. The only rules are that the wines must be primarily Grenache, from McLaren Vale, have "Cadenzia" on the label, and sealed with the new Zork closure.

"If Zork can help McLaren Vale elevate the value" of Grenache, says Zork technical director John Brooks, "then we have done our job." Of the 11 wineries that bottled a Cadenzia this year, some devised completely new blends for the occasion; others have just specially labeled existing wines. Osborn's Cadenzia, for example, is basically a blend of his The Custodian Grenache and The Laughing Magpie Shiraz-Viognier.

Whether Grenache ever gets its day in the sun (and whether "brand McLaren Vale" ever takes off) is just another thing for residents here to look forward to, the same way that many of them are now looking forward to watching their newborn sons and daughters make their ways in life. All a winemaker here can do is send these young ones off into the world, and hope that others can love and apppreciate their vibrant, individualist, often rambunctious natures as much as their parents do.

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