Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Mark in Oz - McLaren Vale (Aussie No Rules?)

The view from the hills

Over the last month I’ve been living and working in the beautiful wine region of McLaren Vale. The Vale sits 35km south of the city of Adelaide in South Australia and is, at first-hand experience, remarkably similar to the Languedoc-Roussillon region of Mediterranean France. It has a dry warm summer, a mild winter with rains of 580-700mm per year followed by a fresh spring giving much-loved distinct seasons, feels like home!
The Gulf of St Vincent
The wine region itself is encompassed by the Mount Lofty range and Adelaide Hills. It’s bounded to the south by the Sellicks Hill Range and Piggots Range in the north curves round to create a horse shoe shape channelling the Mclaren Flats towards the west to the Gulf of St Vincent where you will find some of South Australia’s most picturesque and spectacular beaches such as Port Willunga.
Port Willunga

The region rarely experiences frost or drought due to this close proximity to the sea, with the cool South Easterly wind moderating the potentially and sometimes deceivingly hot daytime temperatures.

The very first settlers to the region arrived in late 1839 and there is some dispute as to who Mclaren Vale was actually named after. The two main contenders would be either David McLaren, the Colonial Manager of the South Australia Company , John McLaren who surveyed the area in 1839 or the wild card, Philbo Baggins. Tony Laithwaite eventually arrived in the 1990’s.

John Reynell and Thomas Hardy were apparently the first to plant grape vines in 1838 and the Seaview and Hardy wineries were in operation as early as 1850 and are still here today. Some of the oldest vines in the world at more than 100 years old can be found here. And although the yields are tiny they still produce amazing wines today, much like my own loved region of Roussillon back home in France.

The rich diversity of wine produced here in the Vale is a marriage of the winemakers and the red-brown earths of terra rossarendzina, soft sands and dark cracking clays. It is a complex maze of sub regions, soils and micro climates. I am fortunate to have lived a vintage harvest here and seen some slight insight and understanding into the wines from Mclaren vale and I am stunned by all it offers, does and potentially can deliver.

The grape varieties grown in the Vale consist of the usual culprits but these ‘normally-caged-to-European-legislation-jail-bird’ varieties often have greater a freedom here in the Vale.  There are however the classic Italian varietals which bizarrely are still called emerging varietals even after 25 years and are now being grown seriously here reflecting heritage, history, food, passion and of course; coolness.

The big players are present in the Vale but the majority are small family-run operations and boutique wineries. And my word, what great wines you can get for decent bucks!

Every region has its identity but I feel at home in the Vale, just like back in the Roussillon. A free winemaking state surrounded by confusion and regulations. 

I can see why Tony fell in love with the area. Blending options, a winemaker’s, a wine-lover’s and a wine-drinker’s paradise.

Although now today I have noticed that in all this freedom it seems even the Vale are creating an ‘appellation’ system. They’re beginning to recognise areas like the sublime sandy soil of Blewitt Springs; the low hills of ironstone, chalky rock and clay loam of the Vale; the Seaview region of red earth clay on limestone, sand, marly limestone and grey loam on clay; the Willunga escarpment of Gilgai and Sellicks Foothill’s thin red loam soil. 

The rigid appearance of the Penfolds Grange label is still the fore runner of ultimate blending and thorn into Euorpe’s finest side? Why? Answer:  The Best Blend.

Friday, 6 March 2015

It's off to work I go

I awoke early on my first morning in Australia with car, boat, train, coach, jet and taxi lag. Yet soon found myself driving my allocated ute, following young Canadian assistant winemaker Matt to the Tinlins winery.
My ute

The Tinlins cellar is located in the heart McLaren Vale and is a fairly big winery compared to most in the region. Tinlins specialise in producing high-quality premium wines that are bought by other wineries such as Hardy’s and Penfolds to make some of their well-known wines.

It’s pretty busy already and I am straight into the fermentation cellar with pump-overs in full swing on the first shiraz to come in.

Shiraz pump-over
Sampling the vineyards is the most important part of a winemaker’s job in order to pick the fruit at the perfect ripeness so it was out to the Adelaide Hills, this afternoon.  The vineyards are picked later here due to the 500m altitude. Some really interesting varietals are planted here with vineyard blocks of Riesling, Pinot Gris, Gewurztraminer, Sauvignon Blanc, Touriga Nacional, Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz.  Walking the rows and tasting the fruit shows us that these must wait, giving us time to pick the warmer vineyards down in the warmer valley floor of McLaren Vale. 

Sampling in the vineyards

Monday, 2 March 2015

Trains, Planes, Automobiles and a couple of Ferries!

My first view Down Under

Once again it’s that time of year when I swap my European ‘driving winemaker’ job to become once more a ‘flying winemaker’ for a couple of months.  This year’s call has come from the legendary Australian Warren Randall, winemaker and owner of the famous Seppeltsfield Estate (amongst others) in the Barossa. 

I met Warren last summer when he visited the Laithwaite Vineyard estates and Le Chai Au Quai in Bordeaux. We had a good chat during a couple of days of tasting a wide variety of wine styles and, of course, my love and passion for Grenache became evident rather quickly! It just so happens that Warren also owns the oldest Grenache vineyards in Australia, at McLaren Vale’s Tinlins winery. Here, one of the world’s most respected winemakers (and current holder of the prestigious Jimmy Watson Trophy) Stephen Pannell is at the winemaking helm.  Stephen’s another Grenache freak and I’m looking forward to be working under him for the 2015 harvest!

A couple of days ago I was in a very soggy, cold Bordeaux. But with much of Australia enduring another searing heat-wave summer, the harvest is early and I now find myself heading to Adelaide to work directly for Warren and Steve!

However it seems it’s never a simple task to get from A to B. Or in this case B(ordeaux) to A(ustralia)!  

Time was already tight and I needed to get my UK registered car back to the UK before the 16th of February for its MOT. I also had the small task of renewing my passport in my home country of Jersey. Although I am classed as a British citizen, I was actually born non UK or EU so I have to visit home personally to sign the documents to get a passport.  

And so the journey began. Drove the length of France, took ferry to Portsmouth, drove to Dorset, dropped car off, took small ferry (very rough to Jersey), got passport, ferry back to UK, train to Southampton, National Express (without the jolly hostess) to London Heathrow, flight to Hong Kong then Hong Kong to Adelaide and finally a taxi from Adelaide airport to Port Willunga.

It was hot and I think the sea was very blue …