The Many Faces of McLaren Vale


A short distance south of Adelaide, the region’s capital, sits McLaren Vale, one of South Australia’s jewels. It is a stunning corner of the state, bordered on one side by waves lapping on the pristine, white sandy beaches of the Gulf St. Vincent, where cooling breezes provide much-needed respite during the height of summer. Unsurprisingly, the attractive landscape and close proximity to Adelaide made McLaren Vale home to some of the first vineyards in the state almost two hundred years ago, 8ha stretching back to before 1900. There are plenty of other mature vineyards, including 45 (83ha) planted before 1950. Today, McLaren Vale totals 7,438 hectares of planted vineyards.

These vineyards have been one of the key engines behind Australian red wines for over a century. Many historic wineries had their start and home in McLaren Vale - Hardy’s, Wirra Wirra, Tatachilla and d’Arenberg, to name a few. At the same time, McLaren Vale was favored by a few Barossans to fill out some of their most famous wines. The first vintage of Penfolds Grange from 1951 included a mix of fruit from Magill in what is now suburban Adelaide and the Honeypot Vineyard of Morphett Vale, which was located just to the north of McLaren Vale. Even then, it was clear that the McLaren Vale mid-palate was a handy addition to wines from further north. Today, several super-premium wines continue to rely on McLaren Vale as a vital component.

The Coastal Vineyards of McLaren Vale backing on to the Gulf St Vincent.

McLaren Vale in Context with South Australia

With its strong focus on Shiraz, McLaren Vale is often compared to the Barossa, home to many of the country’s most famous wines and oldest vineyards. Yet South Australia, a state of almost one million square kilometers, provides a rich tapestry of Shiraz expressions shaped by a continental interior balanced against more temperate regions huddled around the coast, including a mix of cooler climates. South Australia also offers a combination of Northern and Southern Rhône characteristics and elegant Shiraz styles through to the more classic, robust thoroughbreds.

Comparisons of wines from South Australia to the Rhône Valley are particularly pertinent, now more than ever. Shiraz has dominated the landscape and the headlines for decades, but now there is greater respect for the other Rhône varieties. Grenache and Mourvédre (commonly referred to as Mataro), in particular, as well as Grenache Blanc and Roussanne, are gaining in popularity. The leaps and bounds made with Grenache over the last decade are perhaps the most exciting development in the local fine wine scene, with winemakers now scrambling for old vine fruit that was once largely ignored or left to wallow in non-descript regional blends. The tale of great Australian Grenache is only starting to emerge, and, with a warming climate, this will become a nation-defining story in the coming decades.

Kaleidoscopic Diversity

McLaren Vale is characterized by tightly packed vineyards that start close to the coast before spreading over rolling slopes that slowly rise to meet the Adelaide Hills. Vineyards range in altitude from close to sea level up to 350 meters. This varied geography instills a significant diversity in the region, often not widely recognized, and displays a fascinating kaleidoscopic tapestry for winemakers and viticulturists to practice their craft. It also offers a myriad of blending options. But as local winemakers know, altitude makes up only a tiny component of the region’s overall diversity. According to viticulturist and winemaker Dudley Brown, “This is just one layer in a complex story with rainfall patterns, gully winds, the influence of the ocean and geology, all having an impact.”

The soil diversity here is a dream for geologists, with over forty different soil types spread throughout this relatively small region, which is a bit over twice the size of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. For millions of years, the lower parts of McLaren Vale were under the sea, with waves crashing against the Adelaide Hills, depositing sand and silt all the way up to the higher vineyards around Kangarilla. Equally, as the water retreated, beach sands were then blown from one side of McLaren Vale to the other, in some places leaving layers of sand up to three meters in depth. A range of geological events has provided an incredible legacy of gravels, clays and loams with outcrops of limestone and Terra Rossa. Only some of these soils have particularly good water-holding capacity, but luckily, there is a plentiful, local supply that is a godsend in hot, dry years.

While there are no official sub-regions in McLaren Vale, many vignerons label their wines as coming from areas such as Willunga, Clarendon or Blewitt Springs, and there certainly are broad differences. Lower-lying areas near the ocean are generally warmer during the day but receive cooling afternoon breezes, slowly permeating up to higher altitudes. Parts of the Seaview Zone and Blewitt Springs offer cooler sites as the altitude winds up to Kangarilla and Clarendon. Arguably, Clarendon makes the most distinctive regional style thanks mainly to its location with some of the highest vineyards, as seen in the wines from Hickinbotham, Clarendon Hills, Bekkers and S.C. Pannell.

The Deep Sandy Soils of Blewitt Springs.

The diversity of McLaren Vale has traditionally been best illustrated through the local Shiraz, which makes up close to 70% of the crush. But the times are a-changin’ thanks to one of the most endearing qualities among the local winemaking community: a genuinely forward-thinking attitude concerning winemaking, viticulture and wine styles. There are now around thirty grapes in production for simple reasons. McLaren Vale’s generous Mediterranean climate makes it well-suited for a whole range of varietals. Southern Italian varieties such as Fiano, Nero d’Avola and Primitivo are promising, as are Tempranillo and Graciano. But with plantings relatively young for many, it is not concrete which grapes will flourish over the longer term, particularly against the backdrop of global warming.

Coriole Vineyards was one of the first McLaren Vale wineries to experiment with Italian varieties, planting Sangiovese in the mid-1980s. Sangiovese’s late ripening character and acidity retention in warm climates made it very well suited to McLaren Vale. However, at the same time, Mark Lloyd, General Manager at Coriole Vineyards, was also considering other French options to expand his footprint. An unusual case of serendipity intervened when France started nuclear testing in the Pacific Ocean, which saw Lloyd reject out of hand any French selection. Sangiovese continues to perform well when winemakers adopt a high-quality focus.

Grenache on the Move

It is abundantly clear that Grenache is mounting a very strong case to match Shiraz in quality and reputation. It is a sad state of affairs that it has taken many in the industry a very long time to recognize the potential of this variety, not only in McLaren Vale but across the country. Grenache was more common than Shiraz in the early days. The latter really took charge only thanks to relatively modern plantings, which has left a wonderful old vine resource of Grenache, particularly in McLaren Vale and the Barossa. Some of the early wines achieved significant fame and popularity. The recently passed d’Arry Osborn crafted the famous 1967 d’Arenberg Burgundy, a Grenache-based blend that won numerous awards and showcased this variety’s potential in the region.

Yet in the 1980s boom, Grenache failed to keep up with Shiraz; its more subtle varietal footprint was trumped by the local star's sheer power and seductive qualities. In addition, only a few producers were making the most of an incredible source of old vine material. Winemakers considered Grenache little more than a weed and treated it as such. Yields were high, which made insipid wines, and grapes were often picked verging on over-ripeness. The careful winemaking required for fine Grenache was nowhere to be seen, with wines often over-extracted and boring. Straight Grenache was generally simple, soft and fruity. Plenty of fruit was also hidden away in blends of Grenache, Shiraz and Mataro - the Grenache used to bulk up the volumes. So, a significant change in mindset has been necessary for Grenache to show its potential nationwide.

The Kay Brothers Block 6 Vineyard was planted in 1892.

The last decade has also seen a changing of the guard. McLaren Vale has had a strong corporate backbone for many years - large wineries using the region’s rich resources to craft wines with a broad appeal from their vineyards and local growers. But over time, some of these larger conglomerates have closed while others have moved away. This has created an exciting opportunity for new, high-quality boutique brands to emerge, increasing the number of vignerons driving a quality agenda. This has dovetailed beautifully with the region’s significant old vine resources. These newer brands have also been behind the rise of McLaren Vale Grenache. In 2020, Grenache fruit prices hit a mark utterly inconceivable until very recently, eclipsed that of Shiraz, and the disparity continues to grow every year.

A real momentum of change has been building over the last decade, starting with the likes of Toby Bekkers, Stephen Pannell and Peter Fraser. Today, outsiders have been drawn into the vortex - Thistledown (Giles Cook MW and Fergal Tynan MW), Andre Bondar and the Shaw and Smith Team under the MMAD brand (Michael Hill-Smith MW, Martin Shaw, David Lemire MW and Adam Wadewitz) - bringing new ideas and fresh perspectives. At the same time, some more established names, such as d’Arenberg and Wirra Wirra, have re-energized their Grenache programs. It has created a myriad of winemaking regimes and styles, some successful and others less so. Many new wave producers are using whole bunches to work complexity into the wines, occasionally going overboard, so the jury is still very much out on their optimal level in the ferment.

While premium single vineyard offerings have primarily been in vogue, there is still a strong argument that, as in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, the best wines may be blends, with Touriga a local surprise in that mix. Oak use is also particularly interesting with S.C. Pannell, for example, only using very large barrels with nothing under 700 liters in size, even for Shiraz. It is a fascinating time for McLaren Vale Grenache as there are many producers completing a search for the region’s defining style. There are already some stunning wines, and the best is still to come.

Shiraz - McLaren Vale’s Moving Feast

While Grenache is rapidly rising, McLaren Vale Shiraz remains the star, although with myriad different expressions. Fans of the traditionally decadent, local style have nothing to fear - plenty of bold and rich wines are still available. But for those searching for slightly more subtle wines, with even a gentle nod to Cornas, McLaren Vale is expanding its offerings and exploring a more savory side like never before. The region is gaining confidence and embracing its diversity and points of difference. Part of this is also a reaction to changing tastes at home, with fine wine consumers searching for greater finesse and elegance across the board. But there is also an increasing appreciation of McLaren Vale’s unique qualities, which can get lost when ripeness is pushed to the limits. In particular, a ferrous, ironstone mineral character provides the perfect foil to the region’s natural ripeness and is displayed in many of the region’s top wines. Oak use is also dialed back here, allowing the fruit to express itself better.

Another critical element driving Shiraz’s (and other varieties) quality is a strong local interest in sustainability, which ties in with the region’s forward-thinking attitude. McLaren Vale is tightly packed with vines; it’s one of the most densely planted pockets in the country, but there are also outcrops of original trees and other natural vegetation that were never cleared. A steep gorge cut by the Onkaparinga River is now a national park adjoining wineries such as Chapel Hill and Samuel’s Gorge. So, sustainability and regenerative farming align with an already strong appreciation and focus on the local environment, which the vignerons have pursued with nation-leading results.

Emmanuelle and Toby Bekkers' rejuvenated Clarendon Vineyard.

In 2019, the last time there was a national survey, over 38% of the vineyards of McLaren Vale were certified either organic or biodynamic, with biodynamic certification particularly popular. This has been driven partly by the relatively dry growing seasons which suit these treatments and the focus from a handful of producers such as Gemtree Wines, Paxton Wines and Battle of Bosworth.

At d’Arenberg, all leased and owned vineyards are certified for organic and biodynamic practices, making this winery the largest biodynamic grower in the country. It’s quite an achievement, combined with a large solar array and the use of sheep to manage weeds. Overall, McLaren Vale is a wine region on the move with an eye on the future. Whether regarding sustainability, the varietal mix or winemaking styles, constant evolution and innovation remain vital parts of the local industry’s regional DNA, driving wine quality ever higher.

Vintages 2021 - 2019

After three dry and warm-to-hot vintages in a row, 2021 was a bit of a relief for local winemakers. Heavy rain in the early growing season gave healthy levels of balanced fruit, with the total crush up 28% from the lows of 2020. After a hot start to the season, the weather cooled in December, avoiding any significant heat spikes. The weather and yields show in the elegance and generous fruit in the wines but without the intensity and focus of the most outstanding vintages.

Two thousand twenty was the third in a line of generally dry, low-yielding vintages. However, McLaren Vale has coped better than some other regions. December was the hottest on record and brought some heat stress, but much of South-Eastern Australia enjoyed cooler-than-average conditions from January. Decent rains came in February, which helped the vines to reduce water stress. The vintage is generally strong across the region for Grenache and Shiraz, showcased by traditionally powerful wines with good varietal and regional typicity.

Two thousand nineteen brought its fair share of challenges to much of South-Eastern Australia thanks to baking hot and continuing dry conditions. The ocean's moderating influence did spare McLaren Vale somewhat, but overall yields were low and alcohols high. The vintage produced some exceptional wines from the best sites but was more challenging in the hotter and flatter vineyards, where the wines often lack shape and complexity.

I tasted most of the wines in this report in McLaren Vale in November 2022, with the remainder tasted more recently in Sydney.

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