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McLaren Vale Wine Show 2019 – results & reflections

McLaren Vale Bushing Monarchs Malcolm & Richard Leask, with Hither & Yon Nero d’Avola 2018, photo credit McLaren Vale Grape Wine & Tourism Association

My last fortnight was most productively spent in McLaren Vale, judging at the McLaren Vale Wine Show 2019 then visiting with producers.  Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon may account for some 75% of plantings but the Best Wine of Show (Hither & Yon Nero d’Avola 2018), Best White Wine (Zerella Wines La Gita Fiano 2019) and Best Red Blend/recipient of the International Judge’s Trophy (S.C. Pannell Tempranillo Touriga [Nacional] 2018) under-scored this South Australian GI’s status as the leading classic, premium-focused region for alternative/emerging varieties, especially Italian and Iberian varieties.  I left with the firm conviction that the Vale’s strength is in diversity.

In this post, I share some reflections on my visit to a region whose vibrant wine, food and tourism scene is flourishing.  Tourism is a good place to start.  When I last visited, in March 2016, construction work on the d’Arenberg Cube was in its early stages.  Since opening to the public in December 2017, it has become a destination in its own right – a key driver for tourism with, I’m told, over 1,000 visitors daily.

d’Arenberg Cube photo credit d’Arenberg

Hospitality in the Vale is rising to the occasion, thus far boutique, but Wirra Wirra and Leconfield Wines are planning to build 5 star and 4 star hotels in the region.  I stayed at two quite new super-stylish and comfy vineyard locations – The Vineyard Retreat in Blewitt Springs (which I later discovered is the source of one of my new finds of the trip, Charlie Seppelt’s & Skye Salter’s Paralian Grenache 2018) and Hotel California Road, home of Inkwell Wines in Tatachilla.  My pics of these innovative, boutique places to stay below.

Vertical tasting at d’Arenberg The Cube with Chester Osborn

I toured the Cube with its creator, Chester Osborn.  If you think his shirts are psychedelic, visiting the Cube is like being hot-wired into Osborn’s brain.  You’ll need a drink afterwards and the top floor tasting room provides panoramic views of the region, so you can get (rediscover!) your bearings.  A squiz of the d’Arenberg Cube Restaurant kitchen with its 3D printer suggests the fun and games continue with the degustation menu.

The Vale’s dining scene is smokin’ hot – three of the winery restaurants I visited feature in this top 10 list for South Australia.   I re-visited The Victory Hotel and The Salopian Inn, both still firing on all cylinders.  The Victory is beloved of winemakers for its amazing wine cellar, from whence you can pluck some mighty fine drops (classic icons, with back vintages-a-plenty, but also cutting edge stuff like the Paralian Grenache 2018).  With a now sizeable organic veggie garden, Karena Armstrong and her team at The Salopian Inn are not only flavour of the month with winemakers but also very much about flavours of the month when it comes to the menu.  Armstrong is a versatile chef and I enjoyed excellent Asian and Southern Indian dishes.

Lunch at The Currant Shed

I was introduced to The Currant Shed by owner Hamish Maguire of Shottesbrooke Wines.  The veggie garden served this non-meat eater very well – highly recommended.  Fresh as the moment when the pod went…dining.  The garden (gorgeous) is all around at Gather at Coriole, whose menu and wine list reflect (and draw on) the Mediterranean surrounds. A deserved winner of the number one spot in that top 10 list for sheer deliciousness in a relaxed, beautiful setting.

The garden at Coriole cellar door and Gather at Coriole restaurant

Since I visited in 2015, Maxwell Wines has augmented its cellar door and launched itself firmly into the fine dining firmament, with a new restaurant helmed by chef Fabian Lehmann, with fellow judge and sommelier Oliver Budack elegantly front of house.

Theatre on a plate – dessert degustation with mead at Maxwell restaurant

This is food to eat with your eyes and dance on the tongue.  I loved the tongue in cheek campfire marshmallows – one of a selection of desserts crafted around another string to Maxwell’s bow, mead.  Very good it is too.

Lunch at Samuel’s Gorge with founder/winemaker winemaker Justin McNamee (front left) & private chef pal Billy Dohnt (front right); standing, fellow show judge/assistant winemaker Riley Harrison

Finally, what better way to square the circle of food and wine than a degustatation sur l’herbe Aussie style in the olive groves at Samuel’s Gorge, enjoying their Mediterranean wines (super Graciano and Tempranillo as well as local stalwarts Grenache, Shiraz and Mataro).  Private chef Billy Dohnt [Does] laid on a feast from the back of his ute.  This filo cigar of the local gar fish with a verjuice beurre blanc was sublime.

Filo cigar of the local gar fish with a verjuice beurre blanc

If you are wondering how this rolling, positively rotund(!) stone managed to navigate this door-to-door gastronomic experience so successfully, my hot tip is an elasticated waist-band and calling on the services of Chook McCoy, a local legend, who organises transport to, from and within the region and ‘Little Winery Tours.’

In the soil pit at Kay Brothers – Andrew Thomas and Duncan Kennedy

Returning to wine, Osborn is at the vanguard of pushing for the identification of sub-regions – a hot topic being explored via d’Arenberg’s Amazing Sites’ range and, region-wide, by McLaren Vale’s Districts Committee, with the Annual McLaren Vale Districts Tasting which is aimed at elucidating the differences in Shiraz blends from 19 hypothetical sub-districts.  With extremely diverse geology, soil, topographical and climate variation, Committee member Duncan Kennedy observed, “there are no silver bullets” – a complex matrix of factors influences the wines. The Gulf of St Vincent, Southern Mount Lofty Ranges, Adelaide Hills and Onkaparinga Gorge, all shape the terroir(s) of this horse-shoe shaped coastal region, with its interior flats.  I enjoyed seeing this reflected in the Shiraz and Grenache flights in particular at McLaren Vale Wine Show 2019, with earthier fuller bodied and more lifted, medium bodied examples.

McLaren Vale Wine Show Chair David Lemire MW briefs the judges

You can find the McLaren Vale Wine Show 2019 results published online here.  Looking through them, it was interesting to see the results for those classes at which I didn’t judge and, of course, to discover the identity of the wines I had judged blind, including S.C. Pannell Tempranillo Touriga [Nacional] 2018, which I awarded The International Judge’s Wine of Show.  Well, what do you know, an Iberian blend!  What’s more, one that I’ll be showing in a masterclass at Essencia do Vinho on 20 February in Oporto (the 2016 vintage).  I subsequently had a great visit with Mr Pannell, tasting a vertical of this wine and his top Grenache, alongside select other wines from his eclectic but excellent range, including some new (to me) cuvees from the Koomilya vineyard, whose gout de terroir impressed.

Here are some quick observations on some of the McLaren Vale Wine Show 2019 classes, starting with the whites.  Naturally reds dominated the show and, save for d’Arenberg 2012 the Dry Dam (but not so dry) Riesling which won a gold medal (and, Osborn told me, has been going great guns on the show circuit), the only other golds went to emerging Italian varieties Fiano and Vermentino.  I judged the strongest white class – Fiano/Fiano blends, which scooped two gold, two silver and three bronze medals from 12 entries. It was a consistent flight and, for me, the top performers showed subtler citrus flavours, with flashes of green – holy basil, celery salt – and, speaking of salt, saline notes, with nice persistence.  The grape is clearly well adapted to the region or, I should say, some parts of this super diverse region which can play with the biggest of varietal hands.

Mark Lloyd of Coriole – an emerging/alternative variety pioneer, latterly with Picpoul

Of the Rhone whites and blends which one might think are also well adapted, the top scorer – Coriole Piquepoul 2019 (that is the spelling on the label, but the grape is indeed Picpoul) – bagged a bronze medal.  I tasted it when I visited Coriole and rate it highly vis a vis typicity and freshness – a highly desirable quality which is harder to find in other grapes grown in more northerly classic French regions, notably Chardonnay.

I tasted three Chardonnays during my visit, all made by Vale producers but sourced from Adelaide Hills (now a common practice), since freshness and finesse is much more of a given.  It has been a while since I tasted d’Arenberg Lucky Lizard Chardonnay  and, with less oak than when it made its debut in Oddbins Fine Wine some 15 years ago, the 2017 vintage was in vivaciously crunchy form with delicious purity of fruit.  Perhaps inevitably, Vale producers have a taste for fruit (no bad thing, I might add) and the other two possessed delicious white orchard and citrus fruit flavours with a judicious lick of cordite.  They were Chalk Hill’s new 2018 Alpha Crucis Chardonnay and, serious trophy bagger, Shottesbrooke Single Vineyard Series Chardonnay 2017.

The Vineyard Retreat at Marmont vineyard, Blewitt Springs – a Grenache hot spot

I was surprised to see such a large field of rosé wines (40 entries).  I didn’t judge this class, but the top scorer impressed me at the randomised trophy call backs in which all the judges participate. Dry, textural, yet delicate and fresh, Bondar Grenache Rosé 2019 is very much part and parcel of the Grenache revolution.  So very far removed from the deep pink, opaque and full on fruity Grenache rosés I recall from my Oddbins’ days.

McLaren Vale Grenache wines were judged first, alongside other Australian Grenaches, in the James Halliday Grenache Challenge 2019.  The results are announced on Friday (watch this space!)  Meantime, I was thrilled to see that a favourite producer, Thistledown Wines, took out three trophies with Thistledown Vagabond Blewitt Springs Old Vine Grenache 2018 – Best Grenache, Best One Year Old Grenache and Best Small Batch Wine.   Another favourite producer – Aphelion – took out Best Grenache Predominant Blend with Aphelion The Affinity Grenache Mataro Shiraz 2018.  Both examples showcase the fresh, vibrant style of contemporary Grenache and GSMs, which delighted me during my visits and the show.  By common consensus among the judges, 2018 performed better than 2017 for Grenache.

For Shiraz, the 2017 class under-scored how McLaren Vale fared relatively well in this notoriously wet vintage.  It produced the Best Shiraz – the impressively structured Rosemount Balmoral Syrah 2017 (which I judged in the first round, alongside the prettier, very likeable Rosemount Little Berry 2017). I preferred the younger 2018 and 2017 Shiraz classes to the 2016 and older Shiraz classes, where some of the wines seemed rather developed.  I found the tannins in a significant number of the 2016 Shirazes quite drying, although when I subsequently caught up with Steve Pannell and discussed the 2016s’ rustic tannins, he reckoned whilst some wines may have been over-extracted, the vintage lacked immediacy, so I should perhaps reserve judgment on 2016!

Hotel California Road & Inkwell cellar door – shipping containers do ‘Lego’

The development issue was particularly noticeable in the Icon Red Wine class, with its mini-verticals of Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz Grenache wines.  In this class and the Cabernet Sauvignon class which I judged, the Cabernets did not overly excite, although I tasted some terrific examples at Kay Bros and S.C. Pannell (Koomilya vineyard) whose vineyards are next door to each other.  Coincidence?  Surely not.  Treasury Wine Estates (who own Rosemount) fielded the winning mini-vertical – Wolf Blass Grey Label Shiraz 2010, 2014, 2017.  I loved the pepperiness, freshness and intensity of the 2017 and firmer 2014, with its sage as well as pepper.

Overall, it was good to see McLaren Vale’s classic reds – the younger vintages – displaying better  freshness with, I suspect, less oak, and racking, more whole berry/whole bunch ferments and fruit captured earlier for brightness, purity and detail.  I discussed this phenomenon with Chester Osborn and will be writing up a vertical of d’Arenberg The Deadarm for Decanter Premium. Another positive of the Shiraz class was the diversity of Shiraz styles, from lifted, to savoury, earthy and richly fruited.

Incidentally, Joch Bosworth of McLaren Vale’s Battle of Bosworth has introduced a new label, Springs Road, for wines sourced from his recently acquired Kangaroo Island vineyard (one of the island’s oldest, at 24 years old); the Shiraz from here was savoury and earthy with a green peppercorn edge, dark, intense fruits and fine tannins – very good (putting me in mind of Shiraz from Mount Benson, on the Limestone Coast), as was a lifted Cabernet!  Maxwell Wines also showed me a lovely, lifted, peppery 2018 Shiraz from the island, which is a short but expensive (the world’s costliest, apparently) ferry hop from McLaren Vale.

Malcolm Leask at Hither & Yon cellar door

As for the other red varietal wines and blends classes, they fielded the Best of Show and Best Red Blend at McLaren Vale Wine Show 2019, which is quite the statement.  There and again, these classes lifted off the page McLaren Vale’s diverse terroir and increasingly diverse gene pool of winemakers, which is an equally pleasing facet of the region.  Take Hither & Yon, whose diverse range I caught up with after the show, meeting Malcolm Leask at the stylish vintage-themed cellar door on Willunga High Street. I tasted the 2018 Nero d’Avola here before I knew it had taken out Best of Show.  Although the Leasks have grown grapes for over 40 years, they only founded the Hither and Yon brand six and a half years ago, so I know Malcolm and his brother Richard will be chuffed to bits with this result.  Not least since, he told me, the Nero d’Avola wines (from vines planted in 2010) started off “pretty light,” but the 2018 vintage was the first in which he has seen “the development of dark fruit and spices, decent ageing potential and the vineyard.”  Excellent acidity – a hallmark of the grape – is prized by the Leasks and is undoubtedly a major factor in the rise of alternative varieties.

Widening the McLaren Vale gene pool, artisans Brad Hickey (Brash Higgins), Alex Sherrah (Sherrah Wines), Rob & Louise Mack (Aphelion Wines), Andre Bondar (Bondar Wines) & Andy Coppard (Lino Ramble) at The Salopian Inn

Coincidentally (or not!) Richard Leask is Steve Pannell’s viticulturist, so also the green fingers behind S.C. Pannell Tempranillo Touriga [Nacional] 2018, which took out the Best Red Blend and International Judge’s Trophies.  I also included gold medal winners Berg Herring Saperavi Barbera 2018 and Big Easy Radio Funtime Fountain Sangiovese Montepulciano 2018 in my shortlist for the International Judge’s Trophy, because the trio impressed me in absolute terms, but also highlight the strength of blends.  Blending is such a strength of Portuguese wines, yet under-rated in so many New World countries.  But in warm, dry climates, it is a terrific tool for attaining balance, not to mention complexity!  That said, I was blown away by a single varietal Bastardo – a first release – which I encountered on my McLaren Vale travels.  But that’s another story for later.  There is no shortage of tales from the Vale to come.

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