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The pointy end of McLaren Vale: a visit & vertical with Bekkers Fine Wine

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My first pit stop on last month’s visit to South Australia was to Bekkers Fine Wine in McLaren Vale.  A great place to start because, as I knew from consulting on The World Atlas of Wine, McLaren Vale born and bred viticulturist Toby Bekkers is a font of knowledge about the region. The former Senior Viticulturist at Paxton Wines was responsible for managing several hundred acres of prime McLaren Vale dirt and helping to introduce and implement organic and biodynamic viticulture across Paxton’s sizeable vineyard portfolio.

Bekkers had intended to give me the (literal) overview of the region before we visited his new cellar door but, by the time we got from the airport to our vantage point over “the Vale,” a veil of mist lay between us and the Gulf of St Vincent!  Best laid plans and all that….Still, Bekkers was at least able to point out changes in topography as we wound up, along, then down the ridge, at one point with Adelaide Hills on one side of the road, McLaren Vale on the other.  Changes in soil type too – exposed, he said, both by the type of trees the soil supports and the soil profile of the banks to the side of the road.

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Since establishing Bekkers Fine Wines with his wife, French winemaker Emmanuelle (Emma) in 2010, Bekkers’ challenge has been “to take all that experience from walking around McLaren Vale to go to the spice rack and up hill, down vale, stitching together something in the glass.” Not content with his own vineyards around Seaview (the latest one pictured), he looks to Blewitt Springs for “very spicy” Grenache and Clarendon for Syrah with “aromatic punch and spice.” Bekkers is “most interested in the ridge territory behind McLaren Vale town [where we drove].”  Why?  He cites two reasons – “it has a bit of elevation and interaction between the soil and geology because, where McLaren Vale is on a tilt, the old geology is nearer the surface here.”  As research into McLaren Vale’s geology has shown, the region is a veritable mosaic of soils.  Here’s a summary of the different terroir/sub-regions which feature in Bekkers Fine Wines:

McLaren Vale (Grenache): c. 80 year old vines are located on shallow grey silty loam over clay and gravel. The Strout Road/ Abri vineyard is located 9.1km from the coast east south east of the township at 88-94m.  In 2013 & 2014, Grenache has also been sourced from Blewitt Hills which, on the basis of a 2015 barrel sample, brings more spice and fruit weight.

Seaview (Syrah):  Bekkers co-owns the biodynamically cultivated Gateway vineyard.  Eleven year old vines are planted on shallow grey/brown sandy loam over calcrete and base rock.  It is located just 4km from the coast at 102-106m.

Tatachilla (Syrah): Sixteen year old vines are planted on shallow grey-brown sandy loam over calcrete.  It is located 3.3km from the coast at 65-78m. It was a source for the 2012 Syrah because the Seaview was hit by hail.

Clarendon (Syrah): Sixteen year old vines are planted on orange clay/ Red clay loam over siltstone, clay and gravel. Located 14.6km from the coast at 194-242m.

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When it comes to “stitching together” the perfect blend, Bekkers’ approach revolves around “taking some of the density out and putting fragrance and spice and texture in.” But he’s also quick to point out that he and Emma are not afraid of McLaren Vale’s generosity of mid-palate and flavour.  Rather, it’s about “being really conscious of turning the dial back and getting a silky texture.” 

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Having seen things from the other side of the fence (and Emma still makes wine in France, pictured), the winemaker points out that what’s best about McLaren Vale is the weather.  It delivers a generosity which lots of other regions in the world cannot attain – “they have to play with techniques to get that richness.”  Her focus in the winery is to take what’s been naturally given, but produce a wine which “should still be on a rail, so it has structure and line.” 

“Structure and line” techniques which also capture “much more vibrancy and fragrance” in the wines include fierce selection in the sorting shed to get rid of anything raisined (including sneakily shrivelled grapes in the middle of good looking bunches).  Admitting she “throws lots away,” she warns “you only need 5% of overripe fruit for jammy confiture characters which carry the thick syrupy character I’m so desperate to avoid.” 

Emma uses an element of whole bunch for both Syrah and Grenache for complexity and stalk tannins.  It’s also useful for the “architecture” of the ferment where the stalks create more space between the marc and help to “percolate” flavours better. “But only if the fruit is perfect and the stalks ripe,” she emphasises – typically, she uses around 25% and, she adds, “I wouldn’t do 100% because it would be too carbonic/bubblegum, which is not the style I’m looking for.”

As for the ferment itself she uses lots of cold soaking at 10 degrees (to slow down the multiplication of yeasts) for gentle colour/tannin extraction(without the power of alcohol). During the (natural) fermentation process, the gentle extraction regime continues with “lots of air” (she prefers pumping over and spraying juice over the cap to keep it wet over pigeage).  Both Syrah and Grenache are left as long as possible on skins after the fermentation.  It facilitates the polymerisation which is so conducive to long, silky tannins.  She adds four weeks would be “great” and, sometimes, Grenache can be on skins for several weeks.

It may not be fashionable in some quarters but, during the maturation process, Emma is a fan of new oak “to make fantastic wine.” She adds, “it’s a pairing in heaven because new oak tannins support fresh fruit flavours, giving them length and focus.”   Provided, that is, you’ve found a cooper who matches your vineyards and used the right format of oak to avoid over-powering the wine.  As you’ll see from my notes, I reckon Emma has chosen her cooper and format well – I loved the fruit purity and power of these energetic wines!  The region’s generosity is carried off with aplomb where the fruit is muscular and has great clarity and definition; the savouriness is seamless – integral – rather than worn on the sleeve and high-toned.

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Below you’ll find my notes on the wines, which Emma makes at Yangarra Estate. All prices are supplied by London’s Atlas Fine Wines, who receive a small annual allocation direct from the Bekkers.  They are taking orders for the 2013s now for immediate delivery when the shipment arrives in December 15/January 16. As you can see, the wines are pitched at the “pointy end of market” where Toby reckons McLaren Vale has “much more potential.”

Bekkers McLaren Vale Grenache 2013

This is the Bekker’s second straight Grenache (the first was the 2012) and, in 2013, it is from a single vineyard, Strout Road/ ‘Abri.  This dry grown vineyard was planted in the 1930s as bush vines and has since been trellised. With 20% whole bunches, it has a distinct savoury dried spice/herb/chinato note to its red cherry and bitter chocolate nose, which deliciously threads its way through the palate. The palate is very intense, with lovely freshness and simply beautiful purity and depth to its red juicy cherry and creamier raspberry fruit going through.  Velvety tannins reinforce its suppleness, persistent acidity pushes out a long finish.  The 2013 Grenache was aged for 18 months in French oak, mostly 500-600 puncheons.  None was new though it has to be said that, even where it was used in the Syrah/Syrah Grenache blend, it is worn lightly – a guiding rail for the fruit rather than a flavour component, just as Emma likes it.  This wine also carries its 15% abv with ease.  £240/6 under bond, which equates to £50.99 inc duty and VAT at Atlas Fine Wine

Bekkers McLaren Vale Syrah Grenache 2013

This is the first Syrah Grenache blend; it comprises 70% Syrah/30% Grenache which was fermented separately then back-blended.  The Syrah comes from Toby’s Gateway vineyard in Seaview (30%) and the renowned Hickinbotham vineyard in Clarendon (40%); the Grenache (30%) is from the Abri vineyard. The Syrah makes for a deeper, denser hue, with more opacity.   The nose has a mossy, earthy undertow to its perfumed, cassis-accented fruit with a touch of leafiness/mintiness – for Toby, a nod to its Clarendon origins.  It has a lovely fluidity in the mouth, with very creamy, silky black currant and cherry fruit and whole bunch (15% here) chinato dried spice/herbs (maquis, corrects Emma!)  That trace of damp earth/moss I found on the nose surfaces on the finish and brings to mind (the mind’s eye) a lichen-studded vine trunk.   Ripe but present tannins bring structure and lend weight to the whole.  A very long, cohesive blend majoring on intensity not density.  It was aged for 18 months in 500l puncheons/300l hogsheads (30% new). 14.5% abv.  £240/6 under bond which equates to £50.99 inc duty and VAT at Atlas Fine Wine

Bekkers McLaren Vale Syrah 2011

This unusually cool, wet year played into the spicy, fragrant, elegant style that the couple chase.  This wine comes from the Gateway vineyard in Seaview; in subsequent years the Syrah has been a blend from a couple of vineyards.  The 2011 Syrah has a touch of greenness to funky nose and palate and the marked acidity of the year.  I much preferred the more muscular fruited 2012 and 2013. The 2011 included 15% whole bunches and was aged in French oak puncheons (60% new – significantly higher than in subsequent years).

Bekkers McLaren Vale Syrah 2012

A 50:50 blend of Tatachilla/Clarendon fruit with 15% whole bunch in the ferment. I immediately pick up the cassis and moss notes which I found in the Syrah/Grenache plus the spicy liquorice notes (for Toby, Dutch liquorice) which he associates with Clarendon.  On the palate the 2012 has an incredible intensity to its black fruits and a simply terrific charge of (fine) tannins, which brings texture and length as it builds in the mouth.  It was aged for 18 months in 500l puncheons, 40% new.  14.5%

Bekkers McLaren Vale Syrah 2013

A 50:50 blend of Seaview and Clarendon fruit, the 2013 vintage spent 18 months in oak (40% new), then 9-10 months in bottle before release.  A super intense nose and palate reveals perfumed cassis and a compelling, very animated, ‘pippy’ vibrancy going through.  Very fresh, spicy and persistent with a long, fine, lingering finish.  A beautiful Syrah.  £295/6 under bond which equates to £61.99 inc duty and VAT at Atlas Fine Wine

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