Towards the end of October this year, I went to a series of business meetings at the University of Adelaide, a fantastic, forward-thinking institution. It owns and runs the National Wine Centre of Australia, situated in the city’s spectacular Botanic Gardens, and also offers a number of undergraduate and postgraduate degrees in oenology, viticulture and wine business, globally recognised for their academic quality as well as their professional value.
The city of Adelaide is the capital of the state of South Australia, and was the only major city in Australia I hadn’t previously visited.
In planning my trip, it didn’t take me long to note that Adelaide is within an hour’s drive of some of Australia’s — and in fact the world’s — most renowned wine regions. Names that had for years captivated me with their mystery and allure: Barossa Valley, McLaren Vale, Clare Valley, Langhorne Creek… It would be gross negligence not to visit at least one of them. So I added a “leisure” day to my schedule and approached the Society’s buyers for guidance. Tim Sykes was kind enough to put me in touch with various wineries, and in preferring “few and deep” to “many and shallow”, I chose McLaren Vale as my single destination, and got to visit two sensational wineries, both of which are Society suppliers: first, the rightfully legendary D’Arenberg, and second, a smaller, “boutique” winery, S.C. Pannell. I also reserved a table at a restaurant which everybody I spoke to, without exception, insisted would be memorable.
I had one primary goal: to try to understand the essence, the heart, of what McLaren Vale is about, by tasting its wines.
D’Arenberg is justifiably respected as a great McLaren Vale institution. Since its foundation in 1912, it has planted, nurtured and experimented with classical European varieties, in a quest to interpret the terroir of McLaren Vale, while remaining true to the inherent characteristics of those varieties. It has shown particular commercial and critical success with its flagship Shiraz, The Dead Arm, but has a considerable portfolio of similarly interesting wines, at all price points, made from varieties such as Grenache, Viognier and Mourvèdre.
I was hosted by the genial Philip Jeffries, the winery’s Sales & Marketing General Manager, who is not only hugely knowledgeable, but exudes limitless passion for d’Arry’s history, values and products. He took me to a century-old plot of Shiraz, from which The Dead Arm is made, and I was struck by its modesty and simple beauty. Remember that October is the Southern Hemisphere equivalent of April, so we’re looking at tiny grape buds emerging, and luscious leaves already present — it’s early springtime. Philip then took me to see a plot of which the winery is rightly proud: a Grenache vineyard planted in 1918. It’s one year away from being a century old. Here is a close-up of these remarkable vines, showing the budding fruit and the knotted, gnarled trunk:
It reminded me that the Society was the first company to import Australian wine to the United Kingdom, probably not long before these vines were planted (perhaps someone at the Society can confirm this, and the year?)
After a tour of the winemaking facilities — some of which date to the 1920s and continue to be in use today — Philip kindly treated me to a tasting. We tasted:
- The Money Spider 2017 (Roussanne)
- The Feral Fox 2015 (Pinot Noir)
- The Twenty Eight Road 2014 (Mourvèdre)
- The Derelict Vineyard 2013 (Grenache)
- The Sticks & Stones 2012 (Tempranillo 60%, Grenache 30% and small quantities of Portuguese varieties)
- The Ironstone Pressings 2014 (Grenache 72%, Shiraz 25%, Mourvèdre 3%)
- The Dead Arm 2014 (Shiraz)
I wrote notes for all these, but will comment on the ones I liked the most. I thought the Twenty Eight Road was impressive — it’s made from the ancient Mourvèdre plantings, and is a luscious, generous wine, less tannic than I expected, balancing off a brightly defined acidity against rich, dark fruit; on top of this, you get attractive smoky, earthy aromas, and a marked minerality. The Ironstone Pressings is a textbook Australian-style GSM: with a spectacularly assertive nose, this wine is an explosion of vivid fruit and spice, intensely concentrated, but beautifully structured, and again, an irresistible minerality that really shows off the terroir. Finally The Dead Arm, at just three years old, still absurdly young, and no doubt with decades of ageing potential, the 2014 has a pure, surprisingly delicate, nose of cherries and violets, astonishing concentration and muscular power, but also a haunting beauty, and in the end, I felt that this wine, for all its power, was an honest, even humble expression of the terroir.
A very enjoyable tasting, and a great insight into a great Australian winery.
Here I am with Philip Jeffries with what looks like a jeroboam of The Dead Arm 2008:
Next, my driver (the wonderfully passionate and well-informed Scott Ninnis, who I wholeheartedly recommend) took me down the road to SC Pannell.
I got a brief verbal overview of the winery and its story — the visit was much more about the wines. And oh, what wines… I can see why Steve Pannell is receiving plaudits all over. This is very serious winemaking indeed.
I was guided through the wines by the articulate and persuasive Tom Grant, who constructed a perfectly judged flight of the following bottles, in this order:
- Amuse 2017 (Sauvignon Blanc 60%, Grüner Veltliner 30%, Chardonnay 10%)
- Aromatico 2017 (Gewürztraminer 60%, Riesling 30%, Pinot Grigio 10%)
- Arido 2017 (Grenache) — rosé
- Nebbiolo 2017 (Nebbiolo) — rosé (yes, from Nebbiolo)
- Dead End 2016 (Tempranillo)
- Tempranillo Touriga 2016 (Tempranillo 57%, Touriga Nacional 29%, Tinta Cão 14%)
- Grenache Shiraz Touriga 2016 (60%, 30%, 10%)
- The Vale 2015 (Grenache 60%, Shiraz 40%)
- Grenache 2015
- Nebbiolo 2013
- Koomilya 2014 (Shiraz)
- Koomilya DC Block 2013 (Shiraz)
The stand-outs for me, from an already very high bar of quality, started with the Aromatico. It took me by surprise because the three varieties are not ones I drink frequently, but I loved this remarkable wine immediately. It has a lovely slatey stone, wet soil quality, which is fresh but exudes an instant sense of place. I was transported straight to a place where you can see the sea in the distance — not unlike the southern Mediterranean, home to so many fabulous wines — but daringly made from varieties more common to northern, inland regions such as Alsace. Minerality was I think more dominant than fruit, although there were some deliciously aromatic and delicate notes of apricots, limes and peaches that made this wine simply wonderful: fresh, fragrant, bursting with vigour and energy.
I am a fan of rosé — I perpetually defend it against detractors who think it somehow an uncomfortable hybrid, a lesser category of wine. The fact is, a good rosé can be not only complex as well as charming, but highly versatile — more so than many whites and reds. Versatility is surely a virtue in wine, for what is wine without food, or without a social context, or without a place to drink it in? The Grenache rosé was textbook Provence — brilliant acidity, herbaceous and floral. But the Nebbiolo rosé — this was a revelation. A haunting, emotional wine. A comforting, rounded wine. Tom said it had hygge, this currently fashionable Danish concept encapsulating an enveloping, soothing, intimate domesticity.
The reds were consistently impressive. The Vale, for example, was huge, intense and powerful; smoky, masculine, primeval. Like a serious Gigondas. The Grenache was still too young, I think, but again, like some of the wines in the previous tasting, what I liked about it was the restraint. At 15% ABV you expect brutal concentration and unchecked power, but in fact it was medium-bodied, very fine and linear, understated and quite magnificent.
But then I had a sensational wine, a wine I’ll be talking about for years. The Nebbiolo 2013 — a masterpiece of singular beauty. I’m not a fundamentalist about grape varieties and their “ideal” location. Some have found their place over the centuries and at their best are unlikely to be bettered elsewhere — Pinot Noir in Burgundy, Tempranillo in Rioja — but there is no good reason, given comparable climates and soil types and other environmental conditions, why winemakers can’t make wines from varieties that stand shoulder-to-shoulder with their “natural” origins. I would love to see this Nebbiolo tasted blind against a few venerable Barolos. Nebbiolo has a New World home, and it’s McLaren Vale. The Pannell Nebbiolo is light-bodied, ethereal and thrilling. It has an acidity of staggering precision, a mesmerising bouquet of tobacco, cloves, cinnamon, garrigue, attar of roses, and a persistence that I could still taste hours later, after lunch and yet more wine. I felt that this wine could assert itself above all others. But like the fable of the sun and the wind, not through force, but through persuasion. I take my hat off to this wine, and urge the Society to get some!
We then closed with two very unusual, untypical Shirazes. They didn’t make me think of Syrah, or of McLaren Vale in general, or of the Rhône, for that matter. They made me think of something the winemaker was trying to say about the earth and the sky, about this little pocket of the world. These are wild fermented wines, with an absolute minimum of artifice and intervention, stopping short, however, of the dreaded “natural wine” category. They are somewhat rustic, a touch chocolatey, and full of tension between expressive power and humble containment. Made in very small quantities, these are truly the labour of love, and it will be fascinating to follow their evolution over the next 20 years.
My McLaren Vale adventure had not come to an end. I was taken to the highly acclaimed local restaurant, The Salopian Inn. I had booked a table for one, and was expecting a very good meal. I had previously been told — although I hadn’t quite understood — that there wasn’t a wine list as such, but a cellar. It is quite simple: the wine list contains only sparkling, whites, a few rosés and the dessert wines; for the reds, however, there is no list — you make your own way down to the cellar and take what you want! After an entire morning’s tasting, and inevitably a little swallowing, I found the wine list baffling, and kept looking for the reds. Then I remembered… I was led down some steep stairs to the cellar, which looks like this:
And which offers moments of McLaren Vale pride wrapped up in humour like this:
I found the quantity and variety so overwhelming, and my palate was so grizzled and battered by the relentless tannins of the Grenaches I’d tasted, that I decided I couldn’t take any more red, so I opted for a young, refreshing and steely local Fiano with food that was simply exquisite. I had the restaurant’s famous duck dumplings, the catch of the day, lamb’s brains, kangaroo tail and to finish, the preposterously good Salopian trifle. Most of these dishes did something that Australia excels at: combining local, seasonal ingredients in a way that Europeans would recognise as theirs in origin and inspiration, but with Asian touches — coriander, chilli, lemongrass, lime, coconut milk — producing deliciously zesty and vibrant flavours that go so well with white varieties that thrive in Australia (Riesling, lighter Italian varieties, Grüner Veltliner, Chardonnay), and crunchy, salty, savoury, meaty ingredients that respond with gratitude on the tongue when paired with the red varieties that are so well-suited to Australian terroirs: Shiraz, Grenache, Mourvèdre, and now I know… Nebbiolo.
And all this in half a day.