Chester Osborn is sitting at an old table stained with wine from thirty or so vintages. Once borrowed for a Bushing King lunch, the table is the centrepiece of a modest tasting room. It does the job – clearly. The 53-year-old takes the screwcap off another new d’Arenberg wine with another strange name – The Conscious Biosphere Aglianico Petit Sirah 2012.
The crazy name is apt for a region leading the way with sustainability in Australian wine. “The vines for this wine were planted in the century in which humans have become more conscious about their biosphere – their planet,” explains Chester. “Scientists talk about it as being the era of The Conscious Biosphere.” In a nod to managing the effects of global warming, Chester points out that Aglianico and Petit Sirah are warmer climate varieties.
McLaren Vale is not seeing the same level of investment as the Barossa. It seems more a case of going quietly about its business while investing in wine quality – and sustainability. No bad thing in this brave new world of quality over quantity, and increased consumer scrutiny about food provenance and ethical farming. “I think people here are bedding down a longer term vision for their businesses and pursuing what they do best,” says Jennifer Lynch, general manager of the McLaren Vale Grape Wine & Tourism Association.
Steve Pannell and Peter Fraser are the dynamic duo of Australian wine; both ply their trade in McLaren Vale. Pannell, who showed his commitment to the region last year by buying the old Tapestry cellar door, brought the Jimmy Watson home to the region last year with 2013 Adelaide Hills Syrah. He thinks all the soul-searching McLaren Vale has done with new varieties over the past 10 years is paying off. “McLaren Vale has embraced a new future,” he says. “A difficulty in the past was, ‘well, how are we going to sell all these new varieties?’ The truth is, we can sell them – and we are. It’s one of the most progressive regions in Australia. In the past it was all about becoming the next Barossa, but over the past five years that has changed dramatically – the focus now is on doing our own unique thing. That’s important.”
Fraser, who won James Halliday’s 2016 Winemaker of the Year title, with all 10 new Yangarra releases scoring 94 points and more, says he’d like to see even more focus on varieties and wines styles that suit the region. “And more premium producers doing stuff like what Bekkers is doing.”
What Bekkers is doing is helping to brand McLaren Vale as a fine wine producer, at a time when there are local concerns about too much local fruit being sold too cheaply. Toby Bekkers hit the market a few years ago with a $100 Shiraz. The confidence seems to be spreading: d’Arenberg has a range of $99 single-vineyard wines and is about to release two new $150 flagships; Oliver’s Taranga has released the 2010 M53 Shiraz for $180 a bottle, and Hugh Hamilton has released Pure Black 2010 for $180.
The shock closure in November last year by Treasury Wine Estates of the Ryecroft winery at McLaren Flat – the home of Rosemount – was a blow for the region. There’s better news, however, from the other prominent corporate in the region, Accolade, which is investing heavily in the Hardys Tintarawinery and cellar door in the main street.
The new cellar door everyone is talking about is the ‘d’Arenberg’s Cube’, a five-storey building under construction. Chester has talked about it for years and it’s finally happening. Some are nervous about it; most are positive. It will apparently borrow from MONA in Tasmania. “Bring it on,” says one winemaker. “It will be like Port Adelaide – you’ll either love it or hate it – but everyone will have an opinion and want to see it.”
Jennifer Lynch says, “I think the intrigue is that it goes beyond just another cellar door, beyond a wine offering. It creates a talking point and that’s got to be a good thing.”
One of the more interesting transactions involving a McLaren Vale winery in recent times has been Wirra Wirra’s purchase of Ashton Hills, Adelaide Hills’ foremost Pinot Noir producer. Pinot is hot in wine bars and having one in Wirra’s portfolio appears sensible. On nearby Ingoldby Road, Beresford is building a new cellar door to complement the big new winery built on a hill on the same property. Among those planning cellar doors is Chalk Hill.
McLaren Vale seems to generate a disproportionate amount of good press, perhaps because there is always something happening there, whether it’s the Scarce Earth project or wine show innovations. The big story is sustainability.
In March last year Dudley Brown of Inkwell Wines won a $5,000 WBM advertising package in a vintage selfie competition. He used it to promote Sustainable Australia Winegrowing (SAW) – rather than his own brand. His wife, Irina Santiago-Brown, took the program to another level. Those ads announced that the program was being gifted to other wine regions. The response has been overwhelming, with the program currently being rolled out across the country. There are further positive developments with the program that fall in the ‘watch this space’ category.
“The response has been amazing, with interest from many other wine regions as well as overseas,” Jennifer Lynch says.
McLaren Vale has a reputation as an innovator, including for its wine show, introducing consumer dinners last year. This year it’s taking it to the Adelaide CBD. There are plans to go interstate and overseas. It’s possible that only SAW-accredited wines will be eligible for the local show one day.
With non-mainstream varieties, McLaren Vale won’t die wondering. Back at the wine-stained tasting bench, Chester Osborn says Sagrantino could one day rival Shiraz as the region’s top variety. “We have five sites we’re working with for Sagrantino,” he says. “They are all completely different, and every one of them works. I think Sagrantino in McLaren Vale works even better than it does in Montefalco.”
The last say – for this intro – goes to tireless McLaren Vale promoter, Corrina Wright, of Oliver’s Taranga Vineyards: “I think the Vale has come a long way, but still has a little way to go. I don’t think we have capitalised as yet on the natural beauty, the coastline, the proximity to Adelaide, sustainability, the amazing restaurants and experiences to be had. I feel like it is on the precipice of people going- ‘holy crap, that place is awesome and it’s so easy to get to.’ I am genuinely pumped for the next generations of my family and the opportunities they will have. We need to make sure everyone understands that we are an agricultural tourism region and leverage ourselves as that. We also need to get better at giving customers experiences and knocking the socks off them.”