Wine regions - McLaren Vale
McLaren Vale South Australia
McLaren Vale is a region entrenched with history, fine wine and fine food. The region consistency produces fine wines from a number of varieties, most importantly Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay.
Vineyards between Mt Lofty Ranges and the sea
Only a half hours drive South of Adelaide is one of Australia's oldest winemaking regions. Driving over the first row of hills one is met with a vista of undulating vineyards surrounding pretty townships, the backdrop the wave-like South Lofty Ranges rolling to the sea. The township of McLaren Vale is central to this region, with Reynella and Clarendon to the North, Kangarilla on the Eastern Boundary, Aldinga on the coastal edge to the West, and in the South, Mount Compass and Sellicks Hill.
McLaren Vale was named after David McLaren, the Colonial Manager of the South Australia Company who arrived in the colony in 1837 and left in 1840. In 1841, John Reynell planted 500 vine cuttings near the present township of Reynella. Englishman George Pitches Manning established Seaview winery in 1850. Thomas Hardy, a winemaker already growing vines on the outskirts of the young Adelaide City, purchased the Tintara winery from Dr. A. C. Kelly in 1873. Through Thomas Hardy's innovative ideas and rapid expansion this was considered by many to be the beginning of McLaren Vale's wine industry. By 1889 more than 7300 acres were under vine and 70 recognised winemakers worked in the colony (including Pirramimma - established in 1892 and still owned by the Johnson family). Much of the award-winning wines produced in the region today come from 100-year old vines. McLaren Vale applied for Geographic Indication in 1995 and was awarded regional status in 1997.
The topography of the region is undulating and thus contains a variety of terroirs. In the East the land rises as high as 320 metres, but the flats mostly swell between 50-100 metres elevation. Different soil types can be found in this region, including terra rossa soils, light loam over clay, rendzina soils, soldolic, and Bay of Biscay soils. The soil type is generally quite poor with much of it sandy with a clay base. Drip irrigation helps where nature is lacking, although about 20% of the regions fruit is retained as "dry-grown" to encourage intense flavours.
The flats of the McLaren Vale are compared often with the Mediterranean climate, warm sunny days with fresh sea breezes from the nearby Gulf of St Vincent to temper high summer heats. Its proximity to the Mount Lofty Ranges sees the cool gully winds fall down from the hills in the late evening and early morning, chilling the grapes to retain crisp acidity and structure. Good winter rainfall (580-700mm) and low relative humidity ensure consistency of ripening and premium quality fruit. Frost is rare, as is rain before vintage. Long dry summers through to late autumn, with a mean January temperature of 21.7ºC and 1920 heat degree days, means McLaren Vale is considered one of the safest wine growing regions in Australia.
Running along the Southern edge of the McLaren Vale is the South Lofty Ranges, also known as the Sellicks foothills. The red loam of the hills has eroded to a strip of deep soil, ideal for large crops. Strong gully breezes falling from the hills prevent disease. To the northeastern end of this strip, the ripening is late, as the warm sea breezes don't quite reach the vines.
Blewitt Springs is a township within this region and is the furthest from the sea. It has the highest altitude, highest rainfall, and coolest winters of the valley. The deep sandy soils encourage gradual ripening in dry years, producing soft, luscious and fruity wines. Years of high rainfall can dilute the fruit, preventing the grapes from fully ripening and producing light bodied styles.
Just north of the town of McLaren Vale, as the hills begin to sweep upward, is the region of Seaview. The nights are considerably warmer and the cool afternoon breezes come in from the sea. One of the earliest planted regions of the Vale, the soils are considerably poor, with a thin layer of topsoil over clay, limestone and sand. Vigour is low, as are the yields, leading to early ripening peppery and spicy fruit flavours from the hilltops, and bold, rich plum characters from the valleys.
South of McLaren Vale is the charming town of Willunga. Established in 1839 and used as a bullocky rest for travellers to Adelaide from the south, or the nearby deep harbour of Port Willunga, the region has slight undulations flattening out towards the sea. The soil here is grey clay with patches of red earth over limestone. The fruit grown here is consistently herbaceous and tannic from the cool air that sweeps through this area from the hills to the sea.
East of the township of McLaren Vale is the area known as McLaren Flat. Best known for its Chardonnay, the local winemakers rely on the nightly cool breezes falling from the nearby hills to produce the crisp acidity found in the resultant wines. The warm climate of the region fully ripens the fruit. Even with Malo-lactic enhancement and oak barrel ageing, McLaren Vale produces Chardonnay with round peachy characters, soft mouth feel, and crisp structural overtones, unlike the Chardonnay's experienced in the last twenty years in Australia.
Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon, Grenache and Merlot dominate the red wine varieties, providing a rich lusciousness to their styles. Crisp peachy Chardonnays and fruitier, fuller Sauvignon Blancs lead the white wine varieties of the region. Other lesser varieties include, among the reds, Petit Verdot (the first Australian plot of this Bordeaux variety planted at Pirramimma in 1983 and producing full flavoured fragrant wines), Sangiovese, Tempranillo and Zinfandel. White wines produced from local grapes include Marsanne, Roussanne, Semillon, Verdelho, and Viognier (much of which is blended in small percentages with Shiraz in the Rhone-style to produce aromatic, silky wines of luxurious mouth feel).
Shiraz is the flagship of the region, said by many to be the best in the world. The palate is soft and juicy with raspberry, pepper, dark chocolate and black olive, characteristic of the area. In fact, the area is also known for its olives. In the mid-1980s, the government was encouraging growers to pull out their Shiraz vines and replant the more popular (at the time) Chardonnay.
Food is a major industry of the region and any visitor should indulge in more than just the wine. Almonds, olives, venison, cheeses, organic vegetables, berries, beef, lamb, rainbow trout and marron are renowned in this region. Italian and Greek immigrants farmed olives in the late 1800s, and many grape-growers still line their vineyards with olive trees. The Farmers Market at Willunga is a must (every Saturday morning - early!!). Restaurant menus in the city will proudly describe their menu items as coming from McLaren Vale or the Fleurieu Peninsula.
The Sea & Vines Festival during the Queen's Birthday long weekend sees over fifty cellar doors add food and music to create a party atmosphere, attracting over 30,000 revellers to the district on each of the days.
With around ninety wineries, sumptuous food, and beautiful sea and mountain vistas surrounding it all, McLaren Vale has a lot to offer the visitor. Over a hundred accommodation places of varying styles, and more sunny days than not, this region welcomes the true hedonist.
Cellar doors of timber and stone - Chapel Hill
Harvest time: early March to late April
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