Over the last month I’ve been living and working in the beautiful wine region of McLaren Vale. The Vale sits 35km south of the city of Adelaide in South Australia and is, at first-hand experience, remarkably similar to the Languedoc-Roussillon region of Mediterranean France. It has a dry warm summer, a mild winter with rains of 580-700mm per year followed by a fresh spring giving much-loved distinct seasons, feels like home!
The wine region itself is encompassed by the Mount Lofty range and Adelaide Hills. It’s bounded to the south by the Sellicks Hill Range and Piggots Range in the north curves round to create a horse shoe shape channelling the Mclaren Flats towards the west to the Gulf of St Vincent where you will find some of South Australia’s most picturesque and spectacular beaches such as Port Willunga.
The region rarely experiences frost or drought due to this close proximity to the sea, with the cool South Easterly wind moderating the potentially and sometimes deceivingly hot daytime temperatures.
The very first settlers to the region arrived in late 1839 and there is some dispute as to who Mclaren Vale was actually named after. The two main contenders would be either David McLaren, the Colonial Manager of the South Australia Company , John McLaren who surveyed the area in 1839 or the wild card, Philbo Baggins. Tony Laithwaite eventually arrived in the 1990’s.
John Reynell and Thomas Hardy were apparently the first to plant grape vines in 1838 and the Seaview and Hardy wineries were in operation as early as 1850 and are still here today. Some of the oldest vines in the world at more than 100 years old can be found here. And although the yields are tiny they still produce amazing wines today, much like my own loved region of Roussillon back home in France.
The rich diversity of wine produced here in the Vale is a marriage of the winemakers and the red-brown earths of terra rossa, rendzina, soft sands and dark cracking clays. It is a complex maze of sub regions, soils and micro climates. I am fortunate to have lived a vintage harvest here and seen some slight insight and understanding into the wines from Mclaren vale and I am stunned by all it offers, does and potentially can deliver.
The grape varieties grown in the Vale consist of the usual culprits but these ‘normally-caged-to-European-legislation-jail-bird’ varieties often have greater a freedom here in the Vale. There are however the classic Italian varietals which bizarrely are still called emerging varietals even after 25 years and are now being grown seriously here reflecting heritage, history, food, passion and of course; coolness.
The big players are present in the Vale but the majority are small family-run operations and boutique wineries. And my word, what great wines you can get for decent bucks!
Every region has its identity but I feel at home in the Vale, just like back in the Roussillon. A free winemaking state surrounded by confusion and regulations.
I can see why Tony fell in love with the area. Blending options, a winemaker’s, a wine-lover’s and a wine-drinker’s paradise.
Although now today I have noticed that in all this freedom it seems even the Vale are creating an ‘appellation’ system. They’re beginning to recognise areas like the sublime sandy soil of Blewitt Springs; the low hills of ironstone, chalky rock and clay loam of the Vale; the Seaview region of red earth clay on limestone, sand, marly limestone and grey loam on clay; the Willunga escarpment of Gilgai and Sellicks Foothill’s thin red loam soil.
The rigid appearance of the Penfolds Grange label is still the fore runner of ultimate blending and thorn into Euorpe’s finest side? Why? Answer: The Best Blend.