McLaren Vale Shiraz: A Shining Light or Boring as Sin?

Shiraz in Australia

Shiraz needs little introduction in Australia. It's the stalwart, the workhorse, the prize pig and the belle of the ball all in one. And despite the fact that it dominates the Australian palate like no other, few of the people that consume it in this country seem to know much about it. That is of course for the fact that they love smashing it down their gullets.

The first Shiraz vines were brought to Australia in the early 19th century. And were planted in and around Sydney. From then on, as the climate showed how favourable it was for growing the grape, more was sourced from the old world, and cuttings taken from pruned vines. The old world of course being France, and the spiritual home of the variety, the Rhone Valley. Some of these cuttings made their way to Adelaide and some of the earliest plantings in the state were in McLaren Vale and planted by John Reynell and Thomas Hardy.

Part of the reason for the popularity of Shiraz lies in it's versatility. There are a number of ways the grape can be used, with obviously a dry table wine the most common. But that description pays a disservice to the array of different styles that fall under that banner. Warm climate Shiraz tend to be big, bold and fruity. Having to be balanced with slatherings of oak. Cooler climate Syrah tends to be more elegant, spicy, and lighter. But in any wine shop in the country you'll also find sparkling Shiraz, Shiraz rose`, and of course fortifieds made from Shiraz. In fact one of the reasons Shiraz has stayed such a dominant variety is that fortified wines were the driving force of the industry for over a hundred years until the 1970's, and Shiraz Port is a thing of beauty.

As a variety it can be incredibly forgiving. With it's ripe fruit characters, love of mixing with oak flavours, spice, and just about any other variety, it's a very handy variety. In fact I'd go so far as to say that if you know what you're doing, it's easy to make good Shiraz, but incredibly hard to make exceptional Shiraz.

 

McLaren Vale Shiraz

McLaren Vale is dominated by Shiraz. Yes there are a slew of other amazing varieties being produced there, with Grenache, and Fiano probably the best of the rest at this stage. But in terms of vine plantings and wines produced, Shiraz is head and shoulders above everything else. Thankfully it's an amazingly varied group of wines being created, or else it would be as boring as shit. There are a myriad of reasons for this, with different wine making techniques (picking fruit early/late, use of whole bunches in fermentation, fermentation methods, time on skins, pressing techniques, yeast usage, etc) as well as the use of oak (old oak and new oak and all the combinations within, French vs American and combos, grain size and toast of oak, time in oak, size of oak vessel, use of no oak at all [stainless steel or clay amphora’s or concrete eggs]), and the multitude of combinations of all these variables makes it a very interesting and fun process. But without a doubt the biggest driving force behind the variance in McLaren Vale Shiraz being vineyard site.

McLaren Vale has the 2nd most diverse geology out of any major wine region in the world (the Minervois in the south of France is goddamn crazy!!) Over the last 4 (or so) billion years the outlook of the region has been shaped quite drastically. The sea has enveloped the land and then receded  a huge number of times, creating deposits of limestone all over the place. As well as the orogeny of the Mt Lofty ranges and then erosion, creating pockets of alluvial clays, rocky outcrops, sandy zones, loamy clay pockets, granite chunks and everything in between.

Sub-Regions

There are a number of different sub-regions within the Vale. It is up for debate as to how many exactly but most people will agree it's between 10 and 15. And with the whole region being relatively small (particularly compared to other Australian wine regions), these sub-regions can be made up of less than a handful of Shiraz vineyards. But the difference between these sub-regions can be incredible.

The major sub-regions worth noting are Seaview, Blewitt Springs, Clarendon, Willunga, Sellicks and McLaren Flat. All produce amazing Shiraz wines, with some wineries sticking to vineyards planted solely in that small area. Or like some of the bigger producers, have vineyards dotted all over the whole region in order to maximise complexity by blending Shiraz batches made from different sites.

Seaview Shiraz, which tends be predominantly on older, poorer soils generally makes a bigger bolder style. Quite tannic, with a lot of savoury notes like iodine, soy and blood. which balances the  more stewed-like fruits. Some of the classics from the sub-region are D'arenberg's Dead Arm Shiraz, Coriole's Lloyd Shiraz and Chapel Hill's The Vicar.

Blewitt Springs sits in the area between Seaview and McLaren Flat. It's made of a lot sandier soils, and is slightly cooler. The Shiraz's produced here offer a lot more perfumed notes, purple fruits and are generally more elegant in style. Bondar's Violet Hour is a great example.

Clarendon is on the northern side of the region, and could be mistaken for the Adelaide Hills quite easily. The soils are more limestone, the sites are generally steeper, and the temperatures are quite a bit cooler. Ripening the grapes can be a challenge in cooler/wetter years, but the wines when made well are very pretty and opulent. Clarendon Hills and Higginbotham are two great examples of leading producers.

Willunga is at the foot of the Ranges that border the eastern edge of the region. This is why it has a strong presence of alluvial soils, with the famous 'cracking black' soils making up a large portion. Willunga Shiraz sits perfectly between the Seaview style and the Blewitt Springs. Big, bold Shiraz with a slightly finer tannin and more cooler climate flavours like mint/eucalypt. Both Battle of Bosworth and Penny's Hill have some amazing Shiraz from this sub-region.

              

Blends

Some of the best wines coming out of the Vale are actually blends of Shiraz, where it is either the main component, or (especially in my opinion) a lesser percentage. The traditional blend from the Rhone Valley is a combination of Grenache, Shiraz and Mourvedre. With a few lesser varieties like Carignan or Cinsault adding minimal percentages occasionally. These wines, whether it's a GSM or MGS, or SMG (the blend percentage dictates the order of letters) are pretty much the best wines coming out of the region currently. They tend to have the right balance of fruit, spice, elegance and depth.

The other Northern Rhone blend that still gets a bit of play in McLaren Vale is the use of a small percentage of the white variety, Viognier. Blending a small portion of a white variety, or preferably co-fermenting a small amount does a few things. First it tends to deliver a more fruit driven and perfumed Shiraz, which can be good if your vines produce bigger, darker styles. Secondly it should soften the wine and make it more approachable earlier on. Thirdly, the whites tend to bind the polyphenols of the Shiraz better, and stabilise colour. So you end up with more purple hued wines. As well as Viognier there have been a number of other whites used in the region, such as Riesling, Chardonnay, Fiano, and even Sauv Blanc. But the better wines tend to be made using the bigger, more phenolic whites like Fiano, Viognier and Chards.

The blend that is synonymous with Australia is Shiraz/Cabernet Sauvignon. It's an easy blend, two of the biggest and most generous varieties slapped together to make easy drinking wines for the masses. Nothing particularly interesting there I'm afraid. Good for drinking with steak or old men, but the intricacies of either variety get lost in the mix.

The far more interesting wines coming out of the Vale recently, are the wines where a small percentage of something new has been added. I've tasted some rippers with a touch (generally less than 5% ) of Nero D'avola, Montepulciano, or Barbera added. And I’m sure there are a lot of others out there that don't actually have all the fun little varieties that have been used, named on the label.

 

 McLaren Vale Shiraz – Where to from here?

The future of Shiraz in the region is pretty safe in my opinion. It's something that has been around for over 150 years and is thriving as good as it ever has despite the constant problems always facing agriculture, mixed with the added pressure of an ever-changing marketplace. The way in which it will survive is the same as it always has; Shiraz's remarkable ability to adapt. The ways in which it will adapt are yet to be seen, but with new and creative producers popping up all the time. I'm sure we're going to be tasting some fresh and inspiring new styles from the vintages ahead. Producers to watch are Sherrah Wines, Bondar Wines, Lino Ramble, Golden Child Wines, and of course MAAN Wines.

And of course the classic McLaren Vale Shiraz's of old will always be made. As long as there are old, alcoholic businessmen, there'll always be a market for these wines. And even though they may not be the most stylish wines currently, and newer varieties and wine styles keep eating into that chunk of the marketplace, they still are and will be the pinnacle of wine production into the foreseeable future in this country.


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