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Making the most of McLaren Vale

Publish Date: 02 May 2017

Authored by: David Sly

This month on Halliday Wine Companion we raise a glass to McLaren Vale, an exciting region producing quality at every turn. Stay tuned for more on this diverse South Australian destination in the coming weeks. 

McLaren Vale has long struggled with an identity crisis. It has looked enviably at other wine regions with instantly recognisable styles, such as Barossa shiraz, Clare riesling and Coonawarra cabernet. However, such a narrow focus denies the region’s great asset that many varieties grow well, producing a palette of possibility.

It has exceptional old vines bearing incredible fruit of depth and unique flavour, and especially strong recent plantings of less-familiar Mediterranean varieties. It’s therefore in the hands of winemakers to define McLaren Vale’s vinous soul and leading the pack is Stephen Pannell.

The canny winemaker focuses on a lean, yet complex style, achieving ideal balance between acid, ripeness and mild tannins. Since opening his SC Pannell winery and cellar door at McLaren Vale in 2014, his innovative blends have had everyone talking – tempranillo and touriga; touriga, cabernet and mataro; grenache, shiraz and touriga. They show gentle juiciness and lively spice notes in harmony, their sublime beauty heightened through having the volume turned down. But it’s Stephen’s new angle on classics that deserve more attention for boldly pursuing a fresh direction. His 2015 Syrah is taut and restrained with a seductively silky palate, while his 2015 Field St Shiraz is a beguiling contradiction, with a pretty nose of violets and fresh berries offset by grunty tannins driving big bass notes.

Such change signals a fresh look at McLaren Vale’s historical vine assets. Emmanuelle and Toby Bekkers capture this in Bekkers Syrah and Grenache – full yet fragrant, silky on the palate but with a pinch of spiciness. The husband-and-wife partnership presents a smart connection between intelligent viticulture and gentle winemaking, allowing the grapes to speak softly but with a distinctive, deliberate voice.

A home of alternative varieties

The region’s mild Mediterranean climate has prompted many McLaren Vale growers and winemakers to embrace alternative varieties, with very encouraging results.

Hither & Yon presents an especially enticing portfolio – think tannat, aglianico, tempranillo, nero d’avola, rosato (made from muscat rouge) and petit blanc (from muscat blanc) – thanks to brothers Richard and Malcolm Leask combining studious viticulture on the family’s vineyards with smart, contemporary winemaking to present deliciously fresh, approachable wines.

At Beach Road Winery, Briony Hoare has also pursued savoury, food-friendly, medium-bodied wines through a host of Mediterranean varieties – fiano, greco, pinot grigio, aglianico, primitivo and nero d’avola. It’s no surprise that her cellar door boasts a wood-fired oven so tasters can sample the wines with pizza.

Oliver’s Taranga has a fascinating mix of elite ancient vines (that provide fruit for Penfolds Grange and the winery’s own HJ Reserve Shiraz), with such new sensations as mencia, made as a fragrant, crisp rosé, like a feisty, playful take on Beaujolais.

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