Our first day in McLaren Vale we headed to The Blessed Cheese for a flat white, which we are all slowly becoming addicted to, from there we were met by Mike Brown of Gem Tree who gave up an hour of his morning to give us an overview of the region. A warm climate means that the region is able to produce rich red wines, however the diurnal temperature range also means that the wines are able to keep their elegance and finesse due to acid retention. No single soil type presides over the region, instead there are various pockets of different soil and geology. A region seen as a reliable source of ripe fruit, it has in the past perhaps had problems of over production, now the focus has turned to quality rather than quantity.
Our first winery of the day was Paxton at Langcross farm. A winery pioneering in biodynamics, the family owned company turned to this holistic approach 6 years ago after David Paxton attended a lecture on the subject and was immediately converted to its simplistic approach to farming. The conversion started immediately and now they are ‘certified in conversion’, full certification coming after they’ve held this level for three years. Though in one sense they are limited by experience, all are on board with biodynamics seeing it as a holistic, sustainable and organic system of agriculture. Biodiversity is key: the more diverse plantings they have the more balance is achieved. Always questioning your actions in the vineyard, ensuring the soil is in excellent condition and only using the water that you really need to are also elements of the philosophy that Paxton’s follow. After a brief visit to the vineyards (brief because we had been to phylloxera zones in the last few days, so had to take precautions, no matter how small the risk, not to bring the pest into the phylloxera free vineyards of South Australia), we had a tasting of a range of Paxton wines. Starting with three chardonnays, there was an elegance, purity and expression of fruit. Of the AAA Shiraz Grenache blends we tasted from 2004 through to 2008 all had a common theme of purity of fruit, floral notes and balance, but there was a marked difference from the 2006 vintage where the fruit flavours were more vibrant and lifted. Whether this was an effect of converting to biodynamic farming or whether it was just the conditions of this and subsequent years is impossible to say definitively, whatever the cause the wines were extremely drinkable, not over powering and in my opinion perfectly in balance.
A quick lunch was spent at Star of Greece – a cafe with stunning views over the sea. Salt and pepper squid followed by fish and chips whilst chatting to Louise from Battle of Bosworth. Unfortunately with not much time to soak up the views, we quickly drank in the sea air and the picture postcard views and moved on to D’Arenberg.
Established in 1912 and still a family owned business, this outfit isn’t small by any stretch of the imagination, however their focus is on quality, and expressing the terroir of the region. With 500 acres of vines, D’Arenberg also buy in fruit from other growers. The majority of this is from the McLaren Vale, however, a small proportion is also sourced from Adelaide Hills. The approach they take in the vineyard is one of minimal intervention. D’Arenberg haven’t used fertilizer on their vineyards for 15 years, nor have they cultivated their vineyards for a similar amount of time. They were finding that the cultivation of the vineyard was aerating the soils thus promoting aerobic bacteria. With the following reduction of anaerobic bacteria, soils risk becoming sterile; an environment where nothing can grow. Simply mowing in the vineyard is enough. Chester mentioned having what he described as miniature sheep in the vineyard to keep the grass short, I’m not sure whether miniature sheep and wine making normally go hand in hand, perhaps Chester was living up to the name of one of his wines ‘Wild Pixie’ and having a laugh at our expense as we diligently scribbled down everything he was saying! At D’Arenberg they try not to irrigate unless absolutely necessary in order to allow a certain amount of vine stress, to allow the character of the soil to shine through and ultimately to produce better quality fruit overall.
Though Chester Osborne uses 100% organic practices in the vineyard, they are not certified as organic. It hasn’t been ruled out as a possibility for the future, currently the stance is that they would like to keep the flexibility that is available to them as non-certified organic producers, that would stop them possibly losing crops in the event of pest or disease hitting as they would be able to spray to mitigate against the effects. However, Chester has noticed that as he grows organically, the grape berries themselves have thicker skins and are therefore naturally more resistant to disease and also give good flavour development because of the skin to pulp ratio. Nature it seems finds its own balance when given the opportunity to do so by man.
After a really informative afternoon at D’Arenberg, we headed down to The Victory, luckily making it in time for the beautiful sunset over the sea. A refreshing moscato and lime awaited us as we chatted on the lawn with winemakers from Chalk Hill, Noon, Battle of Bosworth, S.C.Pannel, Ulithorne and Cascabel, as well as Doug the owner of The Victory who also makes wine under the name of Rudderless. The Victory has a great reputation in McLaren Vale and it is easy to see why. A great location, on an evening like this it was perfect for being out on the lawn and watching the sun go down. But it is not just about aesthetics, the wine list here is well renowned, with a focus on wines from the local McLaren Vale region. We were lucky enough to have our informal tasting downstairs in the cellars, where we were surrounded by great wines and their producers. After going round tasting copious amounts of wine and chatting to their respective owners as it were, we all sat down to a fabulous meal. The night ended all too soon. Bed was calling as squid fishing was the early morning adventure for those of us with the right constitution, which involves a 5.45 am pick up…ouch!