Humble beginnings birth beautiful things. Obama. The Simpsons. Angelina Jolie. And McLaren Vale, a tiny town in South Australia with soft yet powerful wines.
Tireless pioneer Thomas Hardy planted grapes in McLaren Vale around 1840 and winemaking in the region thrived, until the turn of the century when exports dried up and the demand for bulk port swelled. Around the 1960s, wine tourism revived the area, stimulating renewed interest in table wines, especially the full-bodied, rich reds made from the Vale's 100-year-old shiraz, grenache, and cabernet sauvignon vines. Now, its comeback complete, McClaren's wines have burrowed into my spirit.
McLaren Vale's graceful, feminine wines are known for soft tannins, intense berry ripeness, and fruity, perfumey aromatics. According to Nick James Martin, assistant winemaker from d'Arenberg Winery in the heart of McLaren Vale, they achieve this finesse with good draining, sandy soils, cool nights, and a consistent climate. In addition, most wineries farm the land sustainably, shunning fertilizers and tilling under, although they don't promote these practices on the label. "It just makes sense for the soil . . . helping us make the best wines we can," says Martin. Yangarra Estate, in northern McLaren Vale, takes their land responsibility one step further by using biodynamic techniques, bringing a holistic viewpoint to the vineyards.
Maybe the tender treatment of the soil and old-vine fruit is why McLaren Vale wines rock. Their shiraz and cabernet sauvignon are drinkable upon release, but are also capable of napping for ten years. The grenache — which d'Arenberg's Martin calls "the most interesting varietal to work with" — drinks pretty tasty, too. He and several other wineries participate in the "Cadenzia" project — similar to the Meritage program in California, except using predominantly grenache and 100 percent McLaren Vale fruit. Each vintage, winemakers' effort is blind-tasted by a professional panel, kinda like Italy and France do for their government wine certifications. A winery can label a bottle Cadenzia if the sample reflects the "typicity" of McLaren Vale grenache. D'Arenberg and Yangarra both make one, and gush vehemently about its potential. So far, I agree.
Perhaps another reason why McLaren Vale wines remain on my radar is their dogged use of screw-caps instead of cork. Some wineries, like d'Arenberg, were-reluctant to import screw-capped wine into the U.S. due to our misinformed prejudice, but as of the 2007 vintage they are cork-free. And Kevin O'Brien, from McLaren's family-owned Kangarilla Road Winery, uses screw-caps exclusively, no matter what the price point or grape variety. After numerous taste tests, he's convinced they help wines retain freshness and avoid the 10 percent failure rate of corks — which results in that musty, wet dog taste.
With passionate stewards and forward-thinking practices like these, I doubt McLaren Vale will ever again descend into the embarrassing horror of bulk-wine production.
d'Arenberg 2004 Love Grass Shiraz McLaren Vale Cutesy name aside, Love Grass is serious wine: Bright, delicious black cherry and plum; tender, leather vanilla-tinged tannins, white pepper, cloves, cedar spice, and eucalyptus. Dangerously delicious and soft. The 2004 is fantastic, but any vintage will do. $22.****1/2.
Yangarra 2006 Old Vine Grenache McLaren Vale Dark and meaty with leathery black cherry, fresh green tobacco, cedar, and a gorgeous, silky mouthfeel you sense in your toes. I poured the '04 at my own wedding. Others to look for: '07 Rosé, '07 Roussanne, and '06 Shiraz. $22. **** 1/2.
d'Arenberg 2005 Footbolt Shiraz McLaren Vale Often described as the "classic Australian shiraz," this meaty hunk of wine lures you in with perfumey fruit then whacks you with full-bodied blackberry, plum, and blueberry, followed up with a dose of chewy tannins and a eucalyptus/licorice finish.. $15. ****