Australia 2017 – 3. McLaren Vale, Clare and Eden

Late in 2016 Tom Cannavan spent 10 days touring several of Australia’s most important wine regions for this report. It will be published in five parts.

McLAREN VALE – via Italy & the Rhône

South Australia wine mapJust an easy 40-minute drive south of Adelaide brings you to the small town of McLaren Vale, centre of an Australian wine region synonymous with Rhône, and to an extent, Italian varieties.

This is South Australia, the hub of the Australian wine industry, boasting a plethora of vineyard regions of world renown. My last visit here was to judge at the McLaren Vale Wine Show, an immersive week in the region, but that was seven years ago and as with the rest of Australia, much has changed.

Gemtree Estate

My first visit was to the Gemtree Estate, bought as a dairy farm in 1994 by the Buttery family, daughter Melissa is the viticulturist whilst husband Mike Brown is chief winemaker. The family realised that a large part of the property wasn’t needed for vines, so started a native tree planting programme which has developed into a major wetlands project, with 45,000 trees planted, to become a major attraction in the area.

Mike Brown“It has encouraged amazing biodiversity,” says Mike, left, as I playfully suggest he hugs one of the trees. That’s a joke about his and Melissa’s dedication to environmental causes that extends to the vineyards, which have been farmed organically since 2000 and are now certified as organic and biodynamic. Mike also helps steer a sustainable wine programme for the whole region, not necessarily organic, but as he says “in an essentially hot and dry region there is just no need for high intervention use of herbacides and treatments.” To that end 27% of the entire region’s vineyards are now certified organic.

It’s a big operation, and 40% of their grapes are sold. Mike says being 155 metres above sea level really makes a difference, giving better acidity and wines that are ‘lighter on their feet’. Melissa has identified 15 distinct soils on the property, and has used this knowledge to plant specific varieties. “Biodynamics is allowing our vines to reach full phenolic maturity (ripeness of skins, stalks and pips as well as sugar) but retain good acid levels. It also seems to give us the extraction that’s needed with shorter ferments: we are getting plenty of colour, aroma and flavour with just four days of extraction when it was seven before the switch.”

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Coriole and friends

Coriole’s vineyards surround the original 1860 farmhouse and extensive visitor facilities, making it one of the most beautiful – and most popular – in McLaren Vale (see below). Coriole is famous for its Italianate leanings. Though Shiraz has been a focus since the Lloyd family set up shop in 1967 (and still makes up 65% of all plantings), by 1985 they had planted Sangiovese on these terra rosa soils over limestone, to be followed by Fiano, Barbera and Montepulciano amongst others. Here I would meet up with a whole bunch of local producers to taste extensively.

Other notes in this section come from a wonderful producers’ dinner at the legendary Star of Greece seafood restaurant on the coastal cliffs at Port Willunga.

Coriole vineyards

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Going for Grenache

chesterNext stop was the d’Arenberg winery, one of McLaren Vale’s most famous names, with two of its most famous figureheads: Chester Osborne (right) and his legendary dad, d’Arry, now 90 years old but there to greet me and pay very close attention all through the subsequent tasting.

d’Arenberg is also nearing the end of construction of its new visitor facility known widely as ‘The Cube’. The architects have designed it as a giant Rubik’s Cube, the centre layer at 45° to the top and bottom layers. It’s a grandiose project, but then Chester is full of those.

grenache-bottlesI was here to meet a group of winemakers who are focusing on Grenache. Grenache makes up only around 8% of total red plantings in McLaren Vale (which is planted 80/20 in favour of red varieties overall), most of it very old, dry-grown bush vines. Chester explains: “Temperatures in McLaren Vale are similar to Châteauneuf-du-Pape in the southern Rhône, but you have to work Grenache hard – don’t give it what it wants, and keep the yields low.” With a nod of approval from dad d’Arry, He continues, “There’s such an ancient tradition of Grenache in the area that there’s a compulsion to keep the story going. But we want to make it in a medium-bodied style, being careful about how we age it in oak – if we use oak at all.”

Other producers on the small panel agree. Angove are currently planting more Grenache as unirrigated bush vines, and say “There’s lots of talk about Pinot-esque, lighter tannin versions, so there is the possibility of making so many different styles.” And, adds Chester, “It has a natural perfume of musk and florals. The variety has been under-promoted and never showcased as it should be in Australia.”

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Two famous Riesling terroirs, the Clare and Eden Valleys, both lie in South Australia. I suspect that many consumers make no clear distinction between the two, and yet in many respects they are quite different. As can be seen in the map, Eden Valley is basically a sub-zone of the Barossa, lying around one hour’s driving south of Clare. Temperatures here are 2ºC to 3ºC cooler on average, but both enjoy cool nights and long hang-times allowing grapes to ripen slowly.

Those cool nights are thanks to elevation, because both regions are not ‘valleys’ at all, but elevated plateaus and hilly terrains, where the prime vineyards lie at or around 500 to 600 metres above sea level. That is vital in making these such excellent Riesling terroirs, the variety having long ago given way to Chardonnay and other varieties in hotter parts of the country. Both are ‘cool’ by Australian standards (if not by German or Austrian).

Sited 130 kilometres north of Adelaide, the vineyards of the Clare Valley lie at between 400 and 600 metres altitude. Soils vary greatly, the most famous appellation, Polish Hill, is on slate (as is much of the eastern  side of the Valley), whilst Watervale is on limestone. Clare wines retain lots of nervous energy and tension, but can be a little more exuberant than those from Eden Valley, some displaying tropical fruit notes. In the south-east corner of Barossa, further from the moderating influence of the ocean, Eden Valley wines tend to be a little more restrained, edged with citrus and floral character, but also a chalky mineral quality.

Wines from both regions can age remarkably well, developing honey, toast, sometimes paraffin aromas, and seeming to gain a little weight and texture over the years.

I was hosted at a comparative tasting and food-matching dinner by the winemakers of Clare and Eden Valleys, represented by ‘KT’ (right) the eponymous Kerri Thompson of Wines By KT in the Clare Valley, and Helen McCarthy (below), winemaker at Mountadam Vineyards of Eden Valley.

The chance to compare each region side by side did, generally, prove that the distinctions listed above do exist, but also demonstrated that specific terroirs within each region, and of course specific approaches taken by winemakers, can blur the boundaries of these superb, thrilling Riesling wines. The food matching spanned everything from caramelised pork belly (matched to mature wines) to roasted barramundi with slightly younger wines, showing real versatility.


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Go to: Part IV – Victoria: Yarra, Mornington and Geelong


  1. Good stuff Tom. Going to Australia is an annual – and necessary – pilgrimage for us and we spend most of our time around Adelaide, so the features on Barossa, Clare, Adelaide Hills and especially McLaren Vale brought back happy memories of our many visits to the vineyards there. Coriole and D’Arenberg are places we have returned to – and we were treated to a lovely lunch at the Star of Greece for our 40th anniversary a few years ago – it was good to hear you enjoyed it too.

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