McLaren Vale

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View towards Mount Lofty from Sellicks Hill.

McLaren Vale is a wine region approximately 35 km south of Adelaide in South Australia. It has a population of about 2,000 and is internationally renowned for the wines it produces. The region was named after either David McLaren, the Colonial Manager of the South Australia Company or John McLaren (unrelated) who surveyed the area in 1839. Among the very first settlers to the region in late 1839, were two English farmers from Devon, William Colton and Charles Thomas Hewett. William Colton established the 'Daringa Farm' and Charles Thomas Hewett established 'Oxenberry Farm'. Both men would be very prominent in the very early days of McLaren Vale.

Although initially the region's main economic activity was the growing of cereal crops, John Reynell and Thomas Hardy planted grape vines in 1838 and the present-day Seaview and Hardy wineries were in operation as early as 1850. Grapes were first planted in the region in 1838 and some vines more than 100 years old are still producing. Today there are more than 88 cellar doors in McLaren Vale. The majority are small family-run operations and boutique wineries.

Climate and geography[edit]

McLaren Vale has a Mediterranean climate with four clear seasons. With a dry warm Summer, the area has dry weather from December through to March or April, giving an easy change between summer and winter. It is gentle with long warm days and short cool nights. Winter rains of 580-700  mm per annum flow into a fresh spring. The region rarely experiences frost or drought due to its close proximity to the sea. The region is bounded to the south by the Sellicks Hill Range and to the west by the waters of Gulf St Vincent. It extends east to the historic town of Clarendon and the area around the Mount Bold Reservoir. To the north it reaches to Reynella, named after the first winemaker in the area John Reynell.

Wines[edit]

Notable for producing Shiraz, the grape is by far the most important variety for the region, accounting for about 50% of the total crush. The area's thin soils, limited water, and warm summers harness Shiraz’s natural vigor and produce intense flavored fruit, and wine with a deep purple color that can last decades in the bottle. McLaren Vale wines are distinguished by their ripeness, elegance, structure, power and complexity. McLaren Vale has 3,218 hectares of Shiraz under vine. Other major varieties include Cabernet Sauvignon with 1,288 ha planted, Chardonnay with 722 ha planted and Grenache with 402 ha- much of this dry-grown (non-irrigated) bush vines. (Statistics taken from the Phylloxera and Grape Industry Board’s vineyard register as of May 2005.)

  • Shiraz is harvested from late February to early April. McLaren Vale Shiraz displays pronounced berry and spice characters with some dark chocolate and liquorice, while Shiraz from cooler sub-regions exhibits defined ripe raspberry characters. McLaren Vale Shiraz is renowned for its great softness and rolling palate. Many winemakers in McLaren Vale choose to blend their final Shiraz from a variety of sub-regions to add complexity. McLaren Vale naturally produces Shiraz that has very small berries. Smaller berries have a higher skin to pulp ratio. Berry skin contains flavanols (Anti-sunburn in grapes, 'flavour' in wine), Anthocyanins (colour) and other complex molecules that add to wine complexity. Grape pulp contains sugar and water. Therefore the more skin to less pulp the more complex the finished wine. Small berries make more intense Shiraz wine. Within McLaren Vale and its subregions there is a diversity of soil types, clones and winemaking philosophies, which has led to a huge range of Shiraz wine styles being produced. Most winemakers produce at least one Shiraz wine
  • Cabernet Sauvignon is harvested in late March. Less famous than McLaren Vale Shiraz, but equally enchanting, Cabernet Sauvignon from McLaren Vale continues to display the rich ripe characters that typify wines from this region. Violet and blackcurrant flavours, vibrant plum, mint and edges of liquorice and a touch of McLaren Vale’s trademark dark chocolate character are common.
  • Grenache is harvested in late April. It is the ancient type of vine widely planted in France and Spain. It is the backbone of many of the worlds red and fortified wines. Grenache vines were removed from McLaren Vale in the 1980s when demand for fortified wines fell. Since the late 1990s Grenache has been enjoying a resurgence of popularity as table wine. The soils of McLaren Vale are particularly suited to this variety. However in wet years it can be difficult to grow well as it can produce big bunches of grapes which make a less concentrated wine. In the best vintages Grenache displays nuances of plum, mulberry and tobacco leaf, spice and mint characters with earthy overtones.
  • Chardonnay is harvested in mid March. This is the major white variety of McLaren Vale. The most pronounced and distinctive feature is ripe peaches, with the wine from cooler sites displaying white peach. These wines maintain elegance and generally have long cellaring potential. Some McLaren Vale Chardonnay also features ripe melon, banana, fig and cashew nut flavours – rich and generous with pure elegance.
  • Sauvignon blanc is harvested in early March. Sauvignon blanc from McLaren Vale has distinctive varietal characters of tropical fruit, green olives and asparagus, and a full-flavored palate with a clean, fresh acid finish. Sauvignon blanc grown in McLaren Vale reaches relatively high sugar levels compared with other wine regions growing this variety. The variety shows herbaceous, gooseberry, passion fruit and lychee aromas.
  • Petit Verdot is one of Bordeaux’s classic red grape varieties. It is a very thick-skinned grape that produces a wine of considerable depth, peppery, spicy and fragrant. Geoff Johnston of Pirramimma planted the first Australian plot at McLaren Vale in 1983 and it is only now that this wine is being recognized elsewhere. Demand for cuttings of this variety has expanded rapidly and more wines will be presented to the market in the future. Petit Verdot grapes produce wine that has the color intensity and spice of Shiraz, but with added fragrance of violets, which makes the nose very attractive.
  • Sangiovese is an Italian variety that does well in low fertility soils and a warm dry climate. It is slow to ripen and produces wine high in acid and tannin. The wine is deep in colour and aroma, and good for long cellaring. Sangiovese is harvested in McLaren Vale in late March early April.
  • Tempranillo is a Spanish variety that produces a red wine that matures quickly and can be ready for drinking in the year of vintage. In Spain Tempranillo is one of the most popular reds and when blended with Carignan it makes the best red wine of the Rioja region.
  • Verdelho is a Portuguese white wine variety that likes low vigour soils and a warm dry climate, Verdelho has been around for some time and is enjoying an increase in popularity. It produces wines that are vivacious, fruit salad-like, dry, and best when drunk young and fresh.
  • Viognier is an exotic variety introduced from France where the best wines are produced in the Condrieu region. This variety exhibits exotic aromas of apricot and musk, and light oak and malolactic character; with rose, nectarine and white peach, McLaren Vale Viognier is spicy and complex with a huge spectrum of flavours.
  • Zinfandel is a thin-skinned grape that needs dry conditions to avoid rotting. Bunches ripen unevenly, requiring careful picking to ensure the true character is available to be further developed by the winemaker. Zinfandel is spicy in character without being particularly heavy.

Soil characteristics[edit]

The McLaren district has many different soil types and this contributes to the wines from the area having different terroir. The vineyards are planted on soils including fertile red-brown earths, terra rossa, rendzina, soft sands and dark cracking clays.

Each of these soil types contributes to the rich diversity of wine produced by the winemakers of the region. Overall the soils have one common trait; they are free draining which means they hold very little water. This is, in fact, an advantage, as it allows the accurate control of moisture to the vines through the use of state-of-the-art drip irrigation. Because of reliable winter rain, irrigation can be kept to low levels and manipulated to achieve the production of superior fruit.

Some soil types allow grapes to be dry-grown. Approximately 20% of the total crop is dry-grown. These dry-grown vines are renowned for small fruit size, which is sought after for the intensity of its flavour.

Most vineyards are found on gently undulating land at about 100 m above sea level. In the foothills of the Mount Lofty Ranges to the east, where there is a scattering of vineyards, elevation rises to 320 m. In the north around Blewitt Springs elevation is around 200 m. These variations in elevation have a significant impact on the terroir and fruit produced in the vineyards.

Subregions[edit]

  • Blewitt Springs-Named after the township of Blewitt Springs this sub-region is the furthest from the sea and has the highest altitude, most rain and coolest winters. Blewitt Springs is characterised by deep sandy soils which, in average years, result in even, gradual ripening producing wines that are fleshy, lifted and fruity, with good colour and rich soft tannins. In wet years the vines are more highly cropped and result in slightly lighter style wines.
  • McLaren Vale-The township of McLaren Vale is the traditional home of grapegrowing and winemaking in the district. Many of the vineyards of the early pioneers were situated where the town itself now stands. Several historic wineries are located in the main street itself including Tatachilla and Thomas Hardy's Tintara. Many of the roads in the town are named after the original winemaking families. The town is nestled between two rows of low hills consisting of ironstone and chalky rock with a thin covering of clay loam. This provides good drainage. The soil is rich in calcium and is slightly alkaline where the soil meets the parent rock. Vineyards on the hill tops are world famous for Shiraz, which produce a very concentrated flavour and colour. The low hills catch the afternoon summer sunshine, ripening the fruit without fail. The thin soil has the ideal balance for the normally vigorous Shiraz, taming it and pushing every last drop of energy into the fruit.
  • Seaview-Heading north from the main street of McLaren Vale are roads travelled by generations of farmers. They lead to a line of steep hills. This sub-region is known as Seaview. The soils in this region are highly variable from red earth clay on limestone to sand on marly limestone to grey loam on clay. The common factor is the thin layer of topsoil, which is among the poorest in the region resulting frequently in low yields and low vigour. Hill tops in the Seaview sub-region experience warm nights and cool afternoon sea breezes while valleys experience cold air drainage off the range as it flows towards the sea at night. Vines on the hilltops generally ripen early and produce peppery spicy bold wines, while vines in the valleys ripen considerably later producing wines with bold ripe dark plum characters. Shiraz and Grenache are excellent with many of the top producers basing their wines around exclusive parcels of Seaview fruit.
  • McLaren Flat-As the name suggests, McLaren Flat is the sprawling flat land to the east of the town of McLaren Vale. The area has more clay above the subsoil than McLaren Vale, however there are some patches of sand similar to that found in Blewitt Springs. McLaren Flat is home to the best white wine Chardonnay in the area. The ‘gully wind’ flows down from the high hills further to the east even on the hottest nights helping to cool the fruit. This suits delicate Chardonnay to a tee, holding acid in the fruit while the region’s abundant sunshine gives the fruit its full flavor. The night breezes also cool Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz grown in McLaren Flat giving them a specific character.
  • Willunga-South from the township of McLaren Vale is the historic township of Willunga. The ancient hills of the Willunga escarpment flatten to a gentle rolling landscape heading toward the sea. This area is known as the Willunga Plains. The soils in this area are Gilgai or grey clay over limestone with pockets of red earth on limestone. The cold air drains across the flats to the sea, resulting in wines that are consistently good with herbaceous characters and Cabernet like tannins in Shiraz. Chardonnay, Viognier and Sauvignon blanc are also made.
  • Sellicks Foothills-Sellicks is farthest point south of the region directly overlooking the ocean beaches. The foothills extend the length of the base of the Southern Mount Lofty Ranges. The strip of soil here, mostly red loam, has been eroded from the ranges. It is thin soil and conducive to small grape crops. The higher the vineyard on the hills the thinner the soil and the harder the vines have to work to produce their crop. During summer strong gully breezes blast the vines at night. These high winds cause the fruit that remains to produce very intense wines. The vineyards further north do not experience the warming effect from the sea and because of this tend to have a later ripening period with many vineyards producing wine similar to Willunga which the area borders.

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