Scarce Earth: McLaren Vale gets dirtier
McLaren Vale, like all other Australian wine regions, has no ‘cru’ classification. It has no classed growths, no ‘special sites’ and, indeed, no vineyard hierachy system of any kind. Heck, it doesn’t even have any subregions. What it does have, however, is terroir, and with the Scarce Earth project the region has an attempt to highlight just how complex and heterogeneous it really is.
What is the Scarce Earth project then? It is an attempt to identify the best sites to grow Shiraz in the Vale, an initiative that takes wine from specific single blocks all across the region and brings them together in what winemaker Michael Fragos, curly haired dynamo from Chapel Hill, describes as a ‘celebration of Shiraz’ – designed to ‘showcase complex subtle parcels that might get lost’.
The origin of this celebration was actually a chat between local grower/producers Adrian Kenny and Dudley Brown, with the pair exploring the very meaning of life whilst installing 40kms of dripper lines in a new vineyard. In amongst the life changing revelations (explored over umpteenth metres of hole digging), what the pair decided was that McLaren Vale had a quality blindspot in its midst – that the whole region was failing to really identify and celebrate its best sites.
How exactly to solve this dilemma though is tricky. How do you identify and lift the best sites whilst avoiding the creation of yet another wine show?
The answer was (theoretically at least) simple – invite any grower/producer with a ‘discreet block’ of (at least 10yr old) Shiraz vines to make a (100% Shiraz) wine from that block, with these wines then all grouped together according to the particular geology of the site from which they were drawn, largely in a bid to single out what impact such geologies may have on the final wine.
To further ensure that these wines are as ‘representative’ of their site as possible, the makers are also encouraged to use older oak (to minimise oak influences), pick grapes ripe – but not overripe – and generally build the wines to showcase fruit (and thus site). Indeed even minor wine faults are generally ignored if the wine is judged as ‘representative’.
Speaking of representative, what actually drove this forward from a slightly simplistic ‘best sites’ concept (a concept initially called ‘Rare Earth’) into a McLaren Vale regional Shiraz ‘celebration’ was the development of the McLaren Vale Geology map, a wine industry project developed after Scarce (nee Rare) Earth was first conceptualised, with the map designed to be not only the backbone of the project, but also an invaluable resource for local vignerons.
|Chester Osborn in classic Vale attire|
Unsurprisingly, it was Dudley Brown who was involved in driving the development of the map too, working with SA wine writer Philip White; local geologist Jeff Olliver; ex local geologist Bill Fairburn (who first drew the outline of this map back in the 80s and 90s) and ex MVGWTA Chairman Jock Harvey to get the map redrawn and updated.
What the geology map, when completed in 2010, provides to the Vale is a scientific context, a set of reference points by which the classification could be based, a literal guide to establishing similar sites and building up profiles, whilst also mapping out the potential sub-regions along the way.
Perhaps most intriguingly, the map also went on to become something of a best-seller too (with over 10,000 copies sold) and is recognised as the most detailed geology map of any wine region in the world. Needless to say it was also the final catalyst required to bring the Scarce Earth project into being.
Following the release of the map, it was 2011 when the Scarce Earth project getting the green light. The call went out to McLaren Vale growers for single block Shiraz from the 2009 vintage, and duly quite a number of samples came in, sometimes from growers, sometimes producers, always finished wines. These wines were then tasted by a panel of three local vignerons (which this year included Drew Noon MW, Chester Osborn and Michael Fragos, though the panel will revolve over time) a wine media person (Louise Radman) and an MW (David Le Mire MW). The panel thus assessed the wines for suitablity and expression of site, with 4 votes from the panel required for a wine to pass.
The net result for that initial 2011 intake (drawn from the 2009 vintage) was some 20 different single vineyard Shiraz, all of which were then released on May 1st at McLaren Vale winery cellar doors exclusively before being made available to the wider trade 3 months later.
Of course given that the average make was less than 500 dozen – and quality was so high – many of these special Scarce Earth wines were long gone before the 3 months were up, further adding to the project’s reputation.
In this 2012 release then (of 2010 vintage Shiraz) the number of wines to pass the panel rose to 28, with another 15 rejected largely due to excesses of oak character, proving that the project is becoming more popular whilst controls remain tight.
Happily, the makeup of the 2012 wines is various too, drawn from larger producers such as d’Arenberg, Serafino and Wirra Wirra, right down to the smallest parcel which weighed in at just 396 bottles (the Cradle of Hills Row 23 Shiraz 2010).
|Geoff Olliver (front) and Drew Noon MW looking at McLaren Vale maps|
Looking at the wines as a collective group it is obvious that Scarce Earth, in its latest iteration, isn’t just a clever marketing exercise. Far from it. Instead, it presents as an attempt to delineate different terroirs and to pick out what influence latent geology might have on wine styles. Indeed the ‘great sites’ notion hasn’t even been fully explored yet, the project again more of a showcase rather than a pure attempt at findings ‘crus’ (for now).
The only challenge (actually, there are a few challenges) of this approach is that it is prone to politics. Naturally the tasting is blind, but with local producers both entering and on the panel, there are conflicts of interest vis-a-vis at style. Further, the question has to be raised about whether and what direction (if it ever comes into being) we’ll see this classification system head. There is much hope of course, but any sort of process is fraught with danger (hello St Emilion Grand Cru).
On a more personal note, I’ve got to confess how much enthusiasm I have for the scope of this project (and particularly the geology map). Unsurprising perhaps given that my original undergraduate degree contained than a little geology (I’m a frustrated weather nerd too) but also because the ‘terroir, terroir, terroir’ dictum being followed – and the degree to which the local wine community are embracing it – is heartening indeed.
Just to stoke my interest, at the media launch of the 2012 Scarce Earth project I had the good fortune of spending a few hours with geologist Jeff Olliver, wandering around the Vale looking at rock formations (which was intriguing), encountering further good luck by being sat next to noted scientist (and genuinely great guy) Drew Noon MW.
What this geological excursion offered was a particular insight into Vale dirt (including just how much limestone is in the region, amongst other things) from Olliver with a further vine and wine context added by Noon (such as this great quote about the wines produced from the warmer, Willunga half of the Vale ‘you can really taste the sun in those southern Willunga vineyards’).
As for the wines? Well, the standard was high. Very high. I scored the wines (which were served blind) wine-show hard and still came away impressed. Buy with confidence. The cream of a top vintage for McLaren Vale reds.
A further note:
Supporting the project, or, more correctly, another project that the Vale is also working on, is known as ‘McLaren Sustainable Winegrowing’ and is, to put it simply, a voluntary assessment program for vineyards so they can judge just how sustainable their practices are.
Now I don’t want to bore you with the details (you may not be bored by them. I wasn’t. You can read them here) but the main principle of this program (which is 2-3 years in now) is to encourage widespread ‘triple-bottom-line’ reporting (also known as 3BL reporting) within a regional context. In this fashion, growers are provided with a set of ‘considerations’ for not only economic but also environmental and social factors.
The intention, from what I can see, is to let the program eventually help to set standards for what is expected from a ‘best practice’ McLaren Vale vineyard. That doesn’t necessarily mean biodynamics or even organics, but instead a recognition of how chemical usage can be minimised, how the local community can be related to, how the vineyard workers can be treated… it is something of a holistic project really.
|McLaren Vale looking picturesque (and warm).|
If all that sounds like some sort of Steiner-esque hippy speak, then bear this in mind: In 2010/11 some 20% of the acreage under vine was effectively part of the project, even though there was no discernible benefits for said vineyards to be a part of the program. In fact, the working group pushing the ‘McLaren Vale Sustainable Winegrowing Australia’ (MVSWGA) scheme along consists principally of some 20 growers (led by forward thinking viticulturists/growers/producers like James Hook).
Whilst this program is, like Scarce Earth, still in its infancy, the intention eventually is to actually incentivise such a scheme by making it a compulsory component that must be ticked off for entry into the McLaren Vale wine show (just for one hypothetical example).
Again I’m generalising (and possibly getting it all wrong), however you can’t help but appreciate such a project. Sustainability, in all its buzzword glory, is actually a concept that any agricultural based industry (like wine) needs to be across, and programs/schemes/projects like this only help in normalising it.
Anyway, enough rambling about programs, it’s time to actually talk about the wines.
At the aforementioned media release of the program I tasted through all 27 (one wasn’t ready) wines
blind in smallish flights of 7 or 8 wines, with wines roughly matched up according to their relative geologies. We were encouraged to thus compare and contrast within/across geologies to attempt to extrapolate influences.
What was noted most particularly (by Drew Noon MW) was that for all of the geology talk, it must be remembered that there can be 2-3C+ difference in daily maximum temps between the southern end of the Vale (down Willunga way) right up to the higher northern end (in Clarendon) and this has as much an influence as anything.
Regardless, it was ultimately apparent that there was differences, joyous differences, between geologies, even if some of the minute variations were obscured by handling of the wine.
Perhaps most interesting for me was the potential sub-regional differences, to look at the contrasts between the wines from the districts, between wines on the heavier, richer soils in the warmer southern part of the Vale (circa Aldinga and surrounds) which looked the least fresh and most baked (though with some standouts), compared to some in the sands of Blewitt Springs, which had a certain Grenache-esque confection and high tones (that could be either very attractive or plain jubey) and to finally compare them to the slightly minty edges of the Clarendon sourced, ‘almost Adelaide Hills’ wines.
Finally then, the wines! Again note I scored wine-show hard. You could easily bump up many of these scores methinks. I’m happy with them (the scores) however considering the context. These notes too are completely as written on the day, with no editing to speak of – I prefer it that way.
As for the structure of the notes I’ve put the block address in italics along with the numbers of the region – which correspond to the proposed districts in the district map, a map which is worth a look in itself. Download it – definitely don’t look at it just online – on a big piece of paper.
|A pack of Scarce Earthers.|
1. Cradle of Hills ‘Row 23’ Shiraz 2010
‘Block 1’ – 76 Rogers Rd, Sellicks Hill. $55. 396 bottles produced. Region 1.
Open plum purple fruit. Quite floral plum essence. Chocolatey palate
has fine grained tannins. Quite a fine open style with good balance.
Graceful for the Vale. Licoricey. Showing Its oak on the second taste
but good. 18/93
2. Waywood Wines ‘Reserve’ Shiraz 2010
‘Smith Block’ – Lot 3128 Rogers Rd, Sellicks Hill. $45. 700 bottles produced. Region 1.
Slightly more closed, more pepper, less opulence. Some extra
caramelised ripeness on the nose, but quite a deal of
concentration on the palate, real purple fruit dryness to the back end.
Closed and serious tannins. 17/90++
3. Shirvington ‘The Redwind’ Shiraz 2010
‘Redwind Vineyard Blocks 6 and 9’ – 28 Bayliss Rd, Whites Valley (Willunga). $85. 450 bottles produced. Region 2.
Real mulberry nose on this, inkier but also oakier too. Shows its ripeness with heft, but still great concentration. 17.8/92
4. Battle of Bosworth ‘Chanticleer’ Single Vineyard Shiraz 2010
‘Chanticleer’ – Stout Rd, Willunga. $50. 396 bottles produced. Region 3.
A little simple after the previous wines with a shortness on the
palate in comparison. Pleasant but mono dimensional in context, that one
dimension carrying through the finish. 17.5/91
5. Halifax Wines ‘Per Se Block’ Shiraz 2010
‘Per Se Block’ – 190 Binney Rd, Willunga. $55. 672 bottles produced. Region 3.
Large, glacé fruit nose, dried plums. Big florals though too, lift
and violets. Expressive. Expressive palate too, if more fruit bomb
lusciousness. Definitely the most bold fruited wine of the bracket,
lighter tannins. Ripe. Seductive. 17.9/92
6. Hugh Hamilton ‘Black Blood II’ Shiraz 2010
‘Original Church Block’ – McMurtrie Rd, McLaren Vale. $50. 2100 bottles produced. Region 3.
Choc berry nose. Really quite classic Vale. Again the mulberry
expression yet seems more balanced in this vein. Impressive red fruit
restraint and real pure tannins. A standout. 18.8/95
7. Battle of Bosworth ‘Bradens’ Single Vineyard Shiraz 2010
‘Bradens’ – Main Rdm Willunga. $50. 804 bottles produced. Region 3.
Real obvious wood on this – sawdust oak. The palate too is grainy but
tight, underneath that oak is definitely stylish. Will it come out?
Should do. 17.8/92+
All bigger, riper wines. Blacker in colour too
8. Vigna Bottin Wines Shiraz 2010
Lot 2 Plains Rd, Sellicks Hill. $30. 840 bottles produced. Region 4.
Some sulphur on the nose of this one. Bacon fatty, alcoholic and dulled palate. Ordinary. 15.5/84
9. Hugh Hamilton ‘Black Blood I’ Shiraz 2010
‘Cellar Block’ – McMurtrie Rd, McLaren Vale. $50. 1500 bottles produced. Region 5.
Borderline overripe strained Licorice nose. Raisined black fruit with drying tannins. Desiccated finish + alcohol max. 16.5/88
10. Shingleback ‘Unedited’ Shiraz 2010
‘The Davey Estate Block’ – 377 Little Rd, Willunga. $75. 1900 bottles produced. Region 5.
Much more composed. Again thick tarry fruit, glacé purple fruit but
tarry and concentrated. Short and thick palate with awkward acidity.
Commercial appeal but little else. 16/87
11. Vinrock Wines ‘Vinrock’ Shiraz 2010
‘Block 8’ – Malpas/Bayliss Rds, Willunga. $40. 732 bottles produced. Region 5.
More vanilla sweet oak on this one, more compusure too. Graphite
black richness. Tarry and seriously alcoholic with warmth and a certain
hollowness through the finish. More composed but still a way off best.
12. Dowie Doole ‘Reserve’ Shiraz 2010
’74 Block’ – California Rd, Tatachilla. $45. 800 bottles produced. Region 6.
Cocoa spice with more oak but reasonably integrated. Nice sweet
berry fruit underneath if just a little simple. Has genuine appeal
though. More balance here in the context. Nice wine really. 17.8/92+
13. Kangarilla Rd ‘Scarce Earth Project’ Shiraz 2010
‘Kildare’ – 7 Tuitt Rd, Maslins Beach. $50. 1800 bottles produced. Region 7.
Open ripe straight plum fruit nose. Bacon fat forceful warm
ripeness. Huge palate of super ripe fruit though not necessarily OTT.
Still a little bold and even bretty. I found appeal of that stinky meaty
bacon fat but can understand the turnoff. 17.9/92
14. Chapel Hill ‘The Chosen Road Block’ Shiraz 2010
‘Road Block’ – 1 Chapel Hill Rd, McLaren Vale. $65. 3480 bottles produced. Region 9
Sweet purple Licorice straightforward richness. In the context of
the style its ok but there is some caramelised hardness and weird
sweetened fruit on the palate. 16.5/88+
15. Chapel Hill ‘The Chosen House Block’ Shiraz 2010
‘House Block’ – 1 Chapel Hill Rd, McLaren Vale. $65. 2298 bottles produced. Region 9
Super concentrated but also quite composed. Looks tight and dark and
rich. Like the tannins and a sense of lightness. Great tannins and long
tannins. Prefer the tannins markedly on this one. Nice wine. 18.7/95
|Top wine and impressive packaging from Wirra Wirra|
16. Angove Family Winemakers ‘Warboys Vineyard’ Shiraz 2010
‘North West 3’ – Crnr Chalk Hill and Oliver Rd, McLaren Vale. $35. 3186 bottles produced. Region 10.
Super ripe sort of berried nose. Showing some Chocolatey oak too.
Rather sweet and generous nose leads to sweet and generous palate. Not a
whole lot of concentration of tannins but certainly much generous
pleasure. Lots more red fruit here. Nice wine in the generous style.
17. d’Arenberg ‘The Shipster’s Rapture’ Shiraz 2010
‘OSB(6F)’ – Osborn Rd, McLaren Vale. $99. 3000 bottles produced. Region 10.
Slightly stinky nose, a bit reductive. Reductive palate too with the
barest hint of raisining. Waiting for something to happen really. 16
18. Serafino ‘Terromoto’ Syrah 2010
‘Rivers Lane’ – Caffrey St, McLaren Vale. $110. 6600 bottles produced. Region 10.
Big languid berry nose with volatiles and alcohol to burn. A
fraction skinny perhaps? Intriguing sort of palate has this dark
Licoricey berry edge to it and v.impressive length. 18.3/93
19. Geoff Merrill Wines ‘Reserve’ Shiraz 2010
‘Rogers Shiraz’ – Mt Bold Estate, Mt Bold Rd, Kangarilla. $85. 400 bottles produced. Region 12.
Open and bright, confected nose. Confected palate too is just a bit
simple for higher marks. Nice simple flavours though but it’s skinny.
20. d’Arenberg ‘Blind Tiger’ Shiraz 2010
‘BAMBOOS1’ – Whiting Rd, Blewitt Springs. $99. 3000 bottles produced. Region 12.
Hot sort of black fruit nose, bitumen and more than a little animal
to it. Ferrous as hell. Like that nose, like that long and animal palate
too, even of its just a bit warm. Lots of wild sort of stinky joy. Like
this muchly but gee it’s odd. Ferrous as hell. A bit desiccated. Has
some intrigue. 18/93
21. Hastwell and Lightfoot ‘Scarce Earth’ Shiraz 2010
‘Western Block’ – Lot 3, Section 507, Foggo Rd, Mclaren Vale. $28. 1400 bottles produced. Region 12.
Black jelly bean and black fruit. Skittish palate with more black
fruit and a real smoky wildness to it. A little too much wild and not
enough punch. A bit mono dimensional. (on the sands). 16.8/89
22. Wirra Wirra Vineyards ‘Patritti Single Vineyard’ Shiraz 2010
‘Patritti Block’ – Whiting Rd, Blewitt Springs. $132. 700 bottles produced. Region 12.
Big and bold and smoky. I like the black kick Licorice choc berry
nature to this it’s quite open but pretty I find it quite contained but
certainly nice lines. Certainly plenty of polish through the finish too.
23. Primo Estate Wines ‘JOSEPH Angel Gully’ Shiraz 2010
‘Primo Estate Clarendon Angel Gully’ – Cnr Angel Gully Rd and Chalk Hill Rd Clarendon. $75. 4200 bottles produced. Region 14.
Just a little raisining on the nose with stressed fruit edges along
with mulberry fruit. Palate is generous and mulberried but also minty. Raised acidity. Great freshness here. Real vibrancy. 17
24. Rowley Management Pty Ltd ‘Fork in the Road’ Shiraz 2010
‘Old Oval Estate’ – 18 Sand Rd, McLaren Vale. $15. 576 bottles produced. Region 16.
Quite lush charcoal etched nose. Very lush and juicy palate. Very
lush choc berry fruit if quite an alcoholic sort of a beast. Sweet and
Chocolatey and open but also lots of commercial appeal. Pleasant+.
25. Sabella Vineyards ‘J Pertucci & Son’ Shiraz 2010
‘Oliver Block’ – 115 McMurtrie Rd, McLaren Vale. $25. 768 bottles produced. Region 16.
Lovely open knit nose. Real essence of Shiraz stuff. Buzzy raspberry
cola palate looks a bit too fruit bomb-esque for big points. Blackberry
juice with a warm finish. A more savoury palate would have won me over
26. d’Arenberg ‘The Garden of Extraordinary Delights’ Shiraz 2010
‘WILCADS1’ – Douglass Gully Rd, McLaren Flat. $99. 2500 bottles produced. Region 17.
Sweetly alcoholic nose. Red fruit ahoy. Linear and super savoury
unusual palate. An odd, lighter styled wine. Lots of acidity. 17.3/90+
27. Penny’s Hill ‘Footprint’ Shiraz 2010
‘Penny’s Hill’ – 41 Penny’s Hill Rd, McLaren Vale. $60. 3600 bottles produced. Region 18.
Big minty flavours. Lots on the palate. Leafy and stemmy? Nice
structure underneath though. Over and underripe. Rich but sour. May
improve with time . 17/90+
(Missing – not bottled. Brash Higgins ‘SZH’ Shiraz 2010).
I travelled to McLaren Vale as a guest of McLaren Grape Wine & Tourism.