A walk through McLaren Vale

McLaren Vale might not be known for delicate varieties like albarino or viognier but it's certainly giving them its best shot, and more besides

Australian winemaker Mike Brown, from Gemtree in McLaren Vale, staged a press tasting in Dublin recently, to show the diversity of wines now being produced by himself and his neighbours in this famous region.

McLaren Vale can be a warm dry place, where water shortage is a real problem, but there are hill sites where cooler wine styles can be produced. Also, the region is not far from the sea and many vineyards benefit from moderating ocean breezes. To prove this point, Brown offered a crisp white made from albarino, an aromatic Spanish grape not noted for prospering in very hot situations.

“A bit experimental,” he explained, the grapes having been head grafted onto some poorly performing cabernet vines, but not bad. Not perhaps as robustly aromatic as a Spanish version but tasty, with a firm citrus kick. According to Brown, the wine is one of a range of new styles that we can expect from McLaren Vale over the next few years.

“We are known for shiraz and that won’t really change,” he said, “but we have a variety of microclimates and we can do a lot of different things, which is why we have started growing things like sangiovese and tempranillo and experimenting more with southern French varieties, including whites.”

Viognier is the most prized white variety of the French Rhone Valley but McLaren Vale’s D’Arenberg estate (Taserra) can give those pricey Condrieu wines a run for their money. Its Hermit Crab Viognier 2007 is a €15 bottling which has lush aromas of yellow flowers and fruit which carry onto the palate, where the ripe tropical fruit is nicely balanced by a fresh acidity. Another surprise was Mitolo Jester Sangiovese Rose 2008 (Liberty); zesty raspberry and strawberry fruit gave it some Italian style but at just over €17 it may just find the market for this category a little competitive. Well made stuff, though.

Despite the experiments, when it comes to McLaren, it’s hard to turn away from the rich, classic reds which are a byword for the region. However, tasting through the line of bottles, we quickly became aware that cooler, more elegant styles sit happily beside the brawnier shiraz bottlings. One of these was Wirra Wirra Church Block 2006 (Straffan), which had a noticeable green streak beneath its nicely integrated plum and blackcurrant fruits. A blend of cabernet with shiraz and merlot, this is very good value at €20.

A special treat is Geoff Merrill Reserve Shiraz 2002 (Comans) which is drinking beautifully now, with vanilla coated plummy aromas and a spicy, berry flavoured palate. Despite the spice, there’s good balancing acidity and though the wine is at peak now, it will hold for several years. Also with a bit of hold-ability is Gemtree Obsidian Shiraz 2005, with its lovely leathery elements appearing on nose and palate.

Both the Merrill and Gemtree shiraz are over €30 but if you want a simpler, good value bottling for a weekend dinner, you could do a lot worse than Hardys Oomoo Shiraz 2006; this clean, juicy wine, with its plum and berry flavours, would be perfect with Sunday roast or meat pies.

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