Shake things up (McLaren Vale, South Australia – 11/04/2013)

No other region in South Australia does wine marketing better than the McLaren Vale. They have been producing quality wine there longer than any other region in the country and this has been well communicated all over the world.  There are great soils, a stable climate and sufficient old-vine material to make a European blush. Brands cover the whole gamut; iconic, commercial, boutique and cult. Their wine tourism is some of the most sophisticated I have seen, not to mention diverse in terms of cellar door offerings. Yet when I first visited in early 2011 as a trade guest I left as underwhelmed as I had already been. In some ways this is because I felt that not only were they focusing on varieties that are so common in Australia and the world, but they were also producing them in an outdated and inelegant way. These are not wines that excite me, nor are they particularly exciting younger consumers who crave difference, particularly from wines their parents drank. The thing that did excite me was the number of producers starting to work with alternative varieties, experimenting and diversifying to find different expressions and compliments to the environment. A shame that so little emphasis was placed on this on our program. For this reason I was interested in returning to visit some producers who are focusing on new vines and wines in a somewhat stale wine region.

McLaren Vale at its best

McLaren Vale at its best

The Coriole story dates back to 1860 when the original farmhouse on the property were built, but the current owners started the brand back in the 1970s. The original vineyards were planted on the property in a period of growth following the First World War. When the Lloyd family bought the property in the ‘70s the intention was to produce a number of agricultural products, operating in the Italian model of a fattoria. Shiraz was the most important variety in the McLaren Vale for 150 years and also the majority planting on the estate,and thus the first wine produced was made from this variety and labelled claret as many were back then. These old vines were a key to the now iconic status of the Lloyd Shiraz, named after the patriarch of the family who made the first wines. Back in those days the market was for red wines made from shiraz, cabernet sauvignon and merlot, and for white wines from riesling and chardonnay. The Lloyd family have been ahead of the curb for quite some time however, and over time have shifted the focus somewhat.

Coriole farmhouse tasting room

Coriole farmhouse tasting room

Back in the 1980s Australian wine was improving in quality and increasing in volume, perched to launch onto the international market with varietal fruit-driven wines. Much investment was being made, but not a lot of risk or diversification was. What compelled the Lloyd family to make some of the earliest plantings of sangiovese in the country? McLaren Vale was the most important agricultural area that Italian migrants moved to in South Australia, and many of them established their own wine business here. None of these families planted Italian varieties interestingly, sticking with tried and true shiraz, grenache and cabernet. In spite of the Italian-sounding name, Coriole is not and has never been owned by Italians. Yet they planted sangiovese in 1985, and over the years a number of other varieties like barbera, dolcetto and fiano have followed. It’s a good thing they did as demand over the past ten years has increased so much that they are purchasing more fruit from growers, and they have been diversifying further into sagrantino, aglianico and nero d’avola. They are one of the few producers to make a super-premium sangiovese wine, so they are also serious about making exceptional wines from these varieties. Mark and Paul Lloyd aren’t stopping there, as they are moving towards organic dry-farmed viticulture, perfect for these varieties and this climate. Whilst they haven’t stepped away from the classic grapes they are making a much bigger push into uncharted territory than many others, particularly in South Australia. Click here to read my notes on the tasting.

Keeping it real at Coriole

Keeping it real at Coriole

Meeting Justin Lane you get the distinct impression that he is determined to be different. Hi Alpha Box & Dice brand hasn’t been around for long, but it has certainly turned more than a few heads since its inception. In actual fact he has been on somewhat of the maverick’s path for quite a while, and only recently has this become well-known. Originally from the Hunter Valley – the oldest existing wine region in Australia – he had dreams of being a cowboy. He soon gave up that idea when he found out there was no money in it, and started working on the weekends in the cellar door of the McGuigan Brothers. This is where he began to learn about wine through osmosis, whereby wine knowledge and education seeped into every pore on his body. Ending up in South Australia he started to work in the vineyards when they needed a tractor driver, and from here began to work as a “cellar-rat” and “barrel-monkey”. When he began working with a French flying-winemaker with Direct Wines (UK-based), this was when he started to learn much more, and it was effectively the education he would have received from Charles Sturt or Adelaide University. Through Direct Wines he worked vintages in Europe, and also established a commercial wine-making facility in the Redhead Studios of McLaren Vale where he could make wines for Direct. When the owner Tony Laithwaite bought out his shares in the business, he took the opportunity to start his own wine company, and the growers he was sourcing from followed him.

Justin Lane getting not just his hands dirty

Justin Lane getting not just his hands dirty

The Alpha Box & Dice name is certainly the first point of difference. Alpha is a shortening of Alphabet which refers to his use of the letters of the alphabet in place of bin names or numbers, and also his experimental streak of trying lots of different things. Box & Dice a euphemism for everything or complete. Don’t say he doesn’t have his heart and soul invested in this business. His winery is a classic Australian corrugated-iron shed, but it is certainly filled with a lot of interesting things from varying ages and sizes of barrels to some locally made amphorae. The growers he works with not only within but also outside of McLaren Vale provide him with a myriad of things. He gets classic and alternative varieties, he gets old-vine and young vine, he gets cool-warm and warm-hot climate, and each parcel is carefully processed separately. Then the fun part begins, as the majority of wines he produces are blends. Having worked in numerous parts of Europe he has been introduced to a lot of different grapes, but the most important thing he discovered was to trust his palate rather than a laboratory, and to consider texture as much as flavour. As such he is combining varieties that originate from completely different parts of Europe, but may work together here. Once he has decided on a blend and bottled it, it lasts as long as it lasts rather than until the next vintage. Some of the wines are in very small volumes so miss them at your peril. He has also opened a bar in downtown Adelaide where people can kick it old-school by drinking single varietal wines straight from the barrel. Revolutionary. Click here to read my notes from the tasting.

Montepulciano grapes waiting their turn

Montepulciano grapes waiting their turn

Some of the other producers I visited in the McLaren vale were Chapel Hill (tasting notes here), Oliver’s Taranga where Corrina Wright is working with sagrantino and fiano (tasting notes here), and Pertaringa where they are working with the most diverse range of alternative varieties I have seen in the state (tasting notes here). I also visited Amadio wines who have vineyards in the Adelaide Hills, and with their Italian background not only make their own Italian varietal wines, but also sell some of their Italian varietal grapes to other small producers (tasting notes here).

Iconic Australian viticulture

Iconic Australian viticulture

Click here to see more photos from the McLaren Vale.

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