“Sod the wine, I want to suck on the writing. This man White is an instinctive writer, bloody rare to find one who actually pulls it off, as in still gets a meaning across with concision. Sharp arbitrage of speed and risk, closest thing I can think of to Cicero’s ‘motus continuum animi.’

Probably takes a drink or two to connect like that: he literally paints his senses on the page.”

DBC Pierre (Vernon God Little, Ludmila’s Broken English, Lights Out In Wonderland ... Winner: Booker prize; Whitbread prize; Bollinger Wodehouse Everyman prize; James Joyce Award from the Literary & Historical Society of University College Dublin)





05 December 2011



Early Plunge Beats Gun In Vales
Great Idea Not Fully Researched
They'll Get On With It Anyway


Scarce Earth is McLaren Vale’s new project to distinguish local Shiraz wines of a certain quality. It’s been invented and run by the McLaren Vale Grape Wine and Tourism Association, a name and acronym perfectly reflective of this splendid district’s attention to detail in marketing.

To wear the little Scare-serse neck ribbon, wines must be from a single vineyard, and pass the scrutiny of a panel of judges, winemakers and merchants, from near and afar.

While the adoption of an almost unpronounceable name displeased this writer’s sensibility it also provokes questions like: how scarce is Bay of Biscay black cracking clay? McLaren Vale's planted far too much of it to grapes. Should we start counting its vast ponderosas in the Bay of Biscay, the Barossa, or in the Aldinga Basin (known in Casa Blanco as The Wok)?

It’s obviously been a rush job, getting this scheme together. It deserved a little more thought, before it hit the market. Too many snappy local Shiraz wines are not there – they didn’t want to be. All the best of the wines are on the market too early. Given their styles, many are too young, really, to judge, let alone drink. And when I look at some of these prices, I would be expecting another year of careful husbandry by the winemaker before I rave to my readers about them, uncertain of their potential.

Which is not to say they are bad wines.

So how good are they? I presume the winemakers of McLaren Vale would prefer we chose not to rank them as judged at their own recent Bushing King Wine Show. Five of them got all the way up to bronze, which means that they are sound wines and safe to drink. Five.

I finally got to taste the wines today, after several have sold out. While this was not a masked tasting, I have been much more generous than the judges at McLaren Vale. But then, I think a masked tasting, for those who know their business, is the equivalent of giving a motoring writer a Jaguar for a week. All its badges and nameplates have been removed in the trust that the critic will not realize it’s a Jaguar.

I tasted them first thing this morning in The Star Of Greece with two British wine scribes, Rosie Davenport and Fiona Beckett, and local MW, Drew Noon. It was a happy morning, given the complexities of the task and the nature of Monday mornings in general, although that place is simply perfect on such a bonnie day. But I needed more time in the bottles.

I brought those initial notes home with the opened wines, and tasted them all again after six hours, and revisted again late in the evening. Some points changed dramatically for the better; a few plunged. This is due to the youth of the wines and their styles.

The Scarce Earth propaganda says the judges’ role is to “assess each wine to ensure that site is expressed in the glass and the wine free of overt winemaking influences.”

The most profound influences on the wines I tasted today went (1) winemaker and oak, (2) drought, and (3) site. You could probably replace (2) and (3) with “viticulturer” long before considering geology, but that leads inexorably to “accountant” and “the board” and down we go.

"Oak, by the way, does not
grow in McLaren Vale.
It comes, if you’re smart,
from the best forests of France."

It looks to me as if some winemakers, when confronted with the Scarce Earths idea, simply chose not to blend everything as they usually do. Instead, they bought some expensive wood, and kept a few barrels of their favourite block aside. Or they simply selected the best barrels already in the stack. They also permitted/conjured a much higher level of tannin than the usual soulful softness of the Vales wines, exaggerated, no doubt, by the drought.

I know the judges threw wines out for their overt oak, but varying oak and tannin philosophies still played a very major role in determining the quality and style of the 2009 Scarce Earths. It was, after all a blistering hot vintage. When our heat went east across the border, Victoria burnt down.

Oak, by the way, does not grow in McLaren Vale. It comes, if you’re smart, from the best forests of France.

I am sure this project has the capacity to work, in the long term, to give the consumer an idea of the incredible range of flavours the Willunga Embayment, or McLaren Vale, has to offer. But how anybody knows this early in the piece what the very-recently delineated geologies of the district mean, and how they would be expressed in the glass, beats me. First, the local winemakers must understand it. They’ve taken a fair jump opening the door, hoping the market will follow them through their learning curve.

And pay for it. A great deal in most cases.


In some circles, there was a certain presumption, from the start, that this new appellation would provide everybody in the region an opportunity, or excuse, to make a $100 Shiraz. I think I still have the e-mail. I suggested at the time that winemakers are like chefs. Many drive taxis. Most work in fast food joints and greasy joe’s. A few work near the top. And then you get one Cheong.

It is consoling to see that one winegrower has chosen to acknowledge their rank by keeping their prices somewhere near fair. The consumer will acknowledge this. And it looks like the $50 on the Hugh Hamilton wine was acceptable too, as it’s sold out. Not surprising, really. To me it was the most typically McLaren Vale wine, as it was soft and soulful and approachable, if a little hot in the exhalation. The grandchildren will be scared of you.

These reviews are in order of tasting.

Joseph Angel Gully Clarendon Shiraz 2009
$75; 14.5% alcohol; screw cap; planted 1998; 345 doz., 90++ points
It seems to me the maker here is longing for the Italian Piedmont: I remember baby Nebbiolos with similar form to this. It’s a woody ultra-modern north Italy style in its shape, but with soot, Irish Moss cough gels, and prune aromas. High country very old rocks dry grown McLaren Vale Shiraz. Bigger than Nebbi, of course, but you get my drift. Although the wood becomes a little sharper in the same time, a beautiful comforting fruit fleshiness develops with 6 hours air, a sort of gentle milk chocolate creme. The soot remains. The wine has a slightly syrupy yet strapping palate with tannins that remind me of dried apple (common in many low-yield vineyards in the drought) and dried oatmeal. It needs at least six years.

Five Geese Wines McLaren Vale Reserve Shiraz 2009
$48; 14.5% alcohol; screw cap; planted 1990; 300 doz.; 80++ points
bronze medal 2011 McLaren Vale Wine Show
Deliciously fat and juicy to sniff, this high Blewett looks to me like it got one new barrel too many. The sophistry of the coffee and mocha oak, and its lemony flavours are a little too intrusive. They may recede, but I doubt it – they still scratch my nostrils after it’s had six hours’ air. The fruit is obviously very intense and slick, but much other than its juvenile prune and mulberry can’t shine through that wood. It’s in the old school Penfolds style, without the VA.

Chapel Hill The Chosen House Block McLaren Vale Shiraz 2009
$55; 14.5% alcohol; screw cap; planted 1977; 100 doz., 93+++ points
At first pour, this seemed all pure carbon and lignite and the fruit of vines tortured by drought. It’s woody, but it somehow suits. It showed some raspberry, prune and fig, but the palate was hard going and tannic. Six hours later, we have flesh: the pale chocolate crême caramel. The wine has lost some of brittle piety, and let itself show some sinuous flex. Its tannin is pure drought vintage stuff: persistent and ungiving to the point that at first it looks like it may have been added, which I’m sure is not the case in the powdered tannin sense. A fair deal of looks like it comes from oak. But it’s delicious wine now, after nine hours. Forget it for five years. It may be even better in fifteen. It is the most Australian of wines.


Chapel Hill The Chosen Road Block McLaren Vale Shiraz 2009

$55; 14.5% alcohol; screw cap; planted 1993; 167 doz.; 88+ points
On opening, this wine smelled like that village in Bandol where the florist is between the charcuterie and the coffee shop. It snapped at me: dark meats, mocha, and florals, over old tea tin, deadly nightshade, juniper berries, somebody burning coal … with some cassis. Six hours on, it’s velvety, and the palate is slender, with a little learned suppleness, but it’s still quite severely dry, with staunch coaldust tannins. The gap between these two wines diminished over that time: they became more similar. Now they’re chalk and cheese again. I’m convinced the House Block will be the greater wine in time.

Coriole The Soloist Single Vineyard Shiraz 2009
$45; 14.5% alcohol; screw cap; planted 1969; 500 doz.; 83+ points
Like many of the other wines in this comparison, this one seemed to show more characteristics typical of the drought year and its winemaker than your actual terroir or geology. It was modest, almost shy in this company, perhaps because it has more sympathetic oak. It had twists of reduced spinach, and its dusty tannins sucked the blood clean through one’s gums. It also seemed just slightly doughy. Six hours on, it’s more tomato leaf and the nightshade family, with a slightly sultry blackberries-in-kirsch fruitiness. There’s aniseed, too. The fruit is lean but constant beneath some quite dry mealy tannins.

d’Arenberg The Eight Iron Single Vineyard McLaren Vale Shiraz 2009
$99; 15% alcohol; screw cap; planted 1960; 330 doz.; 89+ points
The alcohols and the drought tannins seemed a bit big for the fruit on pouring. It was not exceptional, but had pleasing tweaks of raspberry and musk in a jammy nose, and the hot, tannic palate of the wine reminded me of most of the south of France. Six hours’ air has seen some acrid acetone bootpolish crawl out, and aniseed, juniper and soot. It tickles the nose hairs. The palate has more supple, sinuous flesh, and just as the whole thing seems less of a rip-off it eventually gets jammy. The finish seems a little doughy, and that serious tea-tin tannin made me yearn for a cuppa, and a hot scone with blackberry jam and whipped cream. Not many wines have done that to me. It could be a beauty in four years. Or it could still be just like this.

d’Arenberg The Fruit Bat Single Vineyard McLaren Vale Shiraz 2009
$99; 15% alcohol; screw cap; planted 1920; 330 dozen; 92++ points
Wet old barn straw d’Arry in the classic mould, with oyster mushrooms and batshit seemed to be the go on opening: a slender thing, with mushy old tannins like waterlogged rowboats. It grew slightly prettier in the six hours, picking up some musk and confectioner’s sugar. And some leather. And then some aniseed. The tannins seemed a little sweeter, too. It’s a perfect example of traditional family winemaking determination dominating terroir. And very much like what d’Arry used to call his Burgundy. Although I reckon d’Arry woulda stuck the hose in this, I really like it. More air the better.

d’Arenberg The Little Venice Single Vineyard McLaren Vale Shiraz 2009
$99; 15% alcohol; screw cap; planted 1997; 330 dozen; 79+ points
Another twisted pixie: first pour: tar; peat; black old bretty oak; fig; prune; strange fresh oyster aroma. Six hours on: all the above, with a gentle rise of whitepepper fruit, lemon pith and blackberry. Whole thing looks much healthier. The palate has acidic astringency and a certain appetizing tease about it. And then that hot alcohol in the afterbreath. And then the pucker of all that tannin. And now, thirteen hours after opening, it’s beginning to settle. Just. Who knows?

Serafino Terremoto McLaren Vale Single Vineyard Syrah 2009
$110; 14.5% alcohol; Diam cork; planted ????; 600 doz.; 80+ points
First up, this reminded me of the style of red Wolf Blass and Johnny Glaetzer made in the late ’seventies. It is stacked with the smooth sophistry of an expensive cooper. Sweet, modern, sophisticated wine. Silky, velvety cordial with modest acidity. After six hours, it looked pretty much the same. Aniseed, soot, and then the fruit: prune and mulberry, with a dusting of musky confectioner’s sugar. Some bootpolish. Wood-derived smells. Not sensual.

Hugh Hamilton Single Vineyard McLaren Vale Shiraz 2009
$50; 15% alcohol; screw cap; planted ????; ??? doz.; sold out; 93+ points
Gigondas in style – a hotter year – this was a mellow, smooth confection at the start, not greatly sophisticated, mercifully, but rich with earthy and rural aromas, and smooth, clean, appetizing berries. There’s the faintest hint of the old white pepper canister, and maybe a whisper of eucalypty methol. It has perfectly appropriate tannins that are better balanced than many of these wines: here, they’re still demanding, but more smoothly assimilated and serve mainly to titillate, not overwhelm. In other words, it’s the most McLaren Vale style in the line. It's a bit hot in the tail, but a wine I’d like to drink a lot more of. Damn!

Sabella McLaren Vale Shiraz 2009
$25; 15% alcohol; screw cap; planted 1910; 7000 litres; 82+ points
Ancient subterranean salt began to move during the drought, which may begin to explain why this wine, from creekline vineyards, reminded me of the Robe fruit that goes into St Henri, or many of the reds of Mornington Peninsula: even the aroma seems reminiscent of seaside dunes. This had subsided after six hours: like Langhorne Creek the muddy berry fruit seems to rise up, with its cute florals, faint chocolate and gently lemony oak. The palate became more stroppy and cheeky; the wine brighter and fresher at six hours. Another few hours and it’s going fluffy and jammy. Simple: don’t wait! A good honest effort by the Trott Family Trophy winners 2011, this is obviously the bargain of the bunch, or at least the most honestly-priced.


Penny’s Hill Footprint McLaren Vale Shiraz 2009

$65; 15% alcohol; screw cap; planted 1991-96; ??? doz.; 90+ points
bronze medal 2011 McLaren Vale Wine Show
Very complex, but harmonious and assimilated, with moody moss and sod below, and musky confectionery topnotes, this wine looked very impressive from the start. Acrid vetiver-like meadow pasture wafted across the glass at first. For a moment, I thought of Castagna. After six hours, the palate is elegant and slender, willowy and appetizing, more authoritative without being forceful or blustery, and very different in style to all the preceding wines. Thirteen hours in, it’s the mossy sod with some nose-twitchy oak and fresh-split slate. The oak finally tastes like nutmeg. The fruit is better than the winemaking.

Halifax Per Se Block McLaren Vale Shiraz 2009
$50; 14% alcohol; screw cap; planted 1998; 40 doz.; 85+ points
Tense, impenetrable carbon and blackness seemed this baby’s hallmarks on opening: the palate was tight and brittle like the fruit of many drought vineyards’, but not terribly: the wine reminded me of the style common around Vacqueyras. After six hours we got aniseed and licorice; maybe fennel aromas; and to make it Australian, maybe eucalypts. It’s cute and sassy. The palate has neat fruit and some juniper/bay leaf tannin which makes it all quite pleasing and chirpy.

Shingleback Unedited Single Vineyard Mclaren Vale Shiraz 2009
$70; 15.5% alcohol; Diam cork; planted 1995; >30 doz.; 85 points
bronze medal, 2011 McLaren Vale Wine Show
On opening, this seemed a slender, racy, neat and elegant wine with fruity blackcurrant gels and not much hint of its alcoholic force. It seemed to have a whiff of the seaside about it: dunal grasses or something. After six hours, it had become a fairly boisterous hulk to sniff: full of alcohol and darkness with glowering mulberry concentrate and some anise. The palate, however stays reasonably strappy and slurpy, while it leaves fairly hot, sharp afterbreath, it’s not too jammy; the tannins are much more approachable than in many of the more intense Scarcities. With, say, pigeons or mutton shanks with black olives in the sauce, not a bad drink now to 2015.

Brash Higgins SHZ McLaren Vale Shiraz 2009
$37; 14.7% alcohol; screw cap; planted ????; 305 doz.; 87++ points
This one smelled hot and acrid at first, with hints of samphire flats, cordite, and hot rusty iron. But quickly the tweaks of mint and menthol and caster sugar began to appear. Six hours later it’s a more wholesome and comforting thing, with a well of blackberries and mulberries simmering below those cute topnotes, and reflections of them in the lingering, warmish afterbreath. The tannins are persistent in sucking one’s precious bodily fluids through the delicate interior skin of the lips, like some of the brutes above. Macho cross-dresser. It gets sweeter and jammy after thirteen hours.

Vinrock McLaren Vale Shiraz 2009
$40; 14.7% alcohol; screw cap; planted 1998; 60 doz.; 76++ points
bronze medal 2011 McLaren Vale Wine Show
Very basically, this seemed shut and snarly when provoked at the beginning. It’s picked up in six hours, and seems to want to be in the Halifax/Brash Higgins/Sabella school. It seems like it’s been hammered out of water and black granite. Humourless and taut, and reflective of the drought. Good name.

Kangarilla Road Scarce Earth Project McLaren Vale Shiraz 2009
$50; 14% alcohol; screw cap; planted ????; ??? doz.; 78++ points
bronze medal 2011 McLaren Vale Wine Show
Iron, mint, cassis, lemonwater and tannin? Okay. Bring it on. It was like that to begin. Drought year. But after that six hours’ air, we have a more presentable, wholesome wine: elegant and poised. It has saucy menthol and anise, and has grown some dark charcuterie meats. It’s more glowering and pacing. The palate is not forced; the aroma of the oak is sympathic to the fruit, supporting it without too much competition. But its tannins and sap are still a little intrusive and raw, and the wine seems unfairly treated, being on the market at such a price in such a juvenile state. Which can be said of most of the 2009 Scarce Earths. VIEW FROM THE VERANDA, SETTLEMENT WINES, SEAVIEW ROAD ... HOME OF THE BEST WOOD-OVEN PIZZAS SOUTH OF PUGLIA photo PHILIP WHITE


Anonymous said...

you are far too soft on them whitey

Andrea said...

It is such a shame some of these 80 pointers, made for a marketer's wet dream, are allowed into this 'group' whilst wines such as a certain (and will remain un-named) Shiraz single vineyard absolute beauty which makes Penfold's Grange year after year, and clearly shows the subtlety yet strength of the Seaview part of the Vale, exactly what 'scarce earth' was supposedly created to do... were disallowed.

If a wine is that full of mocha oak, or brett, or VA, is it really showing the 'scarce earth' it was made from? We looked at a selection of these wines at Uni and the discussion ended up revolving around how to market well, nothing to do with viticulture at all.

Do we really need more wank? The punter is confused enough.

Tim Hardin said...

must be a bit of shock for some of them, working with a barrel, after all that sawdust

Anonymous said...

Where do I start? "McLaren Vale is a one trick pony!"... That's what we are saying with this dumb ass half baked idea! How about the producers/growers of some of the Vales best wines that dont have a single vineyard shiraz? They still pay their annual levies to the McLaren vale grape wine and tourism but are excluded from showcasing their produce. I can feel the wet sting of mr osbornes saliver when he first had the brain wave to promote a more expensive wine.... Wtf? Where is this project heading us? What is the cost? Wake up people of McLaren vale and take control. Our best assets lay silent. The most interesting and "scarce earth" beauties are still "hidden". Greed is short lived. We can do much better!

Philip White said...

The saddest aspect of this very serious tasting came at the end, when I realised how few of these makers understand the flavours itching beneath their feet.

Sal said...

Your headline sums it up perfectly.

redman said...

I would like to know who judged these wines. Do they know wnything about the soils? Do they know anything about McLaren Vale? Ive never been a fan of big wine shows and all that nonsense but the ones I've tasted convince me the wine show judges were better at it by miles than the people they aksed to select these. So whats the point? Next time, the tasting should be written about including a list of judges and a list of the ones that were rejected. Put the tasting notes of all of them on the website so we make our minds up what to taste let alone buy. Like was Halliday on this panel? I don't live in the southern vales or grow grapes or anything but if I did Id be pissed right off this set of wines being pushed at the market at such a bullshit cost when I know there are so many better ones. Until we get to 2011. LMFAO

Anonymous said...

I'm not really a fan of these high alc Vale wines from 07-09 but I think the commments about these wines being too reflective of the drought is a bit unfair. There actually was a drought and therefore these wines reflect the particular vineyards in these hotter years.

Philip White said...

Thanks Anon. Fair point. Perhaps.

My argument is that this whole project so far lacks intellectual exactitude, and has been hurled in a pseudo-scientific manner at unsuspecting consumers in such a way that it appears to be linked to the delineation of sub-regions, a process which is many years short of conclusion.

I respect the admirably honest appraisal Chester Osborn made of the vintage at its peak. Although he didn't specifically mention Shiraz. Which is probably just as well, given that he has three Scare Serse Shiraz and two Grenache releases which look very much like they are of the same official scheme, given their new identical Twisted Pixie packaging, common release date, and at $99 per bottle, the same presumptuous pricing.

“Nightmare vintage again Whitey,” he said in 2009. “Again. Again. It’s the earliest vintage by a million miles, and it’s very very low. We’ll pick about thirty per cent of what I estimated three weeks back, and that was already reduced dramatically from my previous estimation. Now we’ve got too many pickers. Nothing to pick.

“Anything in shallow hard ground, or reflective sands, with no deep moisture, is over. Bush vines? Poor old buggers! McLaren Vale Grenache looked amazing. All gone. The Sauvignon blanc’s brown. No flavour. The Roussanne died. Viognier? No good, but not bad compared to the rest. Petit verdot? Shrivelled to buggery.”

Given that, I would have thought my suggestion that the drought and the winemaking was a bigger influence than the geology is a fair appraisal.

And given the prices of the wines in this project, its lack of geological precision is a bother to those of us who are striving to move toward such intelligence. Chester does afford a glimpse of geological reference, in his dismissal of reflective sands and shallow hard ground. The ersatz Scare Serse Grenache he labels Blewett Springs is in fact more from the other side of the Schuller Road watershed. His website is a little pre-emptory in calling these terroirs “the Blewett Springs sub-region”, when no boundary or district name is yet proclaimed. (Being a member of the “Districts” sub-committee, Chester must know this.) While its geology is similar, I think this north-facing terroir is pronouncedly different than the Blewett Springs valley which drains to the south.

On another level, the wine is certainly from the reflective æolian Semaphore sands (less than 10,000 years old) he derided during the harvest, but fails to mention on his back label or website, where he prefers to acknowledge the Maslin Sands (around 50 million years old)which underlie the Semaphore.

Given his contemporary appraisal of 2009, the revisionist summary on the d’Arenberg website is worth a read:

"Sufficient winter rains set up the vines well with good canopies,” it says. “December and most of January were very cool with only three days above 30°C until late in the month [sic]. There was a string of days above 40°C in late January, Grenache vines were going through veraison at this time and therefore had no negative impact [sic]. The mild weather that followed ensured that ripening was stress free and grapes showed good levels of natural acidity and balanced tannins. Grenache was clearly the stand out variety from this vintage."

He is clearly saying the weather (“cool”; “mild”) was highly significant in producing these wines, and that Shiraz fared more poorly. So how did he set his common $99 per bottle price for both varieties?

DRINKSTER would value further discussion.

not stupid said...

If the winemaker association had any balls it would be making sure all wine which reckons on its label it comes from a certainm place really comes from there and if its got something else in it that should be onthe label too with the grapegrower getting the credits. Then us who grow the grapes that get into these over the top prices wines cna expect proper payment for our hard work and our land will be worth keeping When most of the silvertail winemaker here were chookfarmers all the grapes went up the Hunter. Now they go into the factories its just the same until you see the car they drive.