“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 May 2015


Sydney wine merchant and writer Peter Bourne, the author, Serafino winemaker Charles Whish and Tintara winemaker Paul Carpenter discussing the unconformity at Kevin's Cutting where McLaren Vale meets the Onkaparinga Gorge near Chapel Hill. Beneath a thin layer of riverine rounded quartzite pebbles lies about 1.5 metres of Maslin Sands (40-56 million years old), which directly overlays the whiter, highly-weathered Tapley's Hill Formation (about 7o0 million years old) ... photo Sophie Otton

McLaren Vale's geological appellation changes gear:
tougher selection better result 

At the risk of writing too much about the region I choose to live in, I must say my home patch gave me a warm flush of pride these last few days.

McLaren Vale's Scarce Earth project took a welcome lurch into the future.

With the release of fifteen specially-blessed Shiraz wines, this time from the 2013 vintage, it became obvious that the selection panel which chose them from 44 entries was much more brutal in eliminating wines which displayed too much winemaking sophistry to properly reflect their source location.

The idea is that winemakers with a vineyard on any specific geology from the region's confounding fruit cake, make a wine from it with the main intent being to let the site sing right through to the final glass: the opposite of cross-regional blending, or even multi-vineyard blending.

The opposite, in fact, to nearly all Australia's industrial winemaking practice.

The McLaren Vale vignoble lies on the water of the Gulf St Vincent, within the Willunga Embayment, roughly between the Willunga Escarpment and its faultline in the background, and the Clarendon Fault and Onkaparinga Gorge in the foreground ... photo Stacey Pothoven-Vice

Previous Scarce Earth selections had been cursed with too much oak, over-ripe fruit leading to too much alcohol, or too much fussy winemakers' intervention.

With the release of these 'thirteens it was also obvious that the winemakers are finally getting the idea, too.

Each entrant must be an approved member of McLaren Vale's brilliant Sustainable Winegrowing program, an ongoing exercise which assists grapefarmers to keep a forensic track of their environmental record.

A panel of three local winemakers and three independent experts taste the wines blind before and after bottling and again in the weeks before release when the final selection is made. Those awarded this unique quality appellation are released to market on 1st May, each wearing a dignified neck band declaring their elevation to the Scarce Earth league.

So I sat with a group of esteemed winewriters yesterday to appraise this year's lot, blind, and I must say they were spiffing: nothing like the traditional McLaren Vale reds of yore, which were lauded for being "the middle palate of Australia." Instead, these wines show a fascinating array of character, complexity and finesse.

The other thing they have in common may appear obvious: the vintage. But a warning about the 2013s from the Vales: on first pour, the aromas seem much more complex and alluring than the flavours which follow. Typical of this is the beautiful Jericho Shiraz I recommended here last week. If you must drink them in this their infancy, you'll find that an hour or two in the decanter will see the form of the wines settle, smooth and bloom to better hint at the beauty they will display as they edge toward maturity. And in some instances, given the reliable precision of screw caps, that absolutely ideal moment may be well over a decade away; maybe two.

These are serious wines of a very high order. I offer brief descriptions of those I pointed at or above 93. My plus signs are vague indicators of each wine's potential to improve with time in the right cellar. 

Chapel Hill The Chosen House Block Shiraz 2013 ($65; 93+++) is a very finely-formed, elegant wine. It seems the common badge of 'thirteen Vales Shiraz is pickled Morello cherry; this has plenty. But while it has all that flesh and smooth opulence, below simmers a very firm basement of harmoniously balanced acid and tannin. And right at the top of its introduction lies a nose-tickling whiff of dried herb, almost as edgy as the Artimesia absinthium, or wormwood, which is common along the region's roadsides. (Geology: Tapley's Hill Formation; about 700 million years old; calcareous siltstone and sandstone; intraclastic and stomatolitic limestone; dark grey, very thinly laminated slaty siltstone) 

Coriole Old House Shiraz 2013 ($55; 93++) has the sort of characters I expect of a wine from a much taller, cooler climate than this one near the winery. The wine seems to tighten with time, promising a great future. It has a smooth, comforting cosmetic/face-cream fleshiness in its bouquet, with a bright hint of blood orange giving it edge. It's perfectly elegant wine: slender, taut and terrific. (Geology: Tapley's Hill Formation) 

d'Arenberg Tyches Mustard Shiraz 2013 ($99; 93+++) I don't know whether this site is peppered with grapeshot or pellet ironstone, but it displayed a powerful galvo reek to this nose. That solid aspect aside, the wine is in-your-face vibrant and audacious, with the savoury kalamata olive juice adding a Clare Valley like raciness to the wine's tight, tannic form. By which I mean more savoury than primarily fruity. This naughty baby needs years. (Geology: Blanche Point Formation; about 34-45 million years old; galuconitic, fossiliferous calcareous siltstone; hard cherty bands) 

The author on the beach at Port Willunga. Top to bottom you see the freshwater sediments of the Ngaltinga Formation (last 1,000,000 years) above the thinner white band of marine Burnham Limestone (about 2 million years old). Below the guardrail is Hallett Cove Sandstone (2.6 to 5.3 million years old) and at the bottom Port Willunga Formation (23-34 million years old) ... photo Emily Shepherd

Serafino Malpas Vineyard Shiraz 2013 ($45; 93+++) When I suggested this wine reminded me of a good year Coonawarra Shiraz I had no idea of its calcerious source. Although this grew amongst bits of calcrete rather than Coonawarra's limestone, the formations are chemically similar. This has much to do with the form of its tannins: fine, tight and langorous, and never far below the pretty eau-de-cologne or bergamot mint (Mentha citrata) topnote, as best displayed in the legendary 1963 Mildara Coonawarra Peppermint Patty. (Geology: Ngaltinga Formation; up to 1,000,000 years old old; grey and red mottled alluvial clay, commonly cappped with calcrete) 

Hugh Hamilton Black Blood III Shiraz 2013 ($70; 94+) gets that extra point for its stolid pyramid-shaped I ain't goin' nowhere attitude. Below its illusory last-minute smudge of lipstick flesh, it smells of hot tractor with a sump full of licorice. Cross-dresser? Typical of the Morello and iron you'll find right up through Douglas Gully and Blewett Springs, where the Maslin Sands have turned to ironstone. Black, sour, intense and clunky, this bugger will settle right down eeeventuuaaaaaally. (Geology: Maslin Sands; between 40-56 million years old; cross-bedded medium and coarse-grained riverine sand, iron-cemented when oxidised on surface; sometimes covered with æolian or wind-blown non-marine sand in last 10,000 years) 

Collected field ironstone formed when Maslin Sand was exposed to atmospheric oxygen and washed during extensive effluvia in ferruginous riverine water, above ... you can see this process underway in the sandstone gibber below ... exposed to the surface, loose Maslin Sand has become a pebble which gradually turned to ironstone as it was washed by constant ferruginous effluvia ... they're centimetres on the rule ... at the bottom you see solid slab ironstone at Ironheart Vineyard ... there are acres of it here outside my door, metres thick, with a thin layer of very recent wind-blown sand on the top ... somehow the vines love it, in spite of its incapacity to hold water ... all these photos taken at Yangarra Estate by Philip White ... click any image to enlarge

Cradle of Hills Row 23 Shiraz 2013 ($45; 94++) Below its acrid flinty topnote, with maybe a hint of bruised mint, this is pure bitter cherries, as in Morello juice.  It's one of the most elegant wines in the entire line-up, which is not to say it's an any way weak: uh-huh. This is incredibly tight, intense, focussed wine which will last a good decade, probably more. (Geology: Kurrajong Formation; about 1.5 to 2.6 million years since deposited along piedmont of escarpment; clayey sand and silica-cemented conglomerate of small rocks of 500 million to 1.6 billion years of age.) 

Kurrajong Formation on Peter's Creek at Yangarra, above, and below, the finer, more ferruginous version at Roger Pike's Marius Wines, Willunga ... photos Philip White

Wirra Wirra Patritti Shiraz 2013 ($130; 94++) is another wine highly typical of its source in the ferruginous sands of Blewett Springs. It has a pretty topnote of mint and, perhaps from very fine oak, lemons. But beneath that it's all Morello cherries and iron. It's tight, intense and sharp and will live a very long time. This is a famous old vineyard which first caught my attention in 1980. I have always expected somebody sensitive and clever would make a brutally determined wine like this from it - a true reflection of its grounds! (Geology: Maslin Sands)

Typical topsoil profile in Blewett Springs: calcrete crust atop wind-blown (æolian) sand atop a layer of shotgun/grapeshot ironstone atop sandy ferruginous clay ... go down further and you hit the ironstone capping atop the looser Maslin Sands that then stretch very deep below ... this photo at Tim Geddes Seldom Inn winery by Philip White

So there you go. After this lurch into a new realm of higher quality, the Scarce Earth project will probably inch even closer to heaven as the years creep by. I've written much about my disdain for the unpronounceable name and its confusion with the Rare Earths of the Periodic Table, which tend to radioactivity and reside mainly in China, so I'll let that slide today. Maybe in a year or so the name could take a tweak and the appellation be relaxed to include all varieties whilst remaining true to its geological bases?

Work is well underway to add topological and climate maps to the existing geology map. That'll be enlightening.

In the meantime, while us rocksters cannot yet empirically teach that certain flavours are specific to certain geological formations, some of us are gradually confirming very old suspicions. 

Winemakers tasting McLaren Vale Shiraz according to its geology at Wirra Wirra last year ... photo Philip White

1 comment:

Greg Willson said...

Sadly at these prices I will have to take your word for it Philip.