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McLaren Vale edges towards sub-regional recognition

Published:  11 February, 2019

South Australia’s McLaren Vale has its sights on a geologically-focused demarcation of the region’s most distinct wine producing districts.

Speaking at the McLaren Vale Grape Wine Tourism Association’s Districts Annual Tasting at Wirra Wirra, Chapel Hill's CEO Michael Fragos explained that winemakers are in discussion about how best to translate the region’s districts onto labels in the future to reflect the Vale’s diversity of soils and micro-climates.

Recognition of distinct districts, or sub-regions, has crystalised out of a 10-year-old project that has been examining which areas have clear identities.

This encourages winemakers to submit neutral-oaked or unoaked, lighter-extraction Shirazes to the Districts Annual Tasting panel, with a view to identifying the characteristics expressed via the geological and climatic differences of each given area.

This year’s tasting saw 90 samples submitted, which were then whittled down to 19 “hypothetical district samples” through blending of each given area’s wines, with the aim of achieving the most representative example of the general characteristics of a given district.

While saying that the goal of district names on labels may still be a few years down the line, Fragos explained that McLaren’s winemakers are “looking to find the geological high ground”, with the Districts Tasting activity currently “more of an education and awareness exercise”, but with discussions ongoing as to what future labelling would be based on.

“It’s been important for us to be patient,” said Fragos, adding, “When we started the project we didn’t realise that we might find 19 different districts with [distinct characteristics].”

“We are in discussion as to how to translate this to labels,” said Fragos, stressing that this would be a terroir-focussed initiative, rather than producing any set of regulations curtailing winemakers’ freedom to make wines in the way that they wish.

However, the Districts initiative already appears to have had some effect on how winemakers are approaching their winemaking, reinforcing the trend to more restrained, fresher styles that is much in evidence across McLaren Vale.

“There was an initiative, called the Scarce Earth concept (which has been paused for a year or so), where we were all releasing single site Shiraz wines on the same day, and when that started it gained some momentum because it was encouraging others to release single site wines,” explained Fragos.

“That started in 2009, and the first [Districts] tasting we did dovetailed off that,” he said, adding, “that has had an effect on [the styles] of wine - not as ripe, not as oaky, as in the past.”

Fellow Districts Tasting panellist Chester Osborn of d'Arenberg suggested that the initiative could also reach beyond Shiraz to encompass some of the wealth of varieties that McLaren Vale produces.

“We are only looking at Shiraz here, but there are lots of wonderful expressions of other varieties, such as Nero d’Avola, Tempranillo, and Grenache, which is more terroir sensitive and [site] expressive than Shiraz,” said Osborne.

Fragos, who was joined by Osborn, Drew Noon MW of Noon Winery and Duncan Kennedy of Kay Brothers to present the tasting of 2018 blends, said, “When we started the project we didn’t realise we might find 19 different, distinct districts”, with the impetus now turning, 10 years in, to how best to present this to the world.