Monday, May 21, 2012

Unveiling McLaren Vale

Not too shabby of a view to wake up to, eh? This is the view from our front door of the Chapel Hill guest house.

Just walk a little closer to the vineyard and zoom in with the lens and, lo and behold, there's another roo just hopping along the edge of the vineyard - thankfully, I was told later, on the outside of the fence. It seems that roos are more of a pest than a national icon here as well - just like in the Barossa. I have to admit that, for us outlanders and North American types, it's still a bit of a thrill.

If we thought our time in the Barossa was insufficient, our McLaren Vale visit is going to seem non-existent. Unfortunately, yesterday's late arrival means that we only have today to try and take in as much of the region as we can. Our early flight out of Adelaide tomorrow means there won't be any leeway in timing to try and fit in a last minute visit either. With 90 wineries, give or take, in the region, there's plenty of ground available to cover. So, we tried to get an early start to the day. We quickly learned that nothing gets between our host, Damien Smith, and his morning coffee though - and this was an early indication that Boo was going to get along just fine with Damien.

Located about 40 minutes South of Adelaide, McLaren Vale has had as wine-laden a history as the Barossa in that the first vineyards were planted and the first winery built in 1835. I may not have known as much about McLaren Vale as I did about the Barossa Valley before we arrived, but the names of some of the region's early pioneers are no surprise to me - they're still celebrated in some of the best known Aussie brands: Reynella, Hardy's and Penfold's.

Chapel Hill's historic chapel hails from those early days as well, having been built in 1865. The winery, however, is a more recent arrival. The establishment of a winery was commenced in 1973 and it has seen a couple changes in ownership since that time. The winery currently owns around 110 acres - a third of them forming the winery vineyard and the remainder found not too far away in the foothills of the Mt Lofty Ranges. Damien loaded Boo and I into his wheels and took us on a great little tour of the winery vineyard - home to their bigger red varietals, comprised mostly of Shiraz, Cab Sauv and Mourvèdre. Damien also stopped to point out a block of Chardonnay that results in a wine that he doesn't think should even be possible. Given the terrain and climate, most vignerons would probably pass on the Chardy, but the Gorge Block perennially results in a wine that they feel is worthy of their "Icon Range."

After a great little ride through the vineyard, we moseyed back to the old chapel/cellar door where Damien walked us through an abbreviated tasting of some of their best. I say "abbreviated" only because he was late for a meeting he was supposed to be at and we were close to being an hour late for our one scheduled winery visit. We weren't about to pass on all the wines that we knew we wouldn't be able to find back home though - particularly their 2010 The Chosen House Block Shiraz. This was a special treat since they weren't really supposed to be even pouring it yet because it was meant to be revealed at the McLaren Vale Scarce Earth event in a couple of days.

Scarce Earth is an initiative to explore and celebrate the "geological climatic and soil diversity of the region." This year's event features 28 Shiraz wines - from 23 wineries - from the 2010 vintage. All the wines are single block sourced and were chosen by a panel of winemakers and industry experts as expressing "a unique flavour profile and personality." I was loving the wine but cursing the fact that we had to leave the region and would miss the actual event.

And, speaking of having to leave, if we hadn't forced ourselves to leave Chapel Hill's tasting bar, we would have missed our visit to Mollydooker. We were probably an hour and a half late for our appointment and I don't think even being on "Vale time" was going to pan out as an adequate excuse. The folks at Mollydooker were still incredibly gracious though. They'd originally arranged for us to meet with one of their guides; however, that opportunity was long gone by the time we finally showed. I honestly think that they would have been justified to say that we'd missed the boat. However, they not only re-worked a tour for us, they arranged for Tom, introduced to us a senior member of the winemaking team, to acquaint us with the operations.

We'd lined up the Mollydooker visit because of its popularity in certain circles of the market back home. I'm not overly familiar with the winery, but I certainly knew of Mollydooker and Sparky Marquis - another bigger than life Aussie and one of the principals (together with his wife Sarah) behind Mollydooker. Indeed, I know some pretty sophisticated palates back home that are big fans of the man and his wines. I wasn't aware, however, of the polarizing effect the winery has on wine folk Down Under. The mere mention of Mollydooker inevitably elicited an interesting response - or a lack of one altogether (one would assume out of professional courtesy) - from whomever we were talking to. I can only speculate but my guess is that Mollydooker's wines largely epitomize that big fruit, big alcohol bomb of a wine that folks either seem to love or hate.

I don't think Mollydooker does anything apologetically though. The winery was established in 2005 and the Marquis team strives to make the wines exactly the way they do - and that's big. An internet "war of words" broke out some years back when James Halliday, one of Australia's foremost wine scribes, said that Mollydooker wines were made specifically for the American market and for Robert Parker's palate. Halliday never slagged the wines; however, he said that the style didn't exactly suit his palate. He went on to say to that anyone looking specifically for that fruit bomb of a style could add five points to any score that he's given as that would be closer to an American-based score. Following that brouhaha, it doesn't appear that Halliday has ever reviewed another Mollydooker wine. But Halliday isn't all alone in his opinion, I've even read one writer refer to a Mollydooker wine as "the old-world wine lover's kryptonite."

This was all news after the fact for Boo and I.

It was interesting visit even without knowing all that. While Tom was certainly a great host and tour guide, it was pretty clear that Mollydooker has a vision and they stick to it. The actual name, Mollydooker, is Aussie slang for a left-handed person - which Sparky and Sarah both happen to be - and the sense that the winery dances to its own tune was immediately apparent upon our arrival. Everyone greets you with a left-handed handshake. A "welcome to the winery" photo is then taken in the greeting area and the tour starts with a short video presentation on the winery's patented "Vineyard Watering Programme."

During the tour, we were told of another patented winemaking technique that is unique to Mollydooker and that's their rating of a wine's quality by measuring "how far back on your tongue the velvety sensation of fruit goes, before the prickly sensation of tannin is exposed." Another quirk of their's is that they bottle their reds with nitrogen gas to help preserve the wines from oxygen so that they don't need to use as many sulphites. The nitrogen can apparently distract from the upfront fruit for the first two years of the wine's bottle life, however. So the Mollydooker Shake has been introduced whereby you vigorously shake the bottle when opening and serving their young wines. The explanation is that the shaking releases the nitrogen and the wine is restored to its original state - without all the additional sulphites.

Idiosyncrasies aside, these folks do know how to market their wine. Beyond the eye-catching labels and witty names, they have great tales to tell as well. Imagine the press the winery received when an entire palate of Mollydooker's flagship wine, Velvet Glove - which sells around $250 a bottle - was accidentally dropped off a forklift as it was being prepped for shipping to the States. That palate represented a third of the entire production for the vintage and was valued at $1 million. But I digress...

1118. 2010 Mollydooker Blue Eyed Boy Shiraz (South Australia)

I was a little surprised in that we only had the opportunity to try one wine while visiting Mollydooker. Now, that might have been necessitated by the fact we were so late in arriving; however, I was even more surprised when Tom re-capped the bottle of Blue Eyed Boy and handed it to us as we were preparing to leave. An incredibly nice gesture - especially when the bottle retails at $50 in Australia. Looks like Boo and I had a bottle of wine for back at the guest house.

Boo's and my takes on certain wines are often polar opposites. I wouldn't say that they're old world versus new world, but I do like a bigger bounce of fruit on the palate than he does. Interestingly enough, we fell right into that whole love/hate spectrum that Mollydooker so regularly encounters. Boo didn't care much for the abundant and dark fruit and residual sweetness. I didn't mind it.

There's no doubt that Mollydooker is one highly intriguing winery though.

After a quick lunch, our next stop was Wirra Wirra - a winery with quite the unique vision of its own. From its monolith bottle made out of corks at the winery entrance to the giant post-and-rail fence named Woodhenge to a working catapult that they use to launch watermelons at neighbouring properties, there's no shortage of "tales, tall and true" here either. Wirra-squared has a good little presence back home - particularly with their Church Block and Scrubby Rise blends. Both are well known as great bang for buck wines. Despite wanting to visit wineries that I didn't really know already, I'd met up with Julian Forward, the winery's sales manager, back at the Vancouver Playhouse Festival and he recommended that we drop in for a visit to check out some of the wines that don't make it to our market.

Knowing that our time in McLaren Vale wasn't likely to have a firm schedule to it, I didn't set up an actual time to meet up with Julian. Turns out that he was on a conference call when we showed up. Luckily, they have an extensive list of wines and we tasted our way through a good number of them. The call was a long one and, ultimately, we needed to move on without greeting Julian. However, much to our surprise, there was a bottle of The Absconder Grenache, one of their flagship wines, and a baseball cap waiting for us back at Chapel Hill when we arrived home. These Aussies certainly know how to make guests feel welcome.

Boo and I opted to fit in one more big gun. I've enjoyed many a d'Arenberg wine over the years and they too have an extensive list of wines - most of which don't make it to our market back home. The wildly inventive names for their wines - and sometimes off-the-wall labels - had me really wanting to find out a little more about them behind the scenes. We didn't have an opportunity to take in anything more than the tasting room but, once again, we certainly gave their list a very thorough working.

In fact, it wasn't until more than a dozen wines later that Boo and I finally hit the road. True to our palates, Boo's favourite wine was the 2009 Coppermine Road Cab Sauv and mine was the 2009 Blewitt Springs Grenache. Luckily for Boo, the Coppermine Road can be found in Vancouver. I won't be so lucky. The Blewitt Springs is part of The Rare Collection, is a sub-regionally sourced wine and doesn't see our shores. Good thing I got the chance to try it when I did.

Boo's day was done. So, we made our way back to Chapel Hill. Since, we had these marvellous facilities, we decided to cook at the guest house. Boo had limited his tastings through the day and played designated driver; so, I volunteered to head into town to pick some groceries. I thought I'd better make one last stop along the way though.

Damien - and a number of other folks - had recommended that we visit Samuel's Gorge, a boutique winery just around the corner from Chapel Hill. There was still about 15 minutes before the Cellar Door was scheduled to close - just enough time for a quick taste and visit. I was greeted by the very friendly Alex who willingly stayed well past closing to walk me through their line-up of very tasty reds. They only make 3000 cases; so, I'm guessing that I'm not likely to ever see their wines back home. Definitely my loss - especially since they've got an interesting take on a Tempranillo where they're attempting to bridge the characteristics of Spanish and Aussie profiles. I did, however, decide to stretch our Canada Customs limits a little further in that I picked up a bottle of the Grenache. I couldn't leave Oz without being able to add at least one bottle of Samuel's Gorge to The List.

1119. 2011 Chapel Hill - The Chosen Gorge Block Chardonnay (McLaren Vale - Australia)

But speaking of adding bottles to The List, what more could we ask for than the opportunity to leisurely enjoy the evening in delightful surroundings while sipping away on a bottle of wine where the grapes were grown and the wine was made mere steps from you sit? I kind of live for opportunities like this. It doesn't hurt that the wine goes down as nicely as this either. This is the Chardonnay that Damien said really shouldn't work. We'll join him it saying that it does.

Part of Chapel Hill's Icon Range, there were only 300 cases of this wine made. So, while Boo and I might have missed all the action of vintage and harvest on this trip, we did luck out on our timing for snagging one of these bottles. We were told that the 2011 vintage was a cool one in McLaren Vale and that played nicely into the retention of acidity and big citrus notes that melded nicely with the stone fruit and the rich mouthfeel that resulted from the extended lees contact (lees being the spent yeast cells cast aside during the ageing of the wine). Much to my approval, the use of oak was nicely tempered. No "oak monster" evident with this glass of wine.

Indeed, the only monster we were facing was one of time. All in all, however, it was a rather enjoyable day I'd say. Too bad our McLaren Vale visit has to come to an end so quickly. I think we need to make arrangements to come again. The sooner, the better.

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