Monday, 18 March 2013

McLaren Vale; an ideal location for a cross-continental catch-up

McLaren Vale is a small township 50 minutes south of Adelaide that has lent its name to the surrounding wine region and it was where I spent my second Australian-wine-region holiday of 2012.

An old travelling friend who lives in Perth and I decided to have a wine-infused holiday and we chose McLaren Vale because it was roughly halfway between our two cities. Flying in on Friday night, we motored down to McLaren and found our carefully selected cottage; a compromise between proximity to town, price and quaint wine-country-cottage; and quickly opened the complimentary welcome bottle. Getting up the next day, I was metres away from my own cellar door / café overlooking a garden and vines. Not a bad start to a trip.

McLaren Vale is small but fruitful wine-making region. There are 88 cellar doors in a region enclosed by the sea to the south and Adelaide and the Clare Valley to the north. If you had enough time, you could easily spend a fortnight visiting the Barossa, Clare Valley and McLaren Vale and taste hundreds of wines.

Artwork outside d'Arenberg, the very first stop on our McLaren Vale trip. 

The great advantage of how small the McLaren Vale region is, is that you can get up late, take yourself out for coffee and breakfast and still make it to four vineyards before lunch. There are scores of wineries within a 10 – 12m drive of the town, so you can skip from one to the other on a quick easy circuit.

McLaren Vale is known for its Shiraz, Grenache and Chardonnay. The first vines were planted in McLaren around 1838 and wine producers such as Hardys have been producing wine from the region since 1850. It is a real treat to be able to drink Shiraz from vines 50 to 100 years old.

Sculpted vineyards and twisted vines.

Just as with my previous trip to Margaret River, though I tasted scores of the region’s iconic drops, I found myself loving the range of Tempranillo, Sangiovese and the heavier Cabernet blends. My friend, a mad keen Australian wine taster and amateur connoisseur had to taste every Grenache on offer and there were plenty for him to sample. I tried my hand at Chardonnays, reasoning that if any region was going to change my opinion of them it would be this one but no. I came away with a better opinion of Australian Chardonnays but not a convert.

Shiraz and Cabernet vines.

We mostly stopped at smaller wineries that we were not at all familiar with. They have so much more personality and passion and I found it easier to engage with the staff behind the bar and learn about their wine and the region. My favourite winery was Hugh Hamilton, partly for the delightful set-up but mostly because I could happily have bought a mixed dozen and enjoyed every drop. 

The selection at Hugh Hamilton. Greatly enjoyed.

The vines and the view from Hugh Hamilton cellar door.

We stopped at a few large, more well-known wineries such as Wirra Wirra and Kangarilla Road, the last stop for our whole trip, where  we spent a delightful 45 minutes slowly sampling the full range.  

Wirra Wirra have Sunday afternoon jazz in the vines, with local bands, picnic platters and of course,
large glasses of scrumptious Shiraz.

Trebuchet / catapult ...nothing like naming your wines after Medieval siege weapons.

This was typical of the cellars. I have rarely had a bad experience at any cellar door anywhere in the world, because the people pouring the wine are also the people who make it, who love it and who know everything there is to know about their drop and their region. Perched on stools, or propping up the bar, I got a thorough education on McLaren Vale from some of the friendliest people one could hope to meet.

Metal artisty outside Penny's Hill.

At our second tasting stop at Coriole (where I bought the 2010 Chenin Blanc and Sangiovese as well as a bottle for that evening) I got a little insight and learning thanks to some locals. The tasting bar was full of tourists enjoying the whites reds and bowls of olives. A couple, obviously locals, came in and from the side of the counter ordered and were given a dozen clean skins for $6 a bottle. Some of you may not be surprised by that, but I had never thought to ask for a clean skin at a cellar door. But of course many of them produce clean skins. Mostly for the local market and certainly not advertised for tourists, but from then on we asked at our favourite cellars if they had clean skins and we got a couple of bottles of good late night plonk for next to nothing. 

Tip: when you’re at a cellar door and enjoying the wine, ask if they make a cleanskin.

At the end of the day, usually around 4pm, we would retire to sit on our porch with a deck of cards and drink a bottle that we’d picked up during the day. We might also knock off a bottle from our resident cellar-door a mere 10 metres away.

Tasting glasses at Oxenberry. Impeccable hosts, helpful and generous. 

Unfortunately, I cannot report on many of the local restaurants because by evening time, we were too pickled and lazy to make it out of the cottage. Home-made cheese and charcuterie platters were the order of day for evening meals, perhaps followed by a walk into town to see how pumping McLaren Vale was on a Saturday night life. Not hugely. Though there is a nice selection of restaurants for breakfast to evening meals and they seemed to be very popular with locals and down-time visitors more socially active than us. The few places we did try were for breakfast – The Green Room on High Street, Wilunga and the Deep Blue Café in Moana, both very tasty. Ekhidna Cellar Door and Kitchen did an excellent tapas plate, though I wasn’t excited by their wines and The Vale Inn, just out of town, was a great pub to stop at for a beer tasting, bowl of duck fat wedges and afternoon card game.

We took some time out on the Sunday to visit Hahndorf and sample some beer and wurst.

One small consideration that makes a huge difference to me, is that the majority of wineries in McLaren will allow you to buy a mixed dozen from amongst the local producers and then box it up and send it home for you, if you buy the last bottle from them. Such a small thing but when wineries refuse to package and post for you unless you buy a dozen, I find it very frustrating and it prevents me from purchasing as much wine as I otherwise would. I cannot afford to buy mixed dozens of every bottle I enjoy and I would not want to.  I prefer to buy one, maybe two of my favourites to be savoured at home. The other challenge is to get to a post office on time – difficult enough at home, let along on holiday. Having a local offer to do it for you a take away all the stress was fantastic!

In McLaren Vale I bought 15 bottles from 7 different vineyards and the winery I was staying at very generously offered to box it up for me and send it home the morning I was leaving. It arrived home within a couple of days, so very exciting!

My box of goodies!

If you enjoy wine holidays, and who the hell doesn’t, I would recommend McLaren in a heartbeat. Small, easy to get to and around and full of charming people and delicious drops. It is a laid back and delicious get away. 

We stayed at Oxenberry cottages and I would heartily recommend them as a place to stay.

If you are by chance curious, my wine selections were:
  • Coriole 2011 Chenin Blanc
  • Coriole 2011 Sangiovese
  • Penny’s Hill 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon
  • Kangarilla Road 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon
  • Kangarilla Road 2010 Sangiovese
  • K1 by Geoff Hardy 2011 Rose
  • Hugh Hamilton 2011 Sangiovese Rose ‘Floozie’
  • Hugh Hamilton 2011 Tempranillo ‘Scoundrel’
  • Wirra Wirra 2007 Church Block Cabernet Sauvignon Shiraz Merlot ‘Catapault’
  • Wirra Wirra 2010 Shiraz

Topped up with a few quiet bottles from our home cellar:
  • Oxenberry 2010 Shiraz Grenache ‘Two Tribes’
  • Oxenberry 2010 Shiraz Cabernet ‘The Bullocks’

I had a few hours to spare between arriving back in Adelaide and my flight home. 

An inquisitive swan.

A fashion shoot outside the Adelaide Festival Centre.

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