Wine Weekends In McLaren Vale

By Steve Leszczynski


A stunning region nestled between the Gulf of St Vincent and the Mt Lofty Ranges, McLaren Vale is bounding along on the balls of its feet. With more than 80 cellar doors to choose from, sea breezes play a massive part in the area’s Mediterranean climate.

The first vines were put in the dirt back back in 1838. Today, just about 90% of these trunks are red varieties. Described by some as a ‘workhorse’, shiraz accounts for nearly 50% of all vines. However, on a recent trip, I found out first hand that grenache is the variety bringing sexy back and really stamping its authority. It’s fair to say it’s now the region’s flagship, and in the eyes of many, the best grenache in Australia (and perhaps the world).

What makes grenache such a pleasurable drink is its ‘pinotesque’ appearance and medium body. One misconception is that because it looks light, it’s light on delivery too. Not so. Corrina Wright, winemaker at McLaren Vale winery Oliver’s Taranga, is a massive grenache fan herself and says, “For years producers have been screaming into the wind.” Now, after all these years, it seems consumer trends are demonstrating a shift. Wright goes on to tell me that winemakers are lining up to find parcels of grenache to buy as a result. This 2018 vintage alone, she fielded six calls requesting fruit and turned them all down – such is the rise in popularity. 

The Mediterranean climate has seen a boom in Mediterranean varieties planted in the region too. Whites such as fiano produce aromatic and textured wines. Red varieties including nero d’Avola, sangiovese, barbera, tempranillo and even the Georgian beauty saperavi have all found a happy home in this ideal coastal region.

Another element setting McLaren Vale apart is their participation in the Sustainable Australia Winegrowing Program. This is the only sustainable viticulture program of its kind in Australia with approximately 40% of the region’s total vineyards represented. The goal and emphasis of the program is to identify key factors to sustainable wine growing including environmental, social and economic factors.

Only recently, something which has really driven renewed interest in the region has been the opening of d’Arenberg’s Cube. A vision of Chester Osborn’s for many years, this finally became a reality at the end of 2017. An incredible sensory experience, tourists are flocking to this new icon, and deservedly so. Just six months after opening, the d’Arenberg Cube received a prestigious Good Design Award, the highest honour for design innovation in Australia, announced at the 60th annual ceremony held at the Sydney Opera House. Osborn is a McLaren Vale man through and through. The spin off for local businesses has been tremendous with many cellar doors experiencing an increase in patronage as a result. Osborn couldn’t be any more delighted.

Only a 45 minute drive from the airport or CBD, it’s time to pack the car up and hit the road for two days of good times and explore some wineries, some of which you may never have heard of nor contemplated.

Day 1

0900 – Start the day with some salty air in your lungs and sand between your toes with a walk at expansive and striking Maslin Beach. A beautiful place to relax, the beach was also the first in Australia to allow nude bathing. Fear not though, that section of the beach is clearly signed so you won’t get caught out if that’s not your thing.

1000 – Brash Higgins wines. Brad Hickey is passionate, knowledgeable and loves the Vale and its surrounds. He’s all about quality and site-specific winemaking. His cellar door visits are by appointment only, and if you want to get things off to a brilliant start and you love your wine, this is a must-do. Make the appointment! When you do, you will be guided through the wines by the man himself – not many tasting experiences give you direct access to the winemaker. Hickey makes some of his wines in clay pots (amphora), and with his passion for minimal intervention wines and texture, some are made with organic and biodynamic fruit – including fruit from his Omensetter vineyard. You will walk away from here all the better for it. Try his amphora fermented nero d’Avola – the first crop of the variety planted in the district. You’ll never smell another wine with a perfume like it. His killer grenache mataro blend and his new mataro, cinsault, carignan blend are only but a few on his exciting list.

1130 – Grab a quick bite at Home Grain bakery. One of those outstanding country town bakeries that doesn’t miss the mark. Their pies are fantastic - I should know, I’ve had a few!

1200 – One of the most respected winemakers in the region is Tim Geddes. A newly refurbished cellar door will greet you on arrival. Geddes’ wines are cleverly crafted without the BS. A down-to-earth guy, a trip to Geddes Wines will see you embrace some fantastic Grenache and clever blends at a reasonable price.

1330 – Undoubtedly, one of the best sites in the McLaren Vale region is Yangarra Estate. All fruit is estate grown. In 2008, the whole vineyard moved over to organic and biodynamic practices and these were certified in 2012. Sit down for a tasting and see the various soil profiles in the tasting room and get knee deep in your understanding of how soils impact the final product. The range of wines is all class. From the entry level Old Vine grenache to the lofty heights of the High Sands grenache and Lionheart shiraz, your taste buds will thank you. Take it from me, the High Sands is the best grenache you will ever put past your lips.

1500 – You cannot go to McLaren Vale without, as some of the locals now say, ‘getting Cubed’. Be consumed by the art and interpretation of how music, art, food and wine all come together in unison. The tasting room on the top floor is a perfect vantage point to get a different perspective on the region while embracing a choice from 30+ wines for tasting. Apart from a standard tasting, visitors can pay an extra fee to access the exclusive range of tastings such as Geological Journey Single Vineyard shiraz, Old Vine shiraz planted between 1900-1925, Super Rhones with whites facing off against reds or Savour the Earth highlighting the distinct d’Arenberg style. You can even go a step further and take part in a blending experience. Compare and contrast different samples of shiraz and walk away with your own 750mL creation. That in itself is an experience full of stories for a dinner party months down the track.

1630 – If the Cube was all a bit too hectic and you need to unwind, turn right at the end of the driveway and drop in to the new Swell Beer brewery set to open summer 2018. Grab a Pale Ale - a personal fave.

1730 – There’s no better place to watch the sun go down than the Victory Hotel. Drive 25 minutes south towards Sellicks Beach. Kick back on the grass in the beer garden. The view is superb and well worth the drive. Stay a bit longer and enjoy a meal and explore the extensive wine list. A great way to close out day one.

Day 2

1000 – Step back in time to the 1860s, the date the Coriole cellar door was constructed. Embrace the superb vista from the lawn before heading inside to taste through cleverly crafted wines. Coriole have made a name for themselves with shiraz, and, of late, Mediterranean varieties. Be sure to taste their forever reliable sangiovese, delicious nero d’Avola and the most recent addition to their range, a negroamaro.

1130 – Brace yourself for my absolute favourite cellar door experience in Australia. No one makes you feel more relaxed than the folk at Samuel’s Gorge. Grab a glass and find a seat, a bar to lean against, or just lie out on the lawn. The friendly staff will come to you and walk you through the wines while you kick back and forget the time and embrace the moment. Owner Justin McNamee is all about letting the wine speak for its place and just simply being delicious. And delicious is what you’ll find with his Pinata People gamay and his top notch grenache. If you don’t leave, don’t blame me.

1300 – Cruise on down the road to Beach Road for a relaxed wood fired pizza lunch. With a spectacular view over the vineyards as you sit under big shady trees sipping on a glass, days like these is why you love holidays. 

1430 – A stone’s throw up the road is the splendid Oliver’s Taranga cellar door. A proud family business with the sixth generation now at the helm, this cozy cottage is an idyllic setting for an intimate tasting experience. Indulge in cleverly crafted wines from the hands of highly acclaimed Corrina Wright. Not only is Wright known as a fiano queen, her vermentino and grenache are well worth sampling. The family’s HJ shiraz is food for the soul. For 170 years, grape growing has been in the family’s veins. It’s no surprise that they also sell off fruit which finds its way into Grange.

1545 – A wine producer making all the right noises in recent years is S.C. Pannell. A hop, skip and jump from Oliver’s Taranga, the gorgeous outlook from the cellar door over the vines and out to the gulf is one to savour. Be sure to indulge in the super food friendly grenache rosé, award-winning syrah and grenache plus some interesting blends. 

Dinner? Go out with a bang at the super classy Salopian Inn. With an extensive list of drinks and delectable menu, there’s no better way to close out your McLaren Vale experience.

Stay? There are a multitude of options dotted throughout the landscape, but consider the newly opened Hotel California Road at Inkwell Wines. A unique experience awaits with 20 shipping containers fused together creating an ideal retreat dropped smack bang in the middle of a vineyard. Along with its stylish fit out, the best bath tub view in McLaren Vale awaits. 

To read more of Steve’s work, check out Q Wine Reviews!