The taste of McLaren Vale terroir

On a clear, warm day, viticulturalist Toby Bekkers unfolded a large map and held it up against his white bus. With his other hand, he indicated the McLaren Vale, spread out below. It’s a patchwork of straw golds, browns and greens, with the blue of the ocean shimmering away right at the edge.

As Bekkers pointed out different parts of the Vale, he described its taste. “Blewett Springs is lighter, more aromatic, more perfumed,” he said. Then he switched directions and indicated the other direction. “The flats produce more dense material, used for structure.”

Winemakers and viticulturalists working in South Australia’s McLaren Vale have always known that grapes from different parcels of land tasted differently. But the knowledge was locked up in the heads of individuals and the specific impact of terroir hadn’t been clarified.

Teams of government surveyors had, however, done extensive work in the region, revealing just how complex the geology is. Along with beautiful coastlines and a Mediterranean climate, the McLaren Vale is home to a fault line, whose tectonic movements have shaped the land. Added to that the great variations in microclimates, the coastal sea breezes and the diverse range of 15 soils, from dark clays to terra rossa to sands, and the McLaren Vale is clearly a place where grapes are going to have very different expressions, depending on where they’re grown.

And yet it’s a region that has a reputation – fairly or unfairly – for producing monolithic styles of Shiraz and Cabernet. Growers Adrian Kenny and Dudley Brown are credited with realising that part of the problem was that the Vale had failed to pinpoint its best sites. The result of their insight was the Scarce Earth project.

A taste of soil

At a tasting at Scarce Earth wines at Chapel Hill winery, winemaker Michael Fragos and Shingleback’s John Davey explain how it works.

“It’s a celebration of wines from a single block,” says Fragos.

Any grower or winery that has a distinct block with Shiraz on it of at least 10 years old, can make wine from that block and enter it to the tasting panel. The wine must be Shiraz; not only is it the region’s flagship grape, but the impact of clonal selection is less significant than with other varieties. Wines are made with minimal oak, using ripe but not overripe grapes, to ensure that as little as possible interferes with the expression of the soil.

Up to three different wines can be submitted. All wines that come in from a specific geological region are then grouped together and tasted by the panel – which includes a journalist, a sommelier and winemakers – who attempt to draw conclusions about how soil influences the wine. The ultimate aim is to create a fully-fleshed terroir profile of the region, and to better understand the impact of vintage variation.

“The first tasting is in July, and the wines don’t get bottled until later in the year, so it’s a pre-bottling tasting,” says Fragos.

The project is possible because of the McLaren Vale geology map, based on the government surveys, but developed for the wine industry by a group including writer Philip White, local geologists, and Dudley and Brown. According to Australian writer Andrew Graham, the map, finalised in 2010, “is recognised as the most detailed geology map of any wine region in the world”. Its level of detail has allowed the growers and producers to beak the McLaren Vale down into 19 sub-regions.

“Scarce Earth is not about ‘is this a great site’, or ‘is this a bad site’,” says Fragos. “It’s about site expression.”

The project is also used for marketing purposes. Wines that are submitted to a Scarce Earth tasting must be available exclusively through cellar door for three months after release, and they wear a Scarce Earth band on the capsule.

“It’s to get people to come and explore the McLaren Vale,” says Davey, adding that the release of Scarce Earth wines also creates a compelling media story each year.

Joining the project offers another benefit to producers – it means smaller, more unknown wineries can have their wines presented to the public alongside famous wines. It is the wines, of course, that do the real talking, and they were remarkably diverse, with flavours ranging from herbal through to chocolate box.

Davey adds that to participate, “you need to be part of the sustainable vineyards program. It’s very much about trying to ensure best practice.” The whole point, he says, is to bring everybody together and improve the whole district.

“And it’s a lot of fun,” adds Fragos.
Felicity Carter


This article first appeared in Meininger’s Wine Business International in 2013.