Getting to know the world of South Australian wine
There's a new wave of winemakers making full use of South Australia's rich and varied terroirs, and the results are pretty impressive. We head down under to get a taste of the stuff
- By Ronan J O'Shea -
Although we've only been driving away from the city for 15 minutes, the skyscrapers of Adelaide are a distant memory as we head out into the countryside. Hills snake and bend, trees grow larger and more verdant, criss-crossing above us into a canopy. The fields stretch for miles and, scorched yellow, are ready for a few months' rest after a long summer, while the occasional "kangaroos crossing" sign is a dead giveaway that I'm a very long way from home.
My guide, David – an Adelaide native and wine journalist – pulls up outside the Summertown Aristologist, a whitewashed building with a couple of tables and chairs outside that looks more like a saloon than a restaurant and wine cellar. Half expecting a snaggle-toothed old-timer to ward me off the porch with a thousand-yard stare and gentle tap of his shotgun, I'm pleased to discover those inside this former grocery store are welcoming.
Owner Aaron Fenwick isn't your typical wine connoisseur. Fully bearded, with a rake of tattoos down each arm, he looks more Dalston hipster than wine guy, which makes him exactly the right person to tell us about the bunch of creative young winemakers shaking things up in South Australia's Adelaide Hills region.
As we chat, Fenwick opens a bottle from Commune of Buttons, a winery from the Basket Range area. Eschewing a corkscrew, he opts instead for a huge bowie knife, which he then duly tosses to the floor before doling out healthy measures of a fantastic natural white wine. It's a far cry from any stuffy elitism you might find in certain London restaurants, but don't mistake that for ignorance.
Over the next hour, I'm given a glug-by-glug education in the past, present and future of wine in the Adelaide Hills and beyond – and it's eye-opening.
Grapes have been grown and wine produced in South Australia since it was settled in the 19th century, but only in relatively recent times has its reputation begun to filter further afield. As a state, "SA", as they call it here, was a planned settlement rather than a colony – this, combined with an arid climate, goes a long way to explaining its development.
The state benefits from hugely diverse terroirs, often in one valley, sometimes even within the same vineyard. McLaren Vale, for example, is believed to have been as mountainous as the Himalayas twice throughout the aeons, a tumultuous change in landscape which has left the now-relatively flat region enormously varied in terms of soil types. This gives modern, more knowledgeable (and adventurous) grape growers the ability to both experiment with varietals and maximise the land available to them by planting higher-yielding vines.
South Australia benefits from hugely diverse terroirs, often within one vineyard
In previous years, growers stuck with whatever worked first, not necessarily what worked best. These days, modern technology and research are allowing them to pinpoint the most efficient way of using their soil, and young winemakers like those in the Adelaide Hills are reaping the rewards.
Historically, as a settled state, people came here by choice, though the word must be considered in relative terms; the grape escape is an apt way of describing a necessity rather than adventure. Irish Catholics came to Clare (naming it after the Irish county) to escape famine; Lutheran Germans to flee a king displeased with their desire for religious freedom. While others were forced to the antipodes through the legal system (of sorts), here politics, religion, opportunity or just plain hunger were the driving force.
Those who came here found what David describes as "magic soil". Fruit and vegetables grew in abundance, but the money was in the vines, and it wasn't long before wineries across the state began to export their wines back to the old world. In time, winemaking – along with subsistence farming – became the lifeblood of the region.
While survival may have been the goal back then, many people continue to find purpose through the soil to this day.
Taking the highway south from Adelaide to McLaren Vale, I'm met at the door of winery Brash Higgins by its owner, Brad Hickey. A gentle giant of a man, the Chicagoan spent a summer picking grapes here around a decade ago, during which time he earned the nickname that now adorns his wines.
"Everyone gets a nickname in Australia," he tells me as we take a drive over the rolling hills of McLaren Vale, looking out over rugged coastline. "But to be American and get a nice one from the Aussies you have to be lucky."
The reason behind it was circumspect but not unusual; wineries would historically write down their employees' 'names' on the off-chance immigration officials turned up, ensuring they had something to show.
Staying under the radar just long enough to fall in love with the place (and a local woman to boot), he decided to stick around, and has since made a name for himself as a winemaker of high-quality organic wines. As we sit enjoying one of them (a lively, spicy blend of grenache and mataro) that afternoon, it becomes clear he's as eager as anyone to extol the quality of South Australian wine and that 'magic soil'. Indeed, the interior of his house is home to a wall-sized map showing the terroir of the valley, and the vast diversity of soil.
Throughout my time in the state, toil and luck seem to be the key elements that drive people. The following day, while walking around Coomunga Wines in Port Lincoln (not traditionally a key wine area but one that's starting to make noises), winemaker Peter Clutterbuck shows me his method of deciding when to harvest. Using a small device called a refractometer, he can measure the acidity of his grapes. It's not rocket science, but like everything in the business, it requires patience, strong attention to detail and more of that good fortune.
"When I was planting these," he says, pointing to a small cluster of vines on his farm, "I wasn't sure they'd do well. But that's when we discovered the soil underneath was clay."
it's what's beneath the ground that breathes life into South Australia
Clay, he explains, is ideal for certain grape varietals, its high moisture content saving him a great deal on irrigation costs. Sampling a glass later on, the fruits of both labour and luck prove impressive.
"What does Coomunga mean?" I ask, sipping from a glass as we sit in his shed. He smiles, and replies "World's best wine."
There are 27 Australian Aboriginal languages, and I'm pretty sure he's lying in every last one of them. But as I look at a flavour profile chart on his wall and try to make sense of it, I can tell one thing for sure; the man's doing something right with his grapes.
His small farm is a far cry from the winery I visit a few days later in the famous Barossa Valley, but the similarities in the approach to growing remain clear.
Standing in the foyer of Peter Lehmann Wines, the scale is grander, the decor pricier, the cellar door existent, but the principles remain the same: good grapes; hard work; fine wine.
Often cited as the modern godfather of winemaking in the state, Lehmann (prior to his death in 2013) was a larger-than-life sort of guy who famously saved the livelihoods of numerous grape-growing families working for him. In 1977, while working for the Saltram winery, he was charged with telling them their crop wouldn't be bought that year. Refusing to renege on his word, he promised the growers he'd purchase their grapes and did, at great personal risk. The rest is history: Lehmann became one of the biggest producers of wine in South Australia.
Though the company was sold to wine giant Casella in 2014, developments since have raised hopes the soul of the vineyard won't be ripped out.
Before leaving, I inspect the Queen of Hearts paintings on the walls (Lehmann was a firm believer in luck, but perhaps more importantly, a lover of 52-deck high-stake card games). I also look at the ironstone wall above the cellar door counter. Made from the very same soil used to grow his grapes, it's a reminder that with each passing season and trend, every drought and golden harvest, that it's what's beneath the ground that breathes life into South Australia. And boy, do they know how to live it.