I visited McLaren Vale in March of this year, to get a deeper sense of the place and the wines. I had a great time, but the whole while I was there, I didn’t really get the sense that I was in a valley. McLaren Vale is indeed a valley, but barely, and is a sort of lumpy one, defined more by the fact that there are some areas of uplift to the North and South, than a real sense of “valleyness” if you know what I mean.
But in the heart of McLaren vale, there is a real valley. Or perhaps more accurately, a gorge — with steep slopes plunging down to a river that flows to the Gulf of Saint Vincent a few miles away. This fissure in the midst of the McLaren vale is the Onkaparinga River National Park, a 700-acre bit of wilderness in the midst of a world-class wine growing region.
Perched on the lip of this gorge lies a 19th century farmstead, with an old stone barn, and the scrubby stumps of olive trees hinting at the harvests of the past. It was here that a young (and still young) Justin McNamee decided to go out on his own as a winemaker, and where he now practices what he refers to as “feral winemaking” in a building that is a registered historic landmark.
Justin is a great example of one of my favorite kinds of winemakers, whose enthusiasm, energy, and passion for what he is doing simply oozes out of his pores. With his shock-wild head of curly hair and ready smile, he comes across a bit like the Carrot Top of the wine world, not the least of which for his tendency to use the word “booze” instead of wine in almost any context, from fermentation, to the number of bottles consumed with fellow winemakers the night before.
Consequently, his small, rustic tasting room and the front porch of the rehabilitated old barn are about as great a wine country experience as you could hope for. The rock and roll, and often cold beer, mixed with the infectious energy of McNamee, are what make Samuel’s Gorge a true gem of the McLaren Vale.
The personality, charm, and what appears to be an uncanny stamina for partying, would mean nothing, of course, were they not backed up by good wine. For all his affable, casual humor, McNamee is a serious and even soulful winemaker. That’s where the “feral” part comes in.
Peek around the corner of the tasting room bar, past the tiny closet of an enology lab, and instead of rows of gleaming steel tanks, you will find two large fermentation… boxes, made out of ancient inch-thick slate, each about 120 years old, sitting in the shade of the barn. In these primitive tanks, McNamee makes three red wines each year: Grenache, Shiraz, and Tempranillo, all with ambient yeast fermentations, lots of time “on the skins,” no fining, no filtration and an awful lot of sweat. The vineyards, those that are irrigated at all, generally use reclaimed water, and those that McNamee owns are farmed with an (uncertified) regimen that falls somewhere between organic and biodynamic. The amount of new oak barrels used in any given vintage is generally well below 20%
“A lot of people couldn’t make wine the way I do,” says Justin. “It would frustrate them. It’s just too loose — more grungy than squeaky clean. I call it feral. It’s just a willingness to stand back from it all and let things happen. My style is more organic — I make spur of the moment decisions. The term garagiste or artisan is loosely applied to what I do, but I’m really about culture — the culture of where wine comes from, the same way that the slow food conventions are about the origins of food. Like churning butter. In the ‘old school’ is where you find flavor.”
“I’m less about trying to be everything to everyone,” he says, when asked what he’s trying to achieve with his small winery. “I decided I wanted to work with McLaren Vale reds. This place as a juxtaposition between intensity and brightness, driven by sunlight and coastal breezes. The wine is about flavor concentration at the vibrant end of the spectrum. Every glass delivers sunshine. I want to show you… for you to come away from the region knowing some of the quirkiness we’ve got in the region”
McNamee describes himself as on a journey, and like many feels like the destination is irrelevant. He’s now on his 23rd harvest in Australia, with a couple years spent in Napa and three vintages in France.
“For me, this journey was about engrossing myself in other cultures, and making a lot of cockups. It’s a journey of figuring out what king of booze I really want to make. I spent 9 years at Tatachilla doing things the big way, and then I was ready to go back to hands-on winemaking. I wanted to dive into a place and a culture. Here in McLaren vale we’re blessed with an incredible heritage, as well as such a happy community. It’s wine culture.”
In keeping with his tendency to do things his own way, McNamee uses real cork in his bottles for his wines, when nearly all of his neighbors have long abandoned it for screwcaps. “I’m very fond of cork,” he says, “but we’re on the bum end of the world. To get good [cork] product out of Europe is very very hard. You have to be close to your producer and deal directly with them. I get mine from Spain.”
Samuel’s Gorge makes about 2500 cases of wine a year, and has recently begun producing a Riesling and a Gewurztraminer from Tasmania, about which McNamee is very excited. But that’s par for the course for him.
Both McNamee and his wines have a disarming and charming energy to them, and I recommend both the bottles, and the ancient barn they’re made in to anyone who wants a taste of Australia’s true soul.
Note that several of the vintages I’ve tasted below, thanks to soft demand, are not currently available in the US.
2009 Samuel’s Gorge Riesling, Tasmania
Pale gold in the glass, this wine has a nose of bright stony pears washed by the rain. In the mouth it is crisp and bright with pear and hints of lychee and wet stone. Wonderfully clean and crisp, with a laser-like precision. Score: around 9.
2008 Samuel’s Gorge Tempranillo, McLaren Vale
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine has a nose of wet dirt, bright black cherry, and wet wood planking aromas. In the mouth, the wine offers flavors of old leather and cherry and raspberry. Bright acidity and lightly aggressive tannins embrace undertones of wet dirt and a long finish of rich dried black cherry and a hint of black olive savoriness. Distinctive and interesting. Score: around 9. Cost: $40. Click to buy.
2009 Samuel’s Gorge Tempranillo, McLaren Vale
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of stony, leathery cherry with some wonderful floral overtones. In the mouth it is lean and bright with cherry, and a fantastic, earthy-leathery note. Good acidity, nice balance, fine tannins. Some lovely dried flower aromas emerge on the finish. Score: around 9. Cost: $40. Click to buy.
2007 Samuel’s Gorge Shiraz, McLaren Vale
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine has a nose of bright blackberry fruit aromas mixed with a wonderful, savory umami character. In the mouth the wine possesses rich black cherry and cassis flavors, with great balance and excellent acidity framed by restrained, but supple tannins. Nice long blackberry fruit scents in the finish. Score: around 9. Cost: $40. Click to buy.
2007 Samuel’s Gorge Grenache, McLaren Vale
Medium to dark garnet in the glass, this wine has a really bright nose of cherry, raspberry, and english toffee notes that make the mouth water. On the palate the wine is really juicy and bright with cherry, raspberry, cocoa powder and mulling spices. Faint, but persistent tannins hang around the edges of the mouth and a nice hint of vanilla emerges on the finish, but given only about 5% new oak barrels, this aromatic note is coming from the grape. Lovely. Score: around 9. Cost: $40. Click to buy.