The McLaren Vale, a mere 30-minute drive from Adelaide, is one of Australia’s premier wine tourism destinations. It is beautifully laid out in a natural amphitheatre, with some hilltops affording a ravishing view of the ocean and the Willunga Hills. The heavy money ensures that the vineyards look gorgeous and the cellar doors are spectacular and state-of-the-art, a fusion between chic restaurant happenings and hip tasting rooms.
Unfortunately, I haven’t got time to appreciate any of this, as I am late for my appointment with Ulithorne, so I have to make do with a quick drive around some of the vineyards with winemaker Matt Copping and general manager Ryan Kinghorn.
The original 30-acre Ulithorne vineyard, planted in 1971 by the Harrison family in Blewitt Springs, on the north side of the Onkaparinga River, produced and sold some of the best grapes in the region to Wirra Wirra and Rosemount. In 1997, Sam Harrison and his wife Rose Kentish leased and subsequently purchased the vineyard. In 1998, they planted a further 14 acres of Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon on the north facing hills. In 2002, they purchased another 25 acres from their neighbour, planting 1/3 Merlot and 2/3 Shiraz. Using a number of wineries, they developed a European-influenced range of wines, winning multiple awards, culminating in Rose winning the highly coveted ‘Bushing Queen” – McLaren Vale Winemaker of the Year – in 2008.
Following the sale of Ulithorne by Rose in November of 2017, the new owners decided to concentrate their winemaking at one winery at McLaren Flat, and invest in further vineyards and infrastructure. “This is where we are building our Cellar Door operation,” says Ryan. Standing on the brow of Amery Hill in the central part of the vale, just off the Kays Road, I am almost blown over by the sea breeze whipping in off the Gulf St Vincent. No wonder they can produce cool climate fruit here.
He points to the d’Arenberg winery, about half a mile away, where Chester Osborn’s famous Rubik’s Cube – the cause of much debate in the valley – is very visible.
This is excellent land. We are surrounded by signs for Hardy’s, Pannell’s and Angove’s. “This is the prime land of the McLaren Vale,” says Matt. “It’s here in the hills where the best fruit is grown, you’ve got the breezes, the altitude and the light and sandy dune soil. This allows us to produce really well balanced red grapes with a floral feel to them.”
Of the 12,000 cases produced annually, half of which is exported, 50% is from owned grapes and 50% is bought in. In addition, Ryan and Matt are going through various vineyards looking for old forty to fifty year old vines to either buy or lease.
At Hallgarten we are bringing in five wines:
Fresh lemon curd and white peach blend of Marsanne, Viogner and Pinot Gris;
60% Grenache dominated blend, heavily influenced by the southern Rhone – a rich cherry and plum extravaganza;
Typically northern Rhone-influenced plum and pepper and chocolate wine;
Chi Grenache Shiraz
An oak-influenced (though not necessarily oak-evidence) blend which has serious dark fruit and herby nuances;
Showing what Amery is capable of – heady and perfumed and gamey, with subtle lavender and thyme notes; delicious
It’s an exciting time for Matt. He previously worked at Haselgrove when they won Dark Horse Winery of the Year in Halliday’s 2015 Wine Companion. Recently appointed winemaker to Ulithorne following Rose’s departure, he relishes the challenge.
It is from a vineyard just 100 metres away that they source some of the material for the Dona GSM blend. “The fruit here ripens each year in differing pockets, with unique and brilliant profiles,” says Matt. “Each variety is hand-picked throughout the vintage in super premium parcels that become small batch fermentations dedicated to our finest wines. So the wines come to represent the ‘heart and soul’ of each vine.”
Rose Kentish had developed Ulithorne in tandem with her winemaking projects in Europe, and Ryan explains that “the influence of the Rhone region will always be with us – Matt will be doing a vintage at Châteauneuf-du-Pape this Autumn. We intend to continue with the minimalist winemaking philosophy. We look for purity of style that our wines are renowned for.”
Like everyone else, Matt is getting twitchy. The vintage is still two weeks away and he can’t wait to get started. As I drive away back to Adelaide to catch a plane, I think of Rose Kentish’s parting words:
“I am very proud of the Ulithorne legacy, created and nurtured over the last nineteen years. I have put every ounce of my passion and ability into the Ulithorne wines up to and including the 2016 Australian and 2014 French vintages. I wish the new caretakers of that legacy the best of luck.”
Let’s hope Matt and his team can live up to that legacy!