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The Festival of Adelaidean Shiraz
Comparing the Adelaidean-Mount Lofty Range to the Rhone Valley
Saturday, 14th June, 2014  - David Farmer

I have the view that the significance of the Adelaidean-Mount Lofty Range vineyard region is greater than currently understood and, to offer a comparison, believe it to be more significant than the Rhone Valley. My reasoning for elevating the Adelaidean-Mount Lofty Range above the Rhone Valley develops from two thoughts; comparing their respective wine quality and weighing up the diversity of styles and varieties which each produce. I accept that the Adelaidean-Mount Lofty region is bigger than the Rhone Valley so more should be expected.

As a wine merchant my role is to guide customers towards value and the great deal of publicity received by the Rhone means the wines fetch far higher prices than those from the Adelaidean-Mount Lofty Range. As the wines are comparable, why is this?

At times I feel Australians do not understand the riches we are blessed with so our Festival is to draw your attention to some of the best we have found from this region. Now let me see if I can convince you of my reasoning.


The Historical Background of the Adelaidean-Mount Lofty Range

Adelaide was founded in 1836 and like Sydney in 1788 the cycle began of grazing, clearing the land, planting and cultivating crops. Reading about these first South Australian settlers you can only admire their toughness and staying power.

The new arrivals came with vine cuttings, probably collected from the Cape of Good Hope and these were later supplemented with vines from Sydney and Hobart. I imagine vines might have been on Kangaroo Island as it had been a settlement for a few decades.

Alas the high hopes turned soon enough to tough times as money was short and no doubt the founding fathers hoped and prayed for a few lucky breaks.

The fruitfulness of the vines and the wine quality was referred to quite early and astonishingly by 1862 Ebenezer Ward was able to write; 'Vineyards and Orchards of South Australia' which describes visits to 42 vineyards and wineries.

That same year Auld and Burton had established an office in London to distribute wines from their Auldana vineyard in the Adelaide Hills and they were followed in 1871 by the London importers P.B. Burgoyne who specialised, at least in the early years in the wines of South Australia.

In the 1880s the French supplies of wine to the U. K faltered as phylloxera spread and vineyard plantings and exports leapt ahead from the new colony.

The French replanted and the balance of supply shifted again but the period of Federation opened markets in other states plus phylloxera had devastated the Victorian vineyards.

South Australia with the other states then entered a long dark period for table wines as the taste of the English consumer, or that part of the market that would accept Australian wines, changed to sweet fortified wines.

The promising start for table wines in Australia also wilted and by the start of the First World War fortified wines had become the standard drink.

I have not researched the period from 1880 to say 1920 and do not fully understand this shift in consumer tastes.

The market awakening for table wines had to wait to the 1950s and it was an exciting time to watch the replacement of fortified wines with the vast array of table wines that appeared in the period from the 1960s to the 1980s.


Making Wines in a Warm to Hot Climate

Table wines were of course made in South Australia during the era of fortified wines which provided a base of knowledge of the wine making processes for the changes which were to come.

It may be wrong to nominate people and dates and say this is when the table wine era started though it is recognised that the 1950s experiments begun by Max Schubert at Penfolds helped in the understanding of how valuable the vineyards resource, planted so long ago, was to become.

The first Grange of 1951 and the great number of experimental Bin Number wines which flowed over the next decade proved beyond doubt that very great wine could be made in the warm climate regions of South Australia.

Technical developments also allowed great white wines to be produced and the scene was now set to win the minds of the Australian consumers.

Advanced thinkers from overseas, such as Andre Simon who visited Australia in the mid 1960s, understood that a renaissance had begun. Today the acceptance of table wine has been won but I wonder even now if the riches of Australian wines are really understood by local consumers, let alone overseas.

Marketing and thus acceptance of premium wine is a complex art and one where we need to sharpen our skills.

One of the interesting aspects of wine is to observe the full display of irrational beliefs that quickly flower, subside to be replaced by another; thus we should not get to concerned that a moment of doubt has spread among opinion makers overseas about the worth of Australian warm climate wines.

Much harder to counter are the long and passionately held notions about quality which directly connects with how consumers spend their money though these can be shifted with time.

Comparing the Adelaidean-Mount Lofty Region with the Rhone Valley

Similar in length we compare two regions famous for Shiraz or Syrah.

1. The Southern Flinders (33.19 S-Port Pirie) to Kangaroo Island (35.65 S-Kingscote)

The Festival of Adelaidean Shiraz promotes the range on offer at Glug. It also highlights the bigger picture of the diversity of premium wines being made in the long sweep of country from the Southern Flinders to Kangaroo Island.

Climatically this hilly country offers a very favourable setting for vineyards.

The highest parts of the range rise to 600 metres and there are numerous vineyard sites at variable altitudes while the low altitude seaside setting to the west is balanced by a low altitude inland setting to the east.

The Murray River parallels the eastern slopes and at its mouth is impounded by coastal dunes to form the large lake system, Lake Alexandrina. Vineyards planted close to the lake edge and others at moderate altitudes further inland offer an unusual and favourable setting as they collect the inland heat while being cooled by lake and ocean breezes.

On the ocean side, Gulf St Vincent, vineyards are planted a few tens of metres above sea level and at suitable locations at higher altitudes. Since the Adelaidean-Mount Lofty range extends south into higher latitudes it is possible to explore more marginal, cooler sites.

With weather and rain normally coming from the west the rainfall drops away as you move eastward. Past the central divide the country is much drier and riskier for vines. The eastern part of the Eden Valley is an example.

This makes the Barossa Valley an unexpected bonus as in this drier zone a fault has created a flat lying valley which is filled with fertile soil and being lower in altitude than the surrounding hills means a warmer, richer wine style is created.

Today we are seeing the hard work of decades of vineyard expansion, and Adelaidean-Mount Lofty region now produces a staggering range of warm to cool climate varietal wines.

While the warm climate styles began with the early settlers it is through the expansion of vineyards into the wetter cooler areas, encompassed within the Adelaide Hills region and further south, which renewed focus on the whole region and announced that something breathtaking was underway.

2. The Rhone Valley - Lyon (45.76 N) to Arles (43.68 N)

If the relief from hot weather in the Adelaidean-Mount Lofty Range comes from altitude and sea breezes the reverse is required in the Rhone Valley which is to capture and retain the summer heat.

Thus the landscape contrast of the two regions could not be greater; a long hilly range which acts to dissipate heat compared to a river valley and hilly slopes which maximise heat retention into the evening.

In this respect the Rhone Valley is like many other European regions where vineyards are planted on slopes, protected if possible, which can maximise exposure to the sun. These vineyards often but not always face west.

The Rhone Valley has one similarity to our Adelaidean region in that it also runs north-south and give or take a bit covers a similar spread of about 2 degrees latitude.

The striking difference of the northern and southern hemispheres is of course the distribution of land with much more vineyard land in the northern hemisphere being above 40 N. In the southern hemisphere any vineyards south of 42 S is very marginal and financially risky.

I have noted the latitudes of both regions to illustrate the contrast and while latitude has an important bearing on wine flavours there are many other variables and how these are interpreted lies outside the scope of this general summary.


Comparing the Regions - Adelaidean-Mount Lofty Region with the Rhone Valley

Comparing wine quality from different regions is a difficult exercise. Listing the Adelaidean-Mount Lofty regions against the Rhone regions does highlight another difference which is the gulf that separates the two on consumer or brand recognition. Australia has barely begun to walk down this road.

Here is a listing of the geographical and wine names of the two regions:

1. Adelaidean Mount Lofty

Southern Flinders - Baroota

Clare Valley

Barossa Valley

Eden Valley

Adelaide Hills

Adelaide Plains - Gawler

Adelaide

Reynella

McLaren Vale

Langhorne Creek

Currency Creek

Fleurieu Peninsula

Kangaroo Island

2. Rhone Valley

Cote Rotie

Condrieu

Saint Joseph

Crozes hermitage

Hermitage

Cornas

Chateauneuf du Pape

Cotes Du Rhone

Cotes du Rhone Villages

Gigondas

Vacqueyras

Montelimar to Avignon (many interesting styles.)

The French regions have developed over many decades or centuries and the boundaries are to highlight and preserve the unique character of each district. There are strict labelling rules which apply to the wines of each reason to preserve the regions integrity.

The Australian regions are more recent with the formalising of boundaries beginning in the 1980s.

Both regions have the same problem which is boundaries are simply an artefact and cannot enclose a taste style. The French have used their regions, in my view cleverly, to group like producers under a common marketing banner.

This though comes at a cost which is to stifle innovation and should not be followed in Australia.


Similarities and Differences

The northern and southern hemispheres are different with a greater land mass versus a greater water mass. Only the tail end of South America can explore cool to cold climate zones in a methodical way. I'm still puzzling over the meaning of this distinction though with the influence of Antarctica as well it roughly means that cool climate zones can be found hundreds of kilometres closer to the equator in the Southern Hemisphere.

This is just as well as it makes Tasmania and the southern fringe of Australia well positioned for cool climate wines at sea level.

The Adelaidean-Mount Lofty region is wider and longer than the Rhone Valley though it widens as it flows south ending in a delta. South of Montelimar the vineyard regions spread apart and are no longer confined to the Rhone Valley.

When comparing it to the Adelaidean-Mount Lofty region it could also be argued that the Rhone region should be extended north along the Saone River to include the very interesting and famous cool climate districts. This in turn highlights a southerly progression from pinot noir and chardonnay to warm climate varietals.

Differences are found in flavours with less extract and alcohol being apparent from the Rhone Valley wines unless the vintage is abnormally warm. Most vintages in the Adelaidean-Mount Lofty region can produce wines over 15% and depending on the winemaker's personal views even over 16%.

There is much detail to add though I think this is enough for Glug customers to focus on the remarkable world-class wines which by all measures are great bargains which are available right at your doorstep. Dollar for dollar they offer better value than Rhone wines.

As we say at Glug concentrate on what is in the glass and what you have paid rather than becoming fixated on regions or varieties. Thinking the big picture is more enjoyable and cheaper.

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