There is arguably no more creatively fertile wine region in Australia right now than the Adelaide Hills. The push to plant vines in the Hills was led by some of Australia’s most established and famous names – Croser, Henschke, Shaw and Smith, Knappstein, Weaver – and while they are all still very much major players, the Hills has also been a hotbed for the avant-garde – Lucy Margaux, Ochota Barrels, Commune of Buttons, BK Wines etc. – and the cradle of the natural wine movement in this country. It’s no surprise then that the Hills have yielded up a wealth of Young Gun contenders over the years, and supplied two Young Gun winners, Taras Ochota (Ochota Barrels) and Michael Downer (Murdoch Hill). Seven makers made this year’s Top 50 – Alyson Tannenbaum at Vinteloper, Basket Range Wine, Dylan Lee at Bird in Hand, Golden Child, Main & Cherry, Scout and Spider Bill Wines.
The Adelaide Hills started out and mainly progressed as a fairly ‘classic’ region, growing noble French varieties and bringing them to bottle in pretty traditional ways. And the Hills still does that exceptionally well. But as the millennium clicked over, a new movement based around natural wine had begun to bubble, with Anton van Klopper, of Lucy Margaux, widely regarded as the linchpin.
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Today, that lo-fi, organic-centric movement – with Basket Range as its spiritual home – has flourished, and it happily shares space with the established order. There are now over 50 cellar doors in the Hills, and it is also well served with restaurants. Van Klopper, in partnership with Jasper Button (Commune of Buttons) the 2016 YGOW Best New Act, and Taras Ochota (the 2013 YGOW) even operate their own lauded venues – Summertown Aristologist and Lost in a Forest, respectively – that are built around the same artisan philosophy that pulses through their wines.
Dining at the Summertown Aristologist.
There are now around 100 Adelaide Hills wine labels, although many producers from warmer zones, like McLaren Vale and the Barossa, source cool climate varieties from there, too. Major quality players like Henschke, who have made their name from their Eden Valley base and the Barossa more broadly, have invested deeply in the Hills, and were amongst the first modern pioneers to plant in the region, principally in Lenswood.
Matt Gant of First Drop in the Barossa won the inaugural YGOW in 2007 with a montepulciano from the Adelaide Hills – which, at the time, was relatively unheard of from the Hills. Fast forward to today, and montepulciano is one of the fastest growing varietal wines in Australia.
It’s also not uncommon to come across Adelaide Hills producers sourcing fruit from throughout the state, from McLaren Vale to the Riverland. For example, cutting-edge makers like Unico Zelo (2015 YGOW People’s Choice Award winners) make examples of fiano and nero d’avola from both the Hills and the Riverland, exploring variety through territory, and vice versa. Amongst this year’s Top 50, Main & Cherry extend to McLaren Vale for fruit, while Vinteloper sources from a number of other regions in the state.
The Adelaide Hills were originally planted in the 1840s, but the cool conditions were not ideal at the time to provide a reliable yield, and vine diseases that came with the conditions were difficult and expensive to control at the time. The plantings dwindled in the early 20th century before disappearing entirely. The 80s and 90s saw cool climate zones across Australia burgeon, and the Adelaide Hills was no different.
The first modern foray into the Hills was very much built around chardonnay, pinot noir, sauvignon blanc and, to a lesser degree, riesling.
“We have so many different microclimates. We’ve got warmer areas. We’ve got higher areas. The possibilities are really endless as to what we can plant.”
Chardonnay is still the marquee white – the marquee wine – but there has been considerable focus on some so-called alternative varieties, with fiano, savagnin, chenin blanc, prosecco and – notably – grüner veltliner making their mark. Led by Hahndorf Hill, the grüner baton has been picked up by makers like CRFT, who have benefitted from the access to fruit grown in different sites in the Hills, illustrating the immense potential there for Austria’s most important grape.
After some early excitement, pinot noir was largely seen as only a modest success – though that is changing now. Chardonnay certainly took the quality lead, as did sauvignon blanc, which is now the most planted variety. Pinot gris has found a meaningful niche, as has shiraz, and it stakes a claim to the best territory for nebbiolo in the country, though plantings are currently limited. Gamay, pinot meunier, nero d’avola and cabernet franc are proving exciting prospects, and blending across varieties has opened up even more possibilities, perhaps best exemplified by Michael Downer’s melange of pinots gris, noir and meunier.
Murdoch Hill source some of their pinot meunier from this vineyard high (525m) in the Piccadilly Valley, a subregion of the Adelaide Hills.
Shiraz or syrah, as it is so often called in the Hills, has made huge strides over the years. For some time, there was a warm-climate bias for shiraz in South Australia, with the Adelaide Hills thought far too cool to grow intense and powerful shiraz. And it is. But seeing that as a problem is only valid if you think shiraz has to be big and powerful, and that view has changed considerably.
It’s fair to say that the Adelaide Hills is a cool climate region, but beyond that, it defies boxing in. The altitude varies considerably, and the nature of the terrain means that there are so many vineyard aspects and localised climatic conditions that what may thrive on one site may be totally unviable on another. Tarrant Hansen, of Spider Bill Wines, believes that while the Hills has its established strengths, the future will be about diversity.
“We have so many different microclimates. We’ve got warmer areas. We’ve got higher areas. The possibilities are really endless as to what we can plant,” says Hansen. “I think Italian varieties are going to thrive in the Hills… There’s some vested interest there, as they’re what I really enjoy drinking. I want to plant nerello mascalese, when it finally gets out of quarantine… There’s probably a spot in the Adelaide Hills for the vast majority of them [Italian grapes].”
“It’s a 70-kilometre-long region, from the north, you’re getting to the Eden Valley, and then down to Kuitpo, which is nearly in McLaren Vale. So, you’ve got massive variability throughout the region. You’ve got so many pockets that you can do lots of interesting things.”
Golden Child’s vineyard source in Kuitpo, which is the most southern part of the Adelaide Hills, before McLaren Vale. Photo: John Krüger.
Alyson Tannenbaum, winemaker at Vinteloper, agrees. “We’ve talked about planting nebbiolo. There’s not a lot planted. It’s a wine, like pinot, that has a lot of mystique around it, and it’s very suited to up here – sunlight, temperature, aspect,” she says. “It’s a 70-kilometre-long region, from the north, you’re getting to the Eden Valley, and then down to Kuitpo, which is nearly in McLaren Vale. So, you’ve got massive variability throughout the region. You’ve got so many pockets that you can do lots of interesting things.”
Today, pinot noir is seeing a resurgence. For many years, Ashton Hills led the way with very little company at the high end of the quality scale. To be fair, there were good wines, but they were never seen to be in the top rank nationally, with many regarding the Hills simply as not best suited to pinot noir. But that perception is being challenged, with makers both familiar and newly minted turning out pinots of top pedigree and distinctive character.
“I think it’s changed,” says Hansen. “The natural movement – or however you want to put it – made a change in pinot that has been good for the Hills. They started picking much earlier… The Hills had been known for a ripe style of pinot, when you compare it to Victoria or Tasmania, without a lot of structure, and I think we’re moving to lower alcohol styles, way more whole bunch, and just wines that have a bit more interest.”
Hansen says this change is as much about the new wave, as it is about acknowledging what has come before. “You have to go back and look to pioneers of the Hills, like Stephen George [of Ashton Hills], I’m pretty sure he has 19 clones in his site,” says Hansen. “Clones matter. The whole of that area of Piccadilly is similar [to George’s vineyard]. It’s not just that one site. It’s how he managed it and ran his ferments. He was big into whole bunch and small ferments, and keeping all his clones separate. He was trying to show that the Adelaide Hills was a great place for pinot, which he’s proven over the last 30 years.”
This change is as much about the new wave, as it is about acknowledging what has come before. “You have to go back and look to pioneers of the Hills, like Stephen George [of Ashton Hills], I’m pretty sure he has 19 clones in his site,” says Hansen. “Clones matter. The whole of that area of Piccadilly is similar [to George’s vineyard]. It’s not just that one site. It’s how he managed it and ran his ferments. He was big into whole bunch and small ferments, and keeping all his clones separate. He was trying to show that the Adelaide Hills was a great place for pinot, which he’s proven over the last 30 years.”
The 2020 Young Gun Top 50 is a neat snapshot of the diversity of the region. Some makers walk a classic path, some spin traditional Hills varieties in different ways, some play with emerging varieties, while others are pushing the boundaries of experimentation. And that’s the Hills, a region of great diversity that will become ever more varied over time, and in such promising ways.
“I think people appreciate the good examples from all the different winemaking approaches that are happening up here,” says Tannenbaum. Even in the traditional world of regional wine shows, she has noted change is happening. “Last year, in the sparkling category there were some pét-nats, and some of them were awarded as good examples of newer styles. There’s starting to be a lot more appreciation for what people are doing and why they’re doing it. Challenging the norm can create some heated debates at times, but without it we’ve got a boring and stagnant environment that never progresses. It’s nice to be in a region and a community that’s quite dynamic.”
2019 Basket Range Wine ‘Magnolia’ $35
Orangey pink hue here, with mild haze. Lifted smoky nose, with touches of wild red and dark berries, earthy notes, orange peel, traces of wild herbs, autumn leaf and yeasty/leesy scents. There’s texture and weight to the wine, but it’s neither heavy or sweet, with spice lifting through the red fruits on the palate and assertive acid and a tug of grape tannin pulling all into fresh bright line through the palate.
2019 Basket Range Wine Pinot Noir $36
There’s a dark wildness to this, with bitter herbs seasoning notes of wild red and black cherries, crab apples and straw. This is far more savoury than fruity, with a line of minerality and earthy complexity playing down a row of assertive tannins, with a savoury dried cherry note carrying out through its length.
2019 Bird in Hand ‘Nest Egg’ Chardonnay $79
This is relatively plush, with white and yellow stone fruit and grapefruit, flashes of barrel ferment and nutty oak notes on the nose. There’s a brightness running through, with citrus zest, yellow grapefruit, bursts of orchard florals, smoky fig and crystallised pineapple. The palate has richness and texture, but it is easily buoyed by the super-racy acidity and drive. There’s a real marriage of weight and seriousness with brightness and verve.
2018 Bird in Hand Syrah $42
Heady and full-fruited expression of ripe forest berries, spices and flashes of white pepper from some whole bunch fermentation. This is fairly intense, with notes of raspberry and blackberry, and a generally smooth, silky and supple feel, with plum skin flavour and grip, and leather notes providing accents. Oak supports with a light char and coffee ground note, red fruits persisting through the finish.
2019 Golden Child ‘Eye of the Storm’ Chardonnay $28
Greeny golden, with some haze. There’s cut nashi pear, lemon barley water and mandarin peel notes, with a spicy, gingery skinsy vibe. This is bright and direct, vibrant and quite fine, but with plenty of texture and structure from skin contact and not being filtered, giving it volume and tension. Lemon barley water and ginger are on the palate, too, with chardonnay varietal character weaving in.
2019 Golden Child ‘Island Life’ Fumé Blanc $25
There are no big hit sauvignon blanc aromatics here, but this is certainly nicely aromatic. There are super-cool stone fruit aromas, with pings of citrus, cut soft herbs, sappy nectar hints, lemon pith. This has plenty of zip and furry mouth-filling texture, with the combination of tannic grip and zingy acidity giving this real character.
2019 Main & Cherry Pinot Gris ‘On Skins’ $35
(Pinot gris fermented on viognier skins.) Burnt orange/red to coppery hue with a very light haze. Lifted fragrant florals, with back notes of pear and green apple, blood orange, orange peel and a suggestion of red fruit notes, cherry skin perhaps. This is dry with a firm skinsy brush of tannin that is buffered with plenty of texture and fruit intensity. There’s an interesting balance here between structure and fruit weight, with a briskness really pulling in the fruit intensity.
2019 Main & Cherry Pinot Meunier $40
Aromatic nose flush with red and sour morello cherries, wild raspberries, pomegranate, a red apple note, and some whole bunch spice, with a little white pepper and graphite pencil. There’s a nervy tension here, with cool plum skin tannins and brightly fizzing acidity, the fruit hanging off an elegant and vibrant frame.
2017 Scout Adelaide Hills Chardonnay $32
Light yellow gold. There’s a savoury, malty, mealy edge to the yellow peach and white nectarine notes, a dab of waxy honey, lemon pith, dried fig and some creamy notes. This is relatively rich, with waves of texture revealing pops of barrel ferment, nougat, malo and leesy notes, arcing along a line of electric but well-sheathed acidity. There’s texture and intensity, and plenty of chardonnay bells a ringin’ too, but it’s marked by a good level of restraint and composure.
2018 Spider Bill Wines Nebbiolo $40
Very classic nose here of terracotta, warm earth, rosehip and dusty spice notes sitting atop some sour and dried red fruits – cherries, pomegranate, cranberry. There’s a star anise/fennel seed note, and the wine plays down a bit of a red-fruited Langhe nebbiolo line. This is vibrant fresh, and ultra-varietal. No mistaking it. The palate is classically structured with plenty of flavour suspended on wires of acidity and grippy tannins.
2019 Spider Bill Wines Pinot Noir $30
Ripe red berries, sour dark berries, a brush of bracken, a dusting of spice, with light sour cherry liqueur and amaro herb notes carrying through the palate. This is poised and elegant, but there’s ample fruit weight and flavour, too. There’s a real sense of grape skin and stalk-derived tannin and texture, adding subtle complexity, with oak well in the background.
2019 Vinteloper ‘Park Wine’ Gewürztraminer $20
Orangey pink hue with slight haze. Classic lift of musk and talcy florals, with a real Turkish delight feel to the flavours, rosewater carried by a puff of icing sugar. This is dry, fresh and pretty linear, with none of the broad richness or sweetness you can often get in gewürz. The acidity feels soft, but there’s enough working in concert with skinsy grip to carry the wines exotic flavours through a fresh finish.
See the full list of Top 50 winemakers in the 2020 Young Gun of Wine Awards here. Join in our virtual events here, and also vote on who wins the People’s Choice until June 1.