Distillery Focus

When Grain and Grape Meet

Something is stirring at McLaren Vale
By Rob Allanson
For a young distillery, McLaren Vale has some very impressive tricks up its sleeve, particularly when it comes to casks.

You see, the fact that the Australian wine industry never suffered at the hands of the Phylloxera bug means that the nation has some of the oldest, continuously used vineyards in the world. This has meant that the country's burgeoning whisky industry has access to some seriously old casks, and by this I mean some are nearly a century old.

The $2.5 million distillery in the McLaren Vale wine region - best known for its bold shiraz - is on the brink of launching its first whiskies.

Founder and general manager John Rochfort moved back to South Australia after several years honing his craft in Tasmania, one of the premier whisky producing regions in the southern hemisphere, under the tutelage of Australian whisky legend Bill Lark.

The distilling team at McLaren Vale has embarked on an impressive programme of bottlings to show off the depth and history coming from this wine drenched region.

The Bloodstone Collection, a limited series of 20 collaborations between McLaren Vale Distillery and South Australian winemakers, aims to explore the flavours and impact of these high quality barrels.

The casks have to meet quite a strict criteria to be included in the series, which when you have something like a 90-year-old Muscat cask that continually held Muscat for the entire period of time, adds to the kudos of what Rochfort is trying to achieve.

He explains, "So when we get hold of these barrels, we want their complete history from everything that ever went into that barrel, the dates of the fill, it must have only ever had the same grape variety from the same block in that barrel or we won't accept it as a Bloodstone barrel." Even the grain used for the distillation does not escape from tight constraints, Rochfort wants it all grown on certain farms, adding to the provenance of the whisky.

To add to the interest, the team also bottles some of the remnants of the casks, be they muscat, or sherry or port or Bourbon or whatever, so you can sample the original contents before it was filled. Completing the provenance picture, you will also be able to have a little bottle of the Mount Lofty spring water (the distillery's water source), a little sample of the grain used for that particular bottling and some shavings of the actual wood from the barrel as well as the bottle of single malt. Impressive and ambitious stuff I think you will agree.

But does this fledgling distillery have the skills to back up this staggering project? Of course the answer is a resounding yes.

Rochfort cut his teeth for several years under the watchful eyes and skilful charms of Bill Lark, at Tasmania's Lark Distillery.

Bringing all these skills to South Australia, Rochfort set up the McLaren Vale Distillery two years ago; drawn by the region's high quality barley, wine barrels and clean water supply.

The climate helps too. India and Taiwan have started to emerge as leading warm climate whisky producers while the southern Australian island of Tasmania is Australia's prime whisky-producing spot.

McLaren Vale is about 10km from the coast and is warmer than Tasmania but cooler than Bangalore and Taiwan. It has a more Mediterranean climate, with average maximum temperatures between 14°C and 28°C and average minimums between 7°C and 16°C.

The region gets these really crisp, cool nights and then South Australian summer days before in the afternoon around three or four o'clock, cool breezes roll in bringing the temperature right back down; so for maturing barrels and really getting the most out of the wood, it's an amazing location.

With backing from the regional government, the distillery expects to process about 100 tonnes of barley a year. The gorgeous coppers stills are putting out about 20,000 litres a year, but the team expect this to rise to some 50,000 in the future. Of course most of the spirit goes into those magnificent ex-fortified wine casks to mature.

The liquid itself is showing great promise. What you have so far is a rich, oily whisky. The sample I enjoyed also had a gentle winey quality, with a lovely oily mouthfeel and spicy, grippy palate.

Whoever said grape and grain don't mix clearly needs a trip to McLaren Vale to see what's happening.