Tourists flock to the McLaren Vale wine region in South Australia. An estimated 160 vineyards and 80 cellar doors combine world-class wines and local produce from pristine seas and land. Bounded by hills to the east and 20 miles of glorious coastline to the west, the backdrops of the sun setting over the gulf are endless. This is one of Australia’s prettiest, most progressive, and environmentally conscious wine regions.
Known primarily for producing Shiraz, it was during the region’s celebrations of their Grenache when my interest in a unique tour was piqued. Little did I realize how much I would learn when I booked a tour to roam Grenache vineyards with donkeys, visit a cellar door, and have a farmhouse lunch paired with a range of Grenache. All this was conducted by Jodie, a local viticulturalist and small-batch winemaker. Here’s what I learned on an enlightening day:
1. The Value Of Donkeys In Ethiopia
No, that’s not a typo. This story begins in Ethiopia. Jodie had held a fascination for donkeys for some time before a personal circumstance in life lured her to travel to Ethiopia. Ethiopia has 8.8 million donkeys, reportedly the most in the world. They are used for providing transport and income generation to the poorest households. It was here Jodie met a couple of guys who were in the country working on a donkey project. One of these men had previously been a saddler in the Queen’s Mews in London, and the other had worked as a harness maker for Hermes in Paris.
Together, they designed a pack saddle to put on donkeys. It was made of a chaff bag stuffed with straw and stitched with baling twine. This alternate method for carrying hefty loads doubled the donkey’s life span and the number of days they could work. Before that, the donkeys were overworked, overloaded, and regularly suffered from sores and abscesses. Using the new pack saddles eradicated these issues and contributed to social improvements. If the donkeys weren’t lame, sick, or recovering, it meant that on the days when the market wasn’t on, the women could use them to collect water or firewood. It gave women and deeply impoverished people empowerment through their donkeys, provided companionship, and improved their social standing in their remote communities.
2. Why Donkeys Help Lead The Tour
When I heard of Jodie’s passionate reason for starting the Grenache Grazing Donkeys tour, I was honored to be one of the first to experience it. Once the tours are established, her dream is to put money back into the donkey project in Ethiopia to keep improving the lives of the people and the donkeys.
As nine other tour guests and I arrived at Jodie’s homestead set amongst vines, we introduced ourselves over coffee. We then met our four-legged, long-eared, 3-year-old assistant tour guides, Agatha and Winsome, before setting off on foot toward the nearby rows of meticulously pruned vines.
3. The World’s Best Grenache Comes From McLaren Vale
After a short walk, we stopped to look at the vines. Reaching into Winsome’s pannier, Jodie pulled out a bottle of rosé and the box of glasses our donkey assistant had been carrying. As we tasted the pale salmon-pink liquid, Jodie explained this wine was 50 percent Grenache and 50 percent Gamay, the Grenache being the dominant taste.
“Grenache loves to sink its roots down, and the deep sandy soils in this part of the region are perfect for developing the elegant, pure minerality of flavor to the wine,” Jodie described.
Grenache has become a significant grape variety for McLaren Vale as it thrives here. It has previously been suggested the world’s best Grenache comes from the southern Rhône region in France and the Rioja region in Spain. However, McLaren Vale is now being touted as worthy of holding that mantle.
4. La Niña And The Effect Of Weather On Grape Growing
Rainfall and temperature play a big part in viticulture. The Grenache vines had just 3 inches of jelly-bean-green colored shoots emerging from the gnarly stems. Jodie points out that “bud burst” is 20 days behind the norm. Today we have blue skies above, and the sun is warming our backs as we walk, but despite it being mid-spring, days like this have been scarce.
She predicts the Grenache harvest won’t be until late March as we are experiencing the climate driver, La Niña. This typically results in increased rainfall across most of the country and cooler daytime temperatures in the south. The current conditions mirror those of the early 2000s.
“Irrespective of arguments about global warming, the seasons and conditions are cyclic, and as a viticulturist, we work best with what we’re given,” Jodie outlines.
5. How Proximity To The Coast Is Beneficial To Grape Growing
The McLaren Vale wine region benefits significantly from the maritime influence of the nearby coast. Some vineyards in the area are as close as 6 miles to the sea. The ocean’s impact has a profound effect on minimizing detrimental conditions. Creating warm but not hot summers and cool but not cold winters extends the growing season and reduces the risk of frost. Heat can reflect off sandy soils, putting the bunches of grapes at risk during summer; however, the cooling breezes from the ocean can alleviate this issue.
6. The Importance Of The New Buds Of Spring
We lick our lips after our small serving of Grenache rosé, then pack our glasses away into Winsome’s pannier while she is doing a tasting of her own on a clump of grass. Before we start down the side of the vines to our next stop, Jodie pulls off one of the buds to show us. “Already in this bud is all the information,” she says. “There’s baby bunches and the tendrils.” Pulling the bud apart, she continues, “When it starts off as a little bud, we can make fine slices through them and work out how many bunches there are per compound bud. Then we can get a ‘guesstimate’ of our yield and alter our pruning for that.”
The aim is to balance the productivity of the vine and the amount of leaf and shoot growth. As a consumer of wine, I must admit I don’t often give a lot of thought to what happens before it is poured into my glass. Spending time in the vineyard has been eye-opening.
7. How To Combine Wine And Cheese Tasting
As we arrived at Geddes Wines, sprawling green lawns, an outdoor table shaded by a white umbrella, and a black Labrador dog greeted us. Here we were introduced to the Grenache made by the owner/winemaker, Tim Geddes. Tim sources all his fruit from local McLaren Vale growers.
As Tim’s wife, Amanda, poured us all a glass of Grenache, and a tasting platter with a range of cheeses was placed on the outdoor table. It is essential to taste wine in isolation before tasting the cheese. First, taste the wine on its own. Then try the cheese before tasting the wine again. If the wine and cheese are a compatible match, then the fat and protein left on the palate from the cheese will hold some of the fruity aromas and body of the wine longer. Some of the wine’s cherries and savory aspects remain and resonate on the palate for extended periods.
8. How Food And Wine Bring Strangers Together
The walking part of the tour ended at Jodie’s home. Agatha and Winsome reluctantly returned to their yard while the 10 guests eagerly sat for lunch. We were 10 virtual strangers from different parts of Australia. We came together via a mutual interest in wine and a desire to take a tour with a difference. We not only learned so much about viticulture, winemaking, and donkeys in Ethiopia, but as Jodie served a delicious lunch with wine, we learned so much about each other. I had never laughed so much as the wine, and humorous personal stories flowed bringing the end to a very enlightening day.