The Winos’ Winemakers Series — a “sense of place” at Samuel’s Gorge

By Jesse on May 26, 2008

We young drinkers love our Australian wine… the proletarian labels, the sourcing of quality grapes from different regions, the unconventional blending practices, the great values. It’s easy, though, for our demographic to fall into the habit of regarding Australia as little more than a sort of “good-wine factory”: a consistently warm continent producing anonymous batches of ever-ripe fruit, which are then blended by sandal-wearing negociants into delicious and dependable bottles. A recent visit by Justin McNamee, winemaker at Samuel’s Gorge in McLaren Vale, did much to dispel the majority of that oversimplification (with the exception of the sandal part).

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Samuel’s Gorge is a small label operating out of a 150-year-old barn on the southern end of the Onkaparinga River National Park, twenty miles south of Adelaide. Justin joined the Winos at Emily’s pad one recent evening and shared with us his unique approach to McLaren Vale winemaking, comprising an integration of New World inventiveness with Old World “sense of place.” Thankfully, he also shared with us several delicious bottles of wine.

“I never thought about being a winemaker, but it’s always been in me,” explained Justin, who grew up in rural areas and earned money working odd jobs in agriculture. After stops at several small vineyards, he became the winemaker at the large Tatachilla Winery in McLaren Vale, which proved less than an ideal experience for him. “I’m a hands-on person, but I found myself in front of a board of directors, defending my inadequacies in organizational skills and my ad-hoc way of making wine.”

In Samuel’s Gorge, Justin found his escape: a bucolic slice of land with century-old structures and a ridge covered with Tempranillo vines. He also felt he’d discovered a location with particularly unique terroir — a concept that doesn’t always hold the same importance in Australia as it does in Europe. “In many ways, McLaren Vale is old world,” writes Justin in his newsletter (which you can read here). After some renovations and maintenance work were completed, the winery opened its doors in 2004. (American distribution of Samuel’s Gorge is handled by The Grateful Palate Imports, and we thank them for organizing the tasting and bringing Justin to our doorstep.)

Our first bottle was the 2005 Samuel’s Gorge Grenache (McLaren Vale), which poured out into a lovely shade of dark ruby in the glass — Andrew noticed a little brown rim on it as well. The nose was lots of fun: I got rose petals at the same time as cedar, barnyard at the same time as charcoal. Jessica got raspberry, then bittersweet chocolate, and Sasha got cranberry and cinnamon. Justin agreed with our observations; to him, the distinguishing feature of this nose was the interplay between the fruit and the earthy elements.

The palate was light-bodied, displaying what to me tasted like straight-up unripe blueberry: great fruit flavor with a playful tartness to it. Sasha thought it was “really fruity,” and Jason observed some spice on the back end. Jessica agreed, and thought the spice elements “walked the line” between clove and white pepper. I was really feeling that fruit/earth interplay… crisp, tangy fruit with this great toasty, musty quality. All in all, responses were very positive, and Justin appreciated our characterization of the wine as rich and balanced. “My goal is to produce wines that are harmonious,” he said, “wines that don’t knock you on your ass, so that you can take the last sip of the bottle and say ‘who drank that?’ and be in a room by yourself.” It’s a fate we Winos know all too well, and it’s always a joy to discover a bottle worthy of such an outcome.

Next up was the 2006 Samuel’s Gorge Tempranillo (McLaren Vale), the sole wine that Justin produces with entirely estate grapes. The nose was inky, with woody and strawberry notes. Jessica got blackberry and mulch, and Sasha got cedar. Several people picked out a “cola” element, but Justin said he always thought it was more of a “sarsaparilla” character.

The palate was a big hit: Jason thought it had a “remarkable” mouthfeel, “soft and almost pillowy.” Sasha agreed, calling it “gentle and slinky.” Emily thought it was “like melty dark chocolate.” I applauded the dual presence of round, opulent fruit and some nice structure; to me, the experience was roughly akin to eating some raspberries, then finding a raspberry seed lodged in your teeth and tasting that distinct bitterness when you chew it. Justin agreed, again highlighting the interplay between the fruit (our metaphorical raspberry) and the structure (the seed). Nice acidity and a lingering finish capped off our appreciation of this delicious bottle.

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Thirsty kids snatch up glasses; Justin tells it like it is; a captive audience

We followed these two winners with three subsequent vintages of Justin’s Shiraz, the grape probably most widely associated with McLaren Vale winemaking. First up was the 2003 Samuel’s Gorge Shiraz (McLaren Vale), which featured a nose of cherries and dark berries. Jason got “big time leather,” and Sasha got molasses. I suggested candied plums, Andrew offered the intriguing “black olives,” and Noah betrayed his mid-Atlantic plantation roots when he pointed out that it smelled like “tobacco drying in a barn.”

I found it intriguing that, unlike so much Australian Shiraz we’ve tried, this one had a nose almost entirely devoid of any pepper notes; Justin suggested that it “probably had those ephemeral spices when it was younger.” We took our sips, and were immediately greeted with a mouth-coating textural experience, with pronounced flavors of dark chocolate. Justin referred to the tannins as “gravely,” provoking something of a debate between rival “gravely” and “powdery” camps (Jason was alone in his championing of the way-too-scientific “particulate” moniker).

At this point Justin moved from his chair to a more humble roost on the floor — I have to admit that I’d hoped the Aussie winemaker would bring with him some of that cavalier laid-back character that we’ve been led to expect from Australians, and I certainly wasn’t disappointed. For example, Justin explained that Samuel’s Gorge employs a strict no-clock policy. “If you want to be there, you’ll be there,” he rationalized, “and if you don’t, then you shouldn’t.” Working at the winery sounds about as enjoyable as can be; apparently the employees are encouraged to diversify their imbibing, as “there’s always cold beer or grappa or cognac under the counter.” The Young Winos may soon initiate an immersion program.

Next up was the 2004 Samuel’s Gorge Shiraz (McLaren Vale), which offered a nose straight out of a sweet shoppe: I got chocolate brownies, Sasha got toffee squares, and Jessica got dark brown sugar (“toasted almond” and “hint of vanilla” were also thrown into the fray). Jason thought it was toasty and spicy, and Justin picked out some mulberries and dark blackberries.

The palate followed suit; it was dark and chewy, with distinct blackberry jam flavors. Sasha picked up a hint of strawberry, Jen called it “bold,” and Emily called it “delicious.” Justin expressed his philosophy on the presence of flavors in the mouth: “if you can taste any one thing, that’s an indicator of poor quality. If the wine is well-integrated, no single flavor stands out above the others.” Making wine of this type, he said, is “an exercise in being more introverted.”

101_1166.JPGOur regrettably final bottle was the 2005 Samuel’s Gorge Shiraz (McLaren Vale), which several people thought smelled similar to the ’04, but with a bit more red fruit. Noah and I also picked up a tar element, but Emily thought it was more like wet asphalt, and Jessica threw “ripe blueberry” into the mix. As we tasted it, Justin mentioned that it might be “a little premature,” and that it would take some time to settle into itself. That said, it drank pretty damn well right now: Sasha got red cherries, Jen got raspberry, and I picked up some of that “ephemeral” black pepper that had been absent from the older bottle.

Like his other Shiraz vintages, the fruit in this bottle is sourced from around McLaren Vale, with 30% hailing from the estate. Justin explained his belief in the importance of blending: “we associate single-vineyard with quality, and it’s not always that simple. The winemaker’s goal should be to bring people joy, and a lot of what makes a wine good comes from the blending.” As he writes in the newsletter, “the challenge for the blender is to make logic of the pieces, putting them together with a clear vision in mind.”

The Samuel’s Gorge label presents an interesting fusion of two belief systems typically thought to be inherently in opposition: the Old World concept of terroir, which suggests the vineyard defines the wine’s uniqueness, and the New World (particularly Australian) mantra of “blend for best quality.” Clearly Justin embraces the latter, but he also believes the finished wine is inexorably linked to its place of origin. To him, terroir is as much about local culture as it is about micro-climate. “What’s really important to me is that Samuel’s Gorge is unique while being very much a part of the Vale,” he writes, “a distinct, diverse, exciting region that offers its own ‘provincial’ experience in an equivalent way to the southern provinces of France or Italy’s Tuscany or Sicily… I think we sometimes ignore these things in Australia, overlooking the heritage that creates special places here in Australia.”

Experiencing that “sense of place” for yourself ain’t exactly cheap; the wines seem to list for $40-$45 online, putting them on the high end of what we Winos typically like to spend. However, we quite enjoyed discovering that evening that Justin’s wines also place themselves in the high end of what we Winos typically like to taste. All five bottles were well-balanced, friendly, and delicious, and we look forward to experiencing them again soon, along with Justin’s future releases as they make their way to our tables.

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Jason searches for the spice; each label is a mosaic of tiny photos; eventually all good Australian winemakers will switch to beer.

The Young Winos of LA — edutoxicating Los Angeles since 2005.

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