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Entwined with McLaren Vale terroir

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“Stephen Pannell is one of this country’s most articulate winemakers: thoughtful and compelling when talking about wine; keen to place his work in a philosophical context,” said Peter Forrestal, editor of Gourmet Traveller‘s WINE magazine.

Forrie was announcing Steve’s victory at the magazine’s annual Australian Winemaker of the Year awards at a big-deal dinner in Sydney last week.

“While many would agree with Pannell’s ideas about making wines that are suitable for and reflect our climate, his comprehensive and classy portfolio of wines illustrates this thinking more clearly than any other we have seen in Australia.”

Stephen’s win follows hard on James Halliday announcing Yangarra Estate winemaker Peter Fraser as his Winemaker of the Year at his Wine Companion awards in July.

Peter and Stephen are close friends, neighbours and co-operative rivals in McLaren Vale.

At the risk of being bagged for writing too much about the area in which I very deliberately choose to live – Peter is indeed my landlord – I feel these announcements mark an important turning point in the history of winemaking in McLaren Vale.

As well as recognising the outstanding individual achievements of these clever, visionary blokes, the wins combine to give the region new confidence in various layers of collective endeavour that have taken some five or six years to show fruit.

The region’s determined crash-course in understanding its confounding geology; its co-operation in adopting the revolutionary Sustainable Farming template devised by Dr Irina Santiago-Brown while she worked at the local wine and tourism association; the evolution of the Scarce Earths project to lift the image and quality of the district’s dominant variety, Shiraz; the recent elevation of Grenache to the heady gastronomic altitudes it deserves – all these things, with all their irritating teething troubles, are finally locking in for the better of the Vale’s common weal.

Steve’s victory came just as I completed reading a 270-page draft of William Skinner’s important thesis, Fermenting Place – wine production and terroir in McLaren Vale, South Australia.

This remarkable document, William’s submission for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in the Discipline of Anthropology at the University of Adelaide, takes a cool look at the way the people of McLaren Vale have developed life patterns which intricately entwine with not just the growing of grapes and the making of fine wine, but the rocks beneath their feet, their water, their geography, their seaside climate, their blue blue sky – their terroir.

Of course there are thousands of books about wine and wine regions, but I know of no other work quite like this. William takes the anthropologist’s view, not that cold technical jargon of the biochemist, the geologist or the plant physiologist. He uses none of the exclusive jargon of the wine critic. It’s even quite different to the approach a historian would take.

On my first fast bite of this work, I risk summarising it as being about humans and what they say about themselves as part of their region. How they fit in it, live on it and influence it during the evolution of their unique community.

The thesis is the first opportunity, for example, some locals have had to go on the record, anonymously, as is the practice with anthropological works, to voice their frustrations with such issues as the Barossa Valley and McLaren Vale Protection Legislation, which came into effect in January 2013.

Instigated with the determined assistance of local MP Leon Bignell, this law is the result of years of hard work, lobbying, public demonstrations and interminable pow-wows. While this is there to protect valuable, historical famland and vignoble from inappropriate development, there are those, largely borderline vineyard or winery businesses one would presume, who seem keen to develop their land contrary to the Act.

Others remain doggedly insistent and proud that their achievement stands, and their region retains its inimitable aspect, feeling, style and overall economic success.

I have stated that this document starts cool. I must also conclude, that without losing any of its scholarly approach, it reflects its author’s building passion and fascination for his subject as it becomes more confoundingly complex and fluid as his research years ground by.

I eagerly anticipate its eventual publication. As the community gradually digests it, this work will become an important part of the very subject it discusses. It will last. It will have its own constructive influence.

But back to the achievements of Stephen Pannell and Peter Fraser. Their ascendency marks another of the cyclical changes of the guard of the wine industry.

In my career I have watched the post-war winemakers, many of whom made wine before the war, reluctantly pass their baton to the young turks, the likes of Brian Croser, Dr Andrew Pirie, Dr Tony Jordan, Adam Wynn, Pam Dunsford and Robert O’Callaghan in the ’80s. These people, often very political, consolidated their grasp through the ’90s, since when there’s been a great deal of chaos, a flame fanned by the advent of the internet, and a whole new wave of biodynamicists, organic freaks, orange wine people, natural fermenters, wildcats and folks of uncommonly high gastronomic intelligence.

Not to mention the eternal takeovers, many totally destructive, the consolidations and rationalisations of the Big End of Wine Town, which seems increasingly to be a separate business unto itself, although often devastating in its regional influences.

Now we see middle-aged folks like Peter and Stephen getting recognition for their efforts in cultivating and harvesting the best of all the above.

This is a good thing.

While great mates, their businesses are chalk and cheese. Peter runs the two premium estates, Yangarra and Hickinbotham Clarendon, for the big family-owned Californian super-premium wine outfit, Jackson Family. Barbara Banke, the widow of founder Jess Jackson, makes her respect of these properties and this district very clear: she’s in for the long haul: this is no flash-in-the pan colonialism.

And neither is Stephen’s bold new business across the hills on Oliver’s Road. After many years as chief red winemaker at BRL-Hardy/Tintara he finally set forth on his own a decade back, and immediately attracted the attention of the cogniscenti. With his wife, Fiona Lindquist, he recently bought Tapestry Winery from businessman Rob Gerard, who’d bought it from Brian Light, who’d bought it from Krondorf owners Burge & Wilson when it was Merrivale.

Stephen has rebadged it as S. C. Pannell, and has made some very tasteful and funky adjustments to its architecture, just as he is busy rejuvinating its old vineyards, and training its winemaking insides to step up a big notch to justify its famous new livery.

Sydney Morning Herald wine critic Huon Hooke added to the WINE citation: “It would be difficult to conjure a more complete all-round wine guy than Steve Pannell. He really understands the vineyard, the winery, the market, the zeitgeist, and wine quality. His wines result from this, so little wonder at his success.”

Success? Indeed. It’s no instant achievement. But I can feel more coming as my home region really begins to hit its straps.

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