It’s been some year. Say no more. And yet, South Australia’s grape growers and winemakers still delivered their unique capacity for passion and joy.

They encourage us to explore and discover the things that put a smile on our face. We need that. We need them.

So, here are the drinks and the people behind them that I learned of and loved in 2021. Some of these ragged recollections have been mentioned in previous InReview and SALIFE  features but they’ve risen again to the surface, simply because they are the ones that have resonated the most.

Others have come from wider horizons, regional travels, judging at wine shows and major tastings. Hopefully, you’ll be able to track down a few bottles from this collection at cellar doors and your favourite retailers.

The one recurring positive for the year was that 2021 was a cracker vintage across most of the state in most of the varietals and styles that we’ve been able to taste so far.

That applies to a wide range of white wines that are now out and about, and a few of the lighter red styles that are increasingly the way we are drinking: fresh out of the blocks, vibrant, exciting and for summer, eminently chillable.

White wines: refreshing & aromatic

Of the whites, Rieslings from both our benchmark regions, Clare Valley and Eden Valley, have been a standout. The 2021 vintage has forged brilliantly refreshing and flavour-filled wines, with my favourites being those with vibrant and captivating florals.

From Clare, Mount Horrocks Watervale 2021 Riesling and for enduring value, Pikes Traditionale 2021 Riesling, won my heart, as did a new release Sevenhill 27 Miles 2021 Riesling – a special block selection sitting beside the winery’s regular Inigo range.

Out of the Eden Valley, those intense aromatics were even more of a highlight, with plenty of discussion about where that region’s distinctiveness comes from: what lies beneath the ground, or the vines’ height above sea level? Among the highlights: Max & Me Woodcarvers Vineyard Mirooloo Road 2021 Riesling, Sons of Eden Freya 2021 Riesling, and Dandelion Vineyards Wonderland of the Eden Valley 2021 Riesling.

The last of those offers an intriguing segue to this year’s McLaren Vale Wine Show, where I was chair of judges. The best Shiraz-dominant blend and top wine of the show – with winemaker Elena Brooks given the title of Bushing Monarch – was the Dandelion Vineyards 2020 Lion’s Tooth McLaren Vale Shiraz Riesling. The Riesling part of the blend, just a small percentage, came from the same vineyard as their Eden Valley wine, bringing to the powerful Vales Shiraz vibrant energy and drive. Plenty to talk about there, as well.

The red wine style of the moment

Staying in that region and dwelling on a few of the wines that shone in the show, you can’t go past Grenache as the red variety of the moment. We are now able to clearly see a diversity of styles from youthful, juicy and very easygoing, summery variations to more complex, terroir-resonant versions. Lighter-bodied, medium and fuller. You can find what you wish.

Two McLaren Vale Grenache wines rose above the rest in divergent styles. Silent Noise 2021 MF Grenache, from the hands of young winemaker Charlie O’Brien, is a brilliant example of the lighter, fresher, juicy take, while S.C. Pannell 2019 Old McDonald Grenache shows more complexity and depth. Both won trophies in their specific vintage classes, with the Silent Noise awarded several more including best Grenache.

Both were among the gold medalists in the annual James Halliday Grenache Challenge, while the best wine in that judging was a Barossan, the Krondorf 2020 Founders View Grenache, which leans towards a fuller-bodied style.

Modern Mediterraneans

While Grenache and Shiraz continue to be the big-game players in McLaren Vale, and let’s not dismiss Cabernet Sauvignon as well, there’s another red variety making its presence felt, if only in small volume – Nero d’Avola. This is one to watch both here and in other warmer regions like the Riverland. It has all the markers of a modern Mediterranean variety with restrained fruit, enticing aromas and balanced structure. As a young wine, it is very, very approachable.

The McLaren Vale wines to keep an eye out for are Sherrah Wines 2021 Nero d’Avola, Coriole 2021 Nero d’Avola and Bondar 2021 Nero d’Avola, while from the Riverland, Ricca Terra 2020 Nero d’Avola is sensational in all its mouth-watering, crushed cherry-fragrant and gently fruited style. For another very attractive variation, this time out of Clare, Stephanie Toole’s Mount Horrocks 2019 Nero d’Avola celebrates to the highest degree everything the variety can offer.

Right alongside Nero sits another Mediterranean-origin grape that now has a seat at the table of white varieties of note in South Australia – Fiano. In McLaren Vale, it has such a presence now it commands its own varietal trophy, this year awarded to the Haselgrove 2021 Alternative Series Fiano, which then went on to win best white wine of the show.

The other gold medallist in the Fiano class was the Sherrah 2021 Fiano. Both are crafted by Alex Sherrah, who has a heap of experience with the variety going back to its earliest introduction here via Coriole wines, whose 2021 Fiano and its reserve, barrel-fermented Rubato Fiano (2020 if you can track one down) continue to impress. Mark all these as must-try, and note, too, that the variety can gather beautiful mature characters over many years.  (A mention also has to go to Ricca Terra, again in the Riverland, for its superb 2021 Fiano.)

While that variety appears to have pushed ahead in acceptance of another Italian white grape, Vermentino, one Big V has stood out for me, another Riverland-grown outing, Small Victories 2021 Vermentino which I loved sipping in the sun overlooking the Murray River, and which recently won the trophy at the Melbourne Royal Wine Awards, for best Single Varietal White (not including Riesling, Chardonnay, Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Gris/Grigio). A huge accolade. A side note – it also is grown on one of Ashley Ratcliff’s Ricca Terra vineyards.

Alternatives for explorers

When it comes to what we know as alternative varietal styles, both singularly or in blends, if you are a bit of an explorer, may I suggest another wine that leapt to my attention at the McLaren Vale Show. It was my privilege to award what’s called the Wine Media Trophy, a unique award for a wine that begged to tell a story in the glass. In a class of diverse varieties, the Year Wines 2021 Noodle Juice by Luke Growden was the winner. A blend of equal parts Grillo and Riesling and a tiny 5 per cent splash of Muscat de Petit Grains, it generated heaps of conversation and debate, and deservedly so. Two months later I tasted it again and I was damned pleased it still looked terrific.

Summer in a glass

Let’s return to the variety now that epitomises South Australian summers. Riesling might still be waiting for its moment in the sun in terms of popularity but, perhaps because of that, it offers extraordinary value.

If you want to play a bit with it in a regional comparative sense, you can’t go past the Vickery Rieslings from Watervale, Clare Valley, and Eden Valley – named and guided by John Vickery’s vision for the variety to find an immaculate balance of flavour and delicacy.

The wines are crafted now by winemaker Keeda Zilm, who, after working for 20 years with other brands in Clare, now also crafts her eponymous Miss Zilm Riesling. These wines are an opportunity not to argue about which is the best, but to enjoy for their own distinct manners of expression. The same goes for the many bottles I have mentioned here from the show system, which is set up to award trophies for the highest pointed and best in class wines.

Fortunately, I have tasted the wines mentioned here outside of show scenario, mostly in the past week, and, genuinely, they’ve been a treat to drink again. 2021 was pretty good after all.

I hope you get the opportunity to get out and try them as well.

TASTING NOTES

Mostly to go with a summer menu of fish and chips, prawn and avocado cocktails, or fried chicken.

Small Victories 2021 Vermentino

Riverland / 12.5% / $27

Vermentino can be a little bland but definitely not in this example, with sun-kissed citrus flesh and zest, more to the pink grapefruit spectrum, and with some spicy, peppery pings to add savoury complexity. A little skin contact note as well. On top of this, all through this, is its salivating acidity, that does a great palate-awakening juggling act with the wine’s inherent fruit ripeness. It’s going to suit all kinds of seafood or, if you’re vegan, just do it with the best chips with heaps of salt and pepper.

Silent Noise 2021 MF Grenache

McLaren Vale / 14% / $35

This is a summertime Grenache, oozing cherries, raspberries and strawberries in a fresh, no-fuss, drink-it-down style. If you want to dwell for a moment, however, it’s worth noting the fruit here comes from a tiny one-acre bush-vine vineyard in McLaren Flat, and is treated with the utmost respect, developing some light charry, stalky, spicy notes with ethereal tannin textures. It’s a pure, delicious wine that will chill well and suit Asian to Mediterranean food across the board. You might have to go to the Kangarilla Road cellar door in McLaren Flat to get some, however, as it’s been a huge hit after scoring multiple accolades at the regional wine show.

Year Wines 2021 Noodle Juice

McLaren Vale / 12.3% / $25

A thoroughly contemporary wine blend of half and half Grillo and Riesling and just 5 per cent Muscat de Petit Grains made in a dry style. It tells us a lot about the diversity of varieties in the bottle, as well as winemaker Luke Growden’s curiosity to see how they would get on. Together, as one, this is immensely engaging. It has that gorgeous Australian agricultural colour of harvest-ready wheat, leaps out of the glass with the aromas of sushi rice and a touch of Arak and Tuak rice wine, followed by “skinsy” appley flavours. The tang is insane, and makes a great drink with most fried Asian dishes.

Vickery Watervale 2021 Riesling

Clare Valley / 12% / $23

Classic lime aromas and flavours, with all the freshness of squeezed flesh and grated zest as well as a little dash of Bickfords lime cordial. The concentration is fabulous and so, too, is the fine, chalky minerality through the palate. To compare, its Eden Valley 2021 Riesling sibling is more delicate to begin, with subtle white orchard florals. The palate is super dry and the acidity more apparent, while its flavours tend more towards an inherent grapiness. Buy and taste both side by side – their value for money is crazy.

Miss Zilm 2021 Riesling

Watervale, Clare Valley / 11.5% / $27

Crafted by Keeda Zilm, also the current winemaker for the Vickery wines. The limes here are typical of the fruit’s regional expression, though there’s something else going on, something like summery earth and delicate root vegetables, maybe parsnip, maybe fennel bulb, maybe a faint slice of horseradish, with rocket leaf as well. Ah, that’s a faint peppery note, adding to a satisfying palate complexity supported by a well-honed textural feel, all the while lime juice flavours echo and reverb into a delicious finish. Did I say delicious?

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