Shingleback Wines McLaren Vale South Australia
wine pixies

Shingleback Wines McLaren Vale

I had the recent privilege of sharing lunch and tasting ten wines with John Davey, Director and Winemaker of Shingleback Wines in McLaren Vale, South Australia. First thing off, I learned that the wines are named after a native Australian lizard, the Shingleback. Trachydosaurus rugosus is a distinctive member of the family of lizards known as skinks. The lizard's scales resemble roofing shingles, hence the name. These animals may grow as long as approximately two bottles of wine on end (that's my new way of measuring things, since I've never taken to the metric system), and can be about as wide. John showed me a video of a Shingleback ambling along, and I have to admit, that reptile was pretty cute. The Shingleback wines, on the other hand, are altogether more serious.

John and his brother Kym Davey began growing grapes in the 1990s on land their grandfather had purchased in McLaren Vale, south of Adelaide, in 1959 (though the family had a long tenure in agriculture before that). John had previously studied winemaking at Roseworthy Agricultural College before spending fifteen years working in wineries throughout Australia. John strives to strike a balance between state-of-the art technique, so closely associated with Australia, and letting nature take its course both in vineyard and in winery. “As a winemaker I consider myself a minimalist,” he tells me. “I favor small batch open fermentation and minimal handling throughout the winemaking process to help express the terroir of the land we work.” John spends time out in the vineyard as well. “I'm looking for balanced canopies,” he says. “We space the Shiraz rows fairly widely apart, ten feet in fact, to allow the vine to express itself with the least amount of human intervention during the growing season. We like the grapes that result.”

McLaren Vale has ocean influence from nearby Gulf St. Vincent, “warming us in winter and cooling us in summer,” according to John. “We strive for yields of two to four tons an acre, using vines that are largely on their own rootstock. We are experimenting with grafting, however, for drought tolerance, salt exclusion, and as some insurance against phylloxera.” (South Australia is mercifully free of that scourge of the vine, so far.)

The Red Knot 2008 Chardonnay, $12, the only white I tried, is bolstered by 10% Semillon (a frequent Chardonnay blending partner in Australia). “In our warm climate, reds take the lead,” John tells me. The unoaked wine (sealed with an Aussie-designed plastic stopper called a Zork) is a light straw with greenish tinges, bringing aromatic and palate notes of peach, honey, and floral. This wine has some active forward acidity. A “good, drinkable white wine” we both agree, and I add a checkmark for its palatable price.

The Red Knot line, which also includes a Cabernet and Shiraz we did not taste, is the entry level offering from the Davey family. The two other lines are the Shingleback Estate label, in the $19-$20 range, and the D-Block Reserve line, from a single vineyard block on the estate, about $50. All these wines have good availability throughout the United States.

The Shingleback 2005 Estate Shiraz has a warm, ripe nose of licorice, chocolate, nutmeg and ripe blackberry, not overly spicy, with long lasting well mixed red and black fruit on the palate, good tangy acidity, fine-grained tannins and a lengthy finish. The 2006 Shingleback Estate Shiraz gave lighter, more perfumed fruit on the nose (with some rose-like floral aromas) and had a greater degree of oak influence on the palate: chocolate in particular with its usual companion vanilla, combining with deep fruits like blueberry. Both these wines see fourteen months in French and American oak.

The 2005 D-Block Reserve Shiraz came through as a wonderfully balanced wine at all steps. The nose combines floral and dark berry fruit with baking spice. The palate is an interesting blend of acidity with fruit coexisting with silky tannins. You feel the acidic force, and yet the wine has a primarily soft mouthfeel. The 2006 version is an altogether different animal. This year was a cool one. The result is some vegetality, with a note of cardamom, baking spice, some black pepper, vanilla and blueberry. It will all come together with a few years in the cellar, we both agreed.

The Shingleback 2005 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon is a good serviceable wine, with a rather gentle nose of mushroom, violet, blackberry and cassis. Black fruit on the palate had good staying power, buttressed well by the acidity, and the wood is well used. My notes indicate “reasonable grip,” “good length,” and “candied fruit” on a respectable finish. The 2006 Estate Cab (a cool year, remember) is less ripe, more vegetal, earthy, with greater tannic grip, mint on the nose, chocolate on the palate and at the end, a definite (and promising) cellar candidate.

The 2004 D-Block Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon is a deep garnet, one of my favorite wine colors. The nose is mid-level in intensity, perfumed with violet and cassis, and a slight nuttiness. This is sophisticated, structured wine. The palate has plenty of dark fruit, but this is no fruit bomb. Tannins and acidity are both formidable, but they are already integrated into the body of this wine, which can only improve with a few additional years in the cellar. The 2005 D-Block version came from a warmer vintage, with floral notes on the nose, subtle dark fruit and soft tannins. On the excellent finish I enjoyed concentrated black cherry, mocha, cocoa and baking spice. Altogether different, and no less enjoyable than the 2004, I also see the cellar if you can resist tearing into this one right away.

My final treat was an Aussie specialty, the Shingleback “Black Bubbles” Sparkling Shiraz (no vintage, $20). “These sparkling reds are Christmas specialties in Australia,” John related, reminding me that yuletide in Oz comes in high summer. “We drink these with Christmas dinner, chocolate desserts, glazed duck and so forth. Several vintages are represented in our wine, and we also blend grapes from different parcels.” Wow. This fairly dark bubbly (made using the Charmat bulk process) brings, with its bubbles, concentrated, almost jammy blackberry, citrus, chocolate, pastry crust and—a first for me in a sparkler—tannin. In fact the bite of the tannin combined with the attack of the bubbles for me was a winner. I noted licorice on the finish, which shows some residual sweetness.

Verdict: Structure and grip

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McLaren Vale in South Australia is well-known for its independent family winemakers.

food writer Elliot Essman James Beard Foundation Journalism Award
James Beard Award Nominee Elliot Essman

food writer Elliot Essman James Beard Foundation Journalism Award

Shingleback wines John Davey shingleback lizard

John Davey with the James Watson Trophy and his own pet Shingleback lizard.

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