McLaren Vale enters its cubist period

Will the d’Arenberg Cube help make McLaren Vale the foremost wine region to visit? David Sly surveys the region and the minds behind destinations new and old to find out.

The audacious d’Arenberg Cube is meant to stand out. It needs to for McLaren Vale to barge its way into the bigger wine tourism conversation. A typically flamboyant statement from its winemaker creator Chester Osborn, this new, idiosyncratic winery visitor centre amid the vines at d’Arenberg Winery imposes an entirely different personality on McLaren Vale’s landscape.

Some locals’ feathers have been ruffled, with grumbles that the Cube sits too far outside the region’s genteel rural demeanour, yet it keeps garnering widespread attention in the long lead up to its eventual opening. A burning question remains: will it have the galvanising effect as a wine tourism drawcard that McLaren Vale hungers for?

South Australia is aggressively pursuing an increase in wine tourism activity, with state government grant money being injected into winery cellar door developments. The d’Arenberg Cube is but one beneficiary; Longview Vineyards at Macclesfield and Mitolo Wines at McLaren Vale are notable others.

These incentives underline a need to play catch-up; while this state has long been the production engine of the Australian wine industry, producing more than half of the nation’s wine, its wine tourism concessions have been largely pedestrian, mostly limited to free tastings at rooms attached to wineries.

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Compared with the lavish architectural wine and hospitality monuments of the Yarra Valley, Mornington Peninsula, Margaret River and Hunter Valley, SA has not presented the same sex appeal. A mighty reputation for fine wine sustains SA regions, but visiting consumers now want much more — gilt-edged experiences, cased in luxury or exclusivity, that participants will buzz about, Tweet, and Instagram.

This message is sinking in, evident in such smart developments as Seppeltsfield, but McLaren Vale labours behind the Barossa and Adelaide Hills as an automatic first choice for wine region visitation. While McLaren Vale has many of the right elements in place — its range of dining options for lunch, in particular, is arguably the best of all Australia’s wine regions — it still does not translate to the sort of midweek numbers and revenue the region’s businesses want.

Therefore, great hope rides on the d’Arenberg Cube being able to change this. The five-storey steel and glass-cased structure, inspired by the Rubik’s Cube, inserts itself into a grand international conversation about modern architectural statements at wineries, that includes the likes of Frank Gehry’s Marques de Riscal winery and Bodegas Darien Winery in Spain’s Rioja region, Navarro Correas Winery in Mendoza, Argentina and Winery Nals-Margried in the Italian Alps. The world’s eyes are upon it.

Despite the Cube’s huge cost (estimated at $13 million in 2016, but believed to have ballooned significantly since several construction and fit-out delays), Chester Osborn remains breezily optimistic about its long-term success. He has convinced the family winery’s board of its relevance (free from the pressures of shareholders) and says it’s a marketing statement that perfectly suits the d’Arenberg style. He believes it will help d’Arenberg sell wine for a long time.

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The cube, for all its imposing presence, is not the only new attraction in the region to consider.

Frank Mitolo has taken almost five years to settle on a design for the Mitolo cellar door, and the eventual chic tasting pavilion he unveiled in November makes a discrete and sophisticated tourism statement. The $3.5 million project, which received a $555,000 Regional Development Fund Grant, features a clever design from architect Francesco Bonato of Tectvs, combining black shipping containers as anchor points within an open, glass-cased space overlooking vineyards. It includes a private tasting room, the Bocca di Lupo restaurant with seating for up to 100 people, and a large island bar that offers only paid wine tasting experiences accompanied by snacks from the kitchen; a $15 tasting for five wines from the Jester range; $20 for five small batch range wines, and $25 for five Single Vineyard red wines.

“It’s not a bar, but it’s got a more sophisticated, informative atmosphere than the average winery cellar door,” Mitolo says. “I want it to be an experience that is polished and has a wow factor. I’ve looked at the best places in the Mornington Peninsula and Yarra Valley, and realised something like that wasn’t in McLaren Vale. We have it now.”

mitolo-mclaren-vale-cubist-period-adelaide-review-3Mitolo’s new facility aims to impress (photo: Jonathan van der Knaap)

Presenting only paid wine tastings is also a feature at Bekkers Wine, Beresford Wines and Hugh Hamilton Wines.

Mary Hamilton, with a background in marketing, has brought very aggressive ideas about elite packing, presentation and selling the story of her father’s winery. Now in the role of company CEO, Mary believes that McLaren Vale — and Hugh Hamilton Wines in particular — has been too modest for too long and undersold the value of its assets. She intends to change things, with lavish new packaging to identify a tier of Hugh Hamilton Wines at a higher price point, and the brand’s famous octagonal cellar door (designed by architect Max Pritchard) no longer issuing free wine tastings.

“We have to provide an experience of merit and quality here,” she says, explaining her decision to provide only structured and paid tastings at the cellar door. “If we’re going to unfold our story, and provide an education about the wines we are presenting, it demands time, care and expertise. That’s the image we intend to portray, and it’s necessary for McLaren Vale to be focused on the same big ambition.”

Jeremy Maxwell, general manager of Maxwell Winery and its high-flying Ellen Road Restaurant, believes the nearby d’Arenberg Cube will play a significant role in realising such ambition.

“The Cube will be a very different offering to what we provide, but that’s not an issue,” he says. “It presents a powerful statement, and maybe tourism now needs to be the primary focus to bring more people into this region. Communication about quality in McLaren Vale has been too subtle. It needs to be more pronounced and confident. The Cube says that one way; we say it too, but differently.”

More individual voices are emerging that offer distinctive experiences, from Pizzateca’s modern pizza party buzz, to the paddock-to-plate authenticity of Coriole’s beautiful garden courtyard lunches, to such innovations as The General Wine Bar and Kitchen combining the elements of cellar door, casual bar and plat du jour from chef Ben Sommariva.

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Coriole’s garden courtyard frequently hosts popular wine, food and music events

Tony Parkinson, owner of Penny’s Hill, has been one of McLaren Vale’s original wine tourism advocates, having built a grand cellar door and restaurant in the late 1990s that surrounds the restored Ingleburne farmhouse on his McLaren Vale property. He’s concerned that not enough individual accolades are being celebrated loudly — such as his Penny’s Hill 2014 Edwards Road winning world’s best cabernet in France — to underline the region’s peaks of excellence. “It has been too focused on general impressions, and it needs to celebrate the high points more, I believe.”

Together with the promise of new accommodation in the region — Leconfield has mooted a 140-room development within its vineyards, and Wirra Wirra has plans at Onkaparinga council to build a 42-room resort close to its winery — the deep curiosity of tourists to see the Cube has the capacity to bolster McLaren Vale’s broad appeal.

However, just how these visitors engage with d’Arenberg winery, and McLaren Vale as a region, remains a puzzle that will only unfold after the Cube opens for business. Rather than a single spectacle, it will rely on capability of the people to sell their region’s best assets — ultimately assessed by patrons judging whether it delivers an experience worth talking about.

“I’ve always seen great merit in McLaren Vale as the ideal destination for wine and food brought together, but if the personal engagement is no good, the whole enterprise is wasted,” Parkinson says.

“People have to leave the region feeling good, having had an experience they want to tell others about — and McLaren Vale is not on top of that at present. We need world class hospitality delivery; ultimately the quality of the people involved in this matter most.”

The d’Arenberg Cube is set to open in summer.

darenberg.com.au

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