Husband and wife team Rob Mack and Louise Rhodes started Aphelion Wines in 2014, but the idea had been fermenting in their minds since sharing a revelatory bottle of Barolo in 2005. Several jobs in the industry and one winemaking degree later and they were ready to move back home from Sydney to South Australia.
Oli North caught up with Rob, Louise (and Sari the dog!) in Willunga at their sitting room-cum-cellar door recently, just before the 2020 vintage got underway…
2014 was your first vintage I believe, how did you start off?
In the first year we took one tonne of Grenache from the same vineyard where we still get the majority of our fruit. I made four different wines – 100% whole berry fermented, 50/50 whole berry whole bunch fermented, one from pressings, and also a combination of the three.
Where do you make your wine?
We process at Haselgrove Winery in McLaren Vale. They have a small destemmer, small press and we can keep the barrels there too.
Have you changed much in terms of the winemaking since the beginning?
We always tinker around the edges with different processes, picking times etc. But in terms of style the wines, particularly Grenache, have stayed true to the medium bodied, aromatic style that we wanted from the start.
Why McLaren Vale, and why Grenache?
I grew up just north of McLaren Vale so I know the area very well from my childhood. It has a great mix of small producers who are really pushing the boundaries of a traditional grape growing region.
Grenache is a versatile grape which lends itself to many winemaking techniques such as whole bunch fermentation and extended time on skins. The aromatics of Grenache can be stunningly complex and alluring, and the medium bodied nature means they can be approachable when quite young. The combination of the region and the variety are perfect, the Mediterranean climate of the Vale is ideal for Grenache.
How many growers do you work with?
We work with four growers, two of which are in Blewitt Springs, where we source most of our Grenache. We only work with growers who keep spraying at a minimum, all of our growers could be certified organic using their current processes, however none are currently.
Would you look to have your own vineyard(s) in the future?
We have a long-term plan to purchase a small old vine Grenache vineyard. However we’re very specific on our requirements, so this may be a very long-term plan!
Can you tell us a bit about the vineyards used for the Confluence and Affinity?
These two wines are what we are known best for. The Confluence is a 100% Grenache wine with fruit sourced entirely from two vineyards in the Blewitt Springs sub-region of McLaren Vale, which has the highest quality and oldest Grenache vines in the area. One vineyard is 85 years old, the other is 45 years old and dry grown.
The Affinity is our Grenache, Mataro, Shiraz blend. The Grenache is sourced from the same vineyards as the Confluence, the Mataro from three sites across McLaren Vale and adds intensity and structure, and a splash of Shiraz from central McLaren Vale gives the palate some roundness.
You've recently released single-variety Mourvèdre, aka Mataro, and Sagrantino. What do you think about the potential for these grapes in McLaren Vale?
Both of these varieties thrive in the heat, and in warm years in McLaren Vale they excel. They hold their acid really well during the ripening period so they produce lively wines with intensity of flavour. We only produce small amounts of straight Mataro (called Emergent) and Sagrantino (Ardent), and they are starting to develop a bit of a cult following amongst our customers.
And four interpretations of Chenin? Is that something you'll continue every year?
We have two Chenins that fit in to our core range – Kryos, from the Adelaide Hills (our only wine outside the McLaren Vale region). And Pir, from Blewitt Springs in McLaren Vale.
Because I love to tinker we did make two other single-barrel Chenins in 2019 but we probably won’t repeat them every year.
Different winemaking used on the same grape is something that seems to particularly interest you?
Yes, from our first vintage in 2014 we’ve been experimenting with our Grenache parcels every year with different production methods to achieve as much complexity as possible. But every variety I work with I try to impart subtle differences in processes, I love to have many different batches from different sites and processes to work into the final blends of our wines.
You don't seem to have hard and fast rules for elevage from year to year?
We’re very flexible each year on how we treat the fruit depending on the vintage. For example, I like using a lot of whole bunch fermentation but in 2019 the stalks were very green and astringent so we pulled the whole bunch portions back or didn’t use any at all in some cases.
Oak is very dependent on the variety, but it is always French or Austrian. We use very little new oak, I purchase a new demi-muid (600-litre barrel) every second year.
Shiraz goes into our new barrels, then after a couple of fills Mataro goes in there, and then finally Grenache. We don’t use any new oak for Grenache, only older puncheons and 2,400-litre foudres.
What is your approach to sulphur?
We sulphur after malo which is enough until bottling at a pretty low free sulphur level, usually around 25ppm. Small amounts of sulphur are important for the preservation of our wines in bottle but we believe in using the smallest amount possible to achieve the desired level of stability.
And do you ever acidify?
Most of our grapes being well suited to the Mediterranean climate here don’t need acidification, even in warm years. The one exception is Shiraz which may need a small amount of acid adjustment in hotter years.
How have the last few vintages looked for you? And 2020?
2017 was a cooler vintage which resulted in wines with a lighter body and great aromatics. Grenache was particularly strong in 2017.
2018 was warmer so the wines have more weight and concentration, but the Grenache still retained its beautiful aromatics – a classic year.
2019 had some vicious heat spikes during ripening and yields were well below average. The resulting wines were intense but perhaps lacked the delicacy of the previous two vintages.
2020 so far is shaping up to be a very good year, however with a dry winter yields will be similar to 2019. Most of January and February have been cooler than average so it will be a slightly later than average harvest with some great flavours.
What do you think is exciting for the future of McLaren Vale and South Australia more generally in terms of grapes and regions?
McLaren Vale has a strong Italian history with many migrants planting grapes here in the 1920s and 30s. The new wave of varieties in the Vale are predominantly from Italy – Montepulciano, Nero d’Avola, Fiano, Vermentino. Exciting times as these varieties can cope with the warm climate very well.
South Australia as a whole is embracing the planting of new (to Australia) varieties to future-proof the industry against the impacts of climate change.
Can you tell us a bit about the labels and the design process?
Louise is responsible for most of the design and ideas for our labels and packaging. The labels are based on a photographic process called cyanotype where an item is photographed and a blue wash is used during the processing. It results in the feather we used being white and the blue wash as the background.
Finally, what new stuff for Aphelion do you have in the pipeline?
We will be producing our first Nero d’Avola in 2020, which I’m very excited about. The freshness and drinkability of this variety is amazing and it certainly fits with our ethos of working with varieties that suit our region. We are also producing a Malbec from Langhorne Creek which is part of a project called 5255.*
Our other goal for the next few years in increasing our presence in international markets. We currently export to the UK, Hong Kong, Canada and the USA but we will be working to hopefully see our wines in many more countries around the world!
*Rob is one of three winemakers to be selected for this project in Langhorne Creek this year. More information can be found here - https://www.langhornecreek.com/project-5255
by Oli North