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Justin in the winery

17, April 2023

Meet Your Maker: Justin McNamee

Owner and Winemaker, Samuel's Gorge

Gathered around a wine barrel in the corner of Samuel’s Gorge 1853-built farm shed cellar door, we’re graciously offered a glass of Piñata People Carinyena Monastrell as we wait for Justin, who is busy hand plunging one of his many ferments in progress in the compact open-air winery.

As we begin the interview, we pause momentarily as Justin personally farewells guests to at cellar door. Samuel’s Gorge is well known for its relaxed and welcoming atmosphere, where everyone is treated as a friend, united in the common passion for great wine and great company.

I’m told that completing this interview in just 26 minutes was no small feat – Justin’s passion for the McLaren Vale Wine Region is infectious!

What are you known for?

What we endeavoured to set up here at Samuel’s Gorge 20 years ago was something that was very honest, getting back to the humble culture and transparent nature of making wine, and a very direct interface with people who come to visit. So being small and open, and mostly connected to small batch wines, means that that's really what makes us tick. It gives us great delight that customers - we meet 1000s of them - become dear friends and followers, and lovers of McLaren Vale and the South Australian experience. Be the customer and treat them like you like to be treated; we've done that for 20 years. We're an eclectic bunch of personalities that simply strike up conversation. And very little of it will be around the acid base chemistry of how wines are made, most of it will start with where you're from, what makes you tick, what are you interested in, what do you know about South Australia?

So what are we known for? We're known for, I think, making wines that engage emotion and reflect the landscape we live in. Rather than trying to make wines on trend, that perhaps don't belong in this landscape. When I say landscape, it’s culture - the human element - it's a minerality of the soil, it's the arc of the sun, it’s the bird life, it’s the wind, it’s the smell of the botanics - you get a sense of what belongs here. Rather than trying to make wine as a product, I'd like to think that what Samuel’s Gorge produces really sits comfortably in the landscape. Wines of texture, rather than viscosity. Wines that respond to bright light and long summers. Earthy over sweet, but with dimension and balance. I know from our immediate audience, which is the majority of people who buy our wine and support us, that they really connect to the space and the romance and the honesty of what we do.

What is the best part of harvest for you?

Having done many – I’ll never brag but I've done a lot of them - I find them fun and exciting. They’re challenging physically, really challenging, you get tired and emotionally tired. But that's cool, it's harvest. You know autumn’s coming and the crop’s been growing all year – you have to push yourself otherwise you don't really feel you've earned the right to make wine. The funnest part of harvest is the ups and downs, making wine under the stars, under the full moon that just lulls on the end of the driveway. It's a beautiful feeling. Your knuckles are all infected and inflamed and your back hurts, but it's not as stressful as people say.

So my favourite part of harvest is all that it is, just seeing it move from grapes to a raw wine, that's pretty special because they don't actually relate that directly. Flavour of grape doesn't always equal flavour of wine; working with horticulturalists who have the same objective, which is to blow minds and make people happy, rather than just thinking grape is the ingredient and we are winemakers.

“If you’re going to make wine in a difficult season, you'd want to be in McLaren Vale. It has reliability and consistency that is the envy of most wine regions of the world.”

I don't think McLaren Vale should be a volume driven region, we can’t sustain that environmentally or economically. There's many wine regions in the world that have that covered and they're closer to bigger markets and have cheap ingredients. They don't have the precious resources that we have. But at least we have an amazing ingredient and that's the story of topography - the association with the gulf [of St Vincent], it’s the lack of pollution, it's bright light, it's the clean air. It's the relaxed lifestyle, it's community, meaning we're fascinated by each other's creativity and personality. I think quality and profitability and sustainability will prevail. That wasn't a question, I just hijacked the conversation!

Are there any particular winemaking techniques that you use and what are your reasons for that?

I think more and more my motive in wine is not to make wines that have engineered prompts, and I don't need to make wines that have sassy or noisy qualities. I like wines of harmony, of balance and grace that sort of cloak you with a feeling of wow, the yumminess or deliciousness - they're both beautiful words. That's as complicated as it gets, I'm not interested in making showy wines. I love to see people naturally smile around our work. I know there’s the annoying cliche of food wines - I do like wines to grace the table, but not be the dominant conversation of the table. The purpose of what we make wine for, and I think many people do, is to be part of the celebration and interaction of people, but not to be the centrepiece. Our wines just creep up on you and you go wow, what's that? And there ends the wine conversation. That what Samuel’s Gorge does well.

We also have luxury in a smaller winery to be really low and slow, and quite tactile and hands-on. So I think there's something to do with the pace, the lack of urgency. I think that's an ingredient, time. We happen to have an outside winery, a very humble goat shed making wine outside. I think those sorts of peasant kind of old-world practices lead to flavour somewhere. But I'd like to think we're a contemporary expression of old world. Many of us in the region have gone through the journey to experiment with bigger and better resources and technology, to come back to - after all that experience - what we’ve always known. I'm as proud of our big wineries as I am of the one tonne fermenting winemakers, but I am now in a position to choose what we do here because I can reflect on that whole journey.

What do you love about McLaren Vale?

Plenty! I generally say it's the diversity, because if a whole village just talks about wine, talks about Shiraz, and thinks about wine then that's not fun. Wine is only relative to the other creatives around you. So the potters, the artists, the musicians, and other flavour makers, I think we're amazingly, how do I say it? Well endowed? I think chefs are the same in our region. They're here because they respond to the landscape, and that's not always just ingredients. So without that diversity of culture, you probably wouldn't have the magic that is McLaren Vale.

I think we have climatic features that haven't really been explained very well, I think we should be prouder about how we relate to the southern weather patterns. And our topography, the evolution of soil which is a secondary consequence of geology, the weathering over multiple hundreds of millions of years. Let's stop talking about the simplicity of soil and climate in hot and cold. Let's start talking about this particular area having a very unique combination that come together in a pinpoint on planet Earth that is exceptional. Because you might have one element of that in other regions, but you don't have all of them. And you certainly don't have a gentle Gulf on your doorstep, which adds another layer. And the clean air and beautiful blue domes of bright light. You don't have that everywhere. We're not trying to mimic Central Otago, we're not trying to be anywhere in Europe, because we are here and it is all here. It’s an unbeatable combination, which is the ingredient I talked about. We have to protect it, the biodiversity and the rural environment, because where we are right now is equal to the greatest wine region in the world, and audiences around the world need to know. Slowly but surely when people come through and visit Adelaide in general, I hear all the time “Wow, how come I didn't know this? How accessible, how humble it is, how tasty it is, how genuine it is”. And so we’ll get there slowly. I've been in the region for 30 plus years, and we're still getting there, but I’m not worried because I know we have the story, and we have the product.

And the final question, what is your favourite variety to drink and why? Do you have a single favourite?

I don’t have a favourite, that's an impossible question! There are constantly more and more varieties that are more and more relevant and more and more exciting. I'm enjoying the alternatives, I’m enjoying people testing other varieties and boundaries. It takes a good foundation and a lot of time and experience for new varieties to make great wine, and now it’s relevant. Such as Mourvedre, and we’ve enjoyed the journey of Graciano. A few of us have been part of the long, slow haul to Grenache awareness. That's been very cool. I’m also enjoying new interpretations, there's grapes that I don't like but I'm enjoying the interpretation of those grapes. Such as Chenin Blanc, up until recently you wouldn't get a Chenin Blanc past my lips unless it was from Vouvray, but now I go ‘okay’. So there's people with more energy than I have pushing the boundaries and that is a super good thing.

For me it still comes back to wines with a purpose. Make wines that reflect the place that you're from, don't try and extort or distort something out of something that perhaps ought never to have been here. But there are exceptions everywhere. Personally I don’t think McLaren Vale should make Chardonnay, but the Chapel Hill Gorge Block blows my mind. I don't think we are a Cabernet region, yet some of the old vine pre-clonal Cabernet I've seen through the valley is mind-blowingly good. It's one thing to make wine that we all think as a region tastes great, it's another thing to communicate its reason for being. But for Samuel’s Gorge I'm not about exceptions, I like to leave the exceptions alone and make things that are really true to place.