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It rises to the Gorge…

Good wines, good people and other lessons from the land

It was a slow Sunday. The morning bathing, coffee and stretching rituals folded lazily into one another. Lisa had a real estate opening in a gorgeous Adelaide suburb and so her sweetheart Ben and I poured ourselves into the car as escorts to her destination. The two of us would carry on to a nearby beach suburb to amble along the promenade and await her call on the mobile. Then we would all dine on eggs benny, the perfect late Sunday morning feed. Lisa called and we descended on the feast.

After another cup of coffee and our fill of fare, we returned to the car for a meander through the winding South Australian countryside. There was the occasional drop of rain and once in a while, a car, but for the most part, the three of us were the sole occupants of this pastoral landscape. We chatted and were silent, as the optional ambience of the perfect Sunday encourages.

Ben’s Uncle John and Aunt Jacqui lived the area, so Ben decided we would venture up to their bucolic homestead and pay a visit. He informed me that we were driving through the famous McLaren Vale, a premier wine producing area in Australia. As we tottled along, I recognized the signs for Seaview , Rosemount and finally, Chapel Hill . Had we not had our fill carousing the night before, my soul would have been aching to stop at one, two or all three of these cellar doors for a nip of nectar.

Past Chapel Hill , the road wound up and around to reveal a small barn, and behind it, a lovely house of the old English country ilk. To the right, the view was breathtaking. This magnificent gorge plummeted into a lush expanse of impenetrable forest. Rosellas spiraled off the brick wall and cockatoos dove from the trees. The architecture and surroundings transcended the present. It was truly enchanting and overwhelming at once.

We drove up to the gate, stopped the car by the barn and got out. A young man with lightning-struck hair, sparkling eyes and an easy gait approached the car with a large smile. Ben, the consummate manners man, saw to the introductions. Apparently John and Jacqui were away, but Justin, as he introduced himself, welcomed us to come and have a look around. He sheepishly introduced us to Pascoe, his large dog, who had taken to lounging in Justin’s car on that particular day.

Now Ben had mentioned something about his aunt and uncle and a modicum of on-site wine production. But it was a comment in passing, no inkling of the wardrobe we were to penetrate.

As we entered the barn, it was apparent that a "modicum" of on-site wine production was far from the truth. This heritage building, which used to be an olive press house, encompasses the barrel room, laboratory, tasting room and boutique museum for Samuel’s Gorge . Justin McNamee is the winemaker, scientist and bon vivant behind the wines. As we explored the barn, the view and the wines themselves, Justin imparted much on the philosophy, history and future of Samuel’s Gorge wines.

Wine had always been part of Justin McNamee’s life. He was raised in the Yarra Valley, where he worked on wineries and other farms during the school holidays. He has always felt an affinity for "wine people who tend to get the most passion out of life." The first winery he worked on was Seville Winery . It was there that Justin recognized the correlation between good people and good wine. He learned that wine does not stand alone but is part of an event. Lunch breaks at Seville Winery were never rushed. The McMahon family would gather everyone together and they would drink a selection of wines and matching foods in kind with the grape they had been harvesting on that particular day. This was a lovely ritual, but also very effective and enjoyable wine and pairing education. As Justin related this tale, his eyes shone with both respect and pleasant memories. It was with the McMahon’s that Justin felt his first footstep on his true path.

Justin carried on to study oenology (the science and study of wine and winemaking) at Roseworthy Agricultural College of the Barossa Valley. This school has been offering viticulture and oenology as courses since 1862, with a diploma specifically in oenology introduced in 1936.

Following his studies, Justin traveled the world exploring wine districts. He spent concentrated time in California’s Napa Valley and in France. Then he returned to work with the then-small Tatachilla winery in McLaren Vale for "a season." But the season was so good that Justin stayed on for another. And that year the vintage was even better, so he stayed a little longer. And the next season…. Sound familiar? But refocus. We are talking wine here, not snow.

Justin stayed with Tatachilla for eight years. He enjoyed a huge learning curve with this growing winery but he found that Tatachilla ended up outgrowing what he wanted to do. This experience not only afforded him the opportunity to work with a great team and a great company, but with this experience Justin was able to clarify what he wanted to do in terms of his own wine varieties and style. He realized that he wanted to "live off the land and do what (he) was born to do."

And with that, Justin set about looking for a small, peaceful rustic place to take the next step on his wine crusade. He found a few old barns, but the costs to restoring and renovating were prohibitive. Then one day as he was hiking in Onkaparinga River National Park, he looked up and saw an incredible estate with a small barn. This barn seemed ideal for his needs, from a distance at any rate. Justin went and introduced himself to John and Jacqui Younger, who owned the estate, historically known as Seaview Homestead . They had recently stopped keeping Angora goats in the barn, so it was available.

It was utterly perfect; the dimensions of each room were just right. What is now the barrel room fit exactly three barrels across. There were awesome views of both the Onkaparinga Gorge and back over the McLaren Vale vineyards toward St. Vincent Gulf. Moreover, John and Jacqui were excellent people who supported Justin’s objectives. Serendipity strikes again. And so, Samuel’s Gorge came into being.

Samuel’s Gorge

was named after the Rt. Hon. Sir Samuel James Way (1836-1916). Sir Samuel Way was a key figure in both the social and legal evolution of South Australia. He was appointed Queens Counsel, Attorney General, Chief Justice of South Australia and was made Lieutenant Governor of South Australia in 1891. Sir Samuel Way was also recognized for his work with the University of South Australia, the public library and the Adelaide Children’s Hospital. Moreover, this pillar of society had spent much of his youth at Seaview Homestead . In his later years, he purchased this haven and the surrounding 1,000 acres.

To discuss Samuel’s Gorge with Justin is also to submit to his emphatic monologue on the incredible collective effort that led to the creation of Samuel’s Gorge wines. From the coopers and the Youngers to friends who come out to help at harvest, to the many individuals who shared their winemaking knowledge, to Pascoe the dog, to his twin brother, to Sir Samuel Way and on and on. His philosophy? "Wines with good people culture tend to create good wines."

But it is not just about the wine; it is about everything to do with wine. Samuel’s Gorge aims to create "agreeable, serious, collectable wines to be consumed with the event of a meal." It is also about the food, and the presentation of the food and the table and the people.

And the label. There is no kangaroo on the label. There is no koala, and there is no didgeridoo. The bottle is made of sleek, dark Italian glass. The bottle seems taller and more elegant than most. And the label is not only aesthetically beautiful, it is a very meticulous and conscientious representation of Samuel’s Gorge , as an area, as a winery, and as, of course, a co-operative effort. At first glance, it appears to be a painting of the landscape, possibly a watercolor. But upon closer examination, it is a mosaic, and each minuscule tile is an image of a facet of the landscape, of the wines and of the winemaking process. There is a shot of the olive press from the wine tasting room, and a few of Justin, and vines, soil layers, fermenters, the barn roof, etc.

"The tactile nature of the mosaic has relevance to the texture of our wines on the palate and layering of the rocky outcrops in which our vines are planted," adds Justin.

There is also something fitting about the use of the mosaic art form, as it is timeless and each tile is whole in and of itself but lends itself to shape something grander. The label wraps around the bottle, so you can see it from wherever you might be seated at a table. It is a carefully created bottle that complements the table.

McLaren Vale is an astounding region. The soils vary dramatically across the basin that then opens to the coast in the West. This area has been performing reliably for years. It has a Mediterranean climate, but there is also a channel of cool air from the national park down from Mount Lofty. The landforms and topography are rich. A huge range of flavors can be created due to the diverse soils. Most wine regions have a couple of soil types with a range within that type. McLaren Vale has many different soil types (alluvial to chocolatey brown loams to black stick clay, Bisque clay, sand, ironstone…) each with their own broad scope of intensity. Most wineries are concerned with generating intensity and ripeness. "We don’t have that problem," quips Justin, "(our challenge is)… harnessing that power and trying to make such big wines subtle and refined and to go well with food."

McLaren Vale is not just a mecca for wine production, it is a proverbial Eden. There are olives and plentiful fish and walnuts, figs, avocados, pistachios and mulberries. Moreover, in kind with Justin’s good people approach to wine, he finds the McLaren Vale locals "quirky, entertaining, Italian-influenced and people who have a genuine passion for wine and living and food."

Justin is very clear and passionate about his views of the trend-oriented wine industry. He offers that casually speaking, winemaking is seen more as a craft than a science. Many wineries are fashion-focused. They produce wines with a five-year trend projection in mind. He shakes his head at the idea of constant grape rotation in an attempt to keep up with something ephemeral. He contends that it makes far more sense to establish what grapes grow best in the soil that you have, and then to work at perfecting them, year in year out. It is crucial to maintain contact with the heritage of the earth. There is integrity in this angle; grow well what grows well then improve upon it. Each year augers reassessment, tweaks, trials and further exploration. Justin submits, "It is a lifestyle, it is hard work, and you simply cannot hide your mistakes."

He touched upon Australia’s 15-year wine popularity and production honeymoon period. Justin felt that people had become complacent. However, he has found that in the last five years, there had been a revolution. Young-thinking winemakers (he is quick to clarify that this does not necessarily mean young in age) are reevaluating their approach to winemaking in both New Zealand and Australia. There seems to be a conscious return to the grassroots ethic of carefully making a good wine well. This bodes well for the development and success of Australian and New Zealand wines in the future.

Samuel’s Gorge

produces Tempranillo, Grenache and Shiraz. Justin uses open fermenters that date back at least a hundred years, which are low and quite flat, as opposed to the stainless steel upright fermenters that are more habitually used. They are walled by three-inch slate and sealed with beeswax that is then polished by flame. The lower, wider-mouthed fermenters allow for far more contact between skin and grape to obtain a range of natural tannins and also allow for more interplay of yeast and bacteria – both important contributing factors in wine production.

The density of the slate is also good for temperature control. Justin uses traditional basket pressing. He maintains that patience and timing are vital. The barrels are also an important factor in winemaking, "oak flavor and structural influence knit everything else together."

Justin conceded that "half of winemaking is gut instinct. You need to have a feel for when to interfere and when not to." He learned in France that at some point, you have to leave the books and the instructions alone and trust yourself and your surroundings in the creation of a good wine. Moments of mental quietude yield the gems of wine alchemy. For Justin, wine creation starts with a vision of a combination of flavors. His laboratory is rife with beakers, tubes, flasks, notes, bottles, and authentic mad scientist wine stains on the counters. But his theory and execution are solid. The wines are lovely.

My time at Samuel’s Gorge had come to a close. Like those before me, and many more to come in the future, I departed elated, inspired and rosy. I had been privy to the early chapters of the ever-unfurling tale of Samuel’s Gorge . I had enjoyed an encounter that had both educated and delighted me. I envied Justin his "office" and knew he would never tire of the beauty that surrounded him or take it for granted. It all seemed to fit together in such a comprehensive and inexhaustible fashion.

As I left, I had a sense of complicity in the journey of Samuel’s Gorge and the integral experience of good people and good wines in a good place. The relevance of the mosaic was heightened in that moment. I had a palpable appreciation for Justin’s emphasis and insistence on the collective effort. I felt a minute membership in the mosaic. The release of the wine would add another tile, the myriad visits to the Samuel’s Gorge cellar door by the curious and the thirsty that would transpire in the future, a few more tiles, and the vintages to come yet again a few more.

I asked Justin what he looked forward to in the future. He beamed and replied, "A big gut, bulbous nose and burst capillaries." He laughed as only someone with the drive, energy and talent to show the world Samuel’s Gorge could have.

We got back into the car, bid adieu to Pascoe, Justin and the rest of paradise and drove back to Adelaide both moved and satiated.