Grapevine Archive for Margaret River
Western Australia is the youngest of all the wine regions outside of the Swan Valley which dates back more than 180 years. Plantings only began in Margaret River at the end of the 1960s, following the work of a couple of academics which identified it as a prime location for grape growing.
A newer winery to look out for is Fraser Gallop, whose 2009s jumped out at me in our blind tasting sessions and this was only their second vintage! The winemaker is Clive Otto who was previously at Vasse-Felix and their estate is situated in the Wilyabrup region amongst the big boys. We stock their 2009 Cabernet-Merlot (£13.50 per bottle).
With my trip finished, the overall impression I got from the regions I visited is the sense of community: the winemakers are working together to gain a greater understanding of their regions and learning from one another in a way that I?ve not seen replicated elsewhere. This, combined with their passion and their keenness to address consumer concerns (e.g. amount of oak used in whites and alcohol levels), must mean that the future potential for Australian wine is enormous.
For consumers, the message is unfortunately now a lot less clear from when we thought we knew what to expect from which variety even from which region. The best advice would be to find a producer you like and drink around their ranges: I found in regional tastings that the same producers appeared at the top of my lists time and again.
Luckily, this tactic generally works as many producers make a range of wines which means that they have a very long and manic vintage as their picking later varieties while blending the earlier harvest etc. This must be a very stressful time, when it must feel like spinning plates – as the winery notice boards, detailing what went into each tank and when, will testify. I had an interesting debate with one winemaker about this and he said he occasionally wondered whether he was stretched too thin and wondered what his life would be like if he only had a handful of wines to concentrate on. However we both agreed that what we love about wine is the variety and if they can maintain quality levels and they sell then why not.
1. The enormous potential for future quality with winemakers working together to better understand their regions potential and they listen to consumers.
2. Keep ageworthy wines for greater drinking pleasure.
3. Find producers whose style you like, then try your way around their range.
4. Trends to look out for: cool-climate shiraz from Victoria, sparkling rosé moscatos
5. Try the chardonnays again. They?ve changed. Much more restrained use of oak, and are very consistent in quality.
6. For an alternative to shiraz, give grenache fro McLaren Vale & cabernets from Yarra a go.
7. Mediterranean varieties: an increase in experimentation, especially in McLaren Vale.
I have returned feeling very proud of the work and the approach that buyer Pierre Mansour and The Wine Society have been taking. For instance, finding a sub-£10 Mornington Pennisula wine is virtually unheard of and in a few years time we?ll be able to offer some older vintages of some of Australia key wines. Making a selection from the wealth of quality wines available must be really hard ? not that I feel too sorry for him!
Last week a bushfire burnt through the coastal areas west of Margaret River. The fire is now contained but it destroyed 32 houses and nine holiday chalets with damage to a further 22 homes. Fortunately there was no human cost. The fire was a result of prescribed burns by government agencies which were reignited by very strong northerly winds. The agencies do this in order to reduce fuel loads and provide protection for summer months to local seaside communities.
I have been in touch with a number of The Wine Society’s key suppliers. Moss Wood’s Keith Mugford says “We have been very fortunate and so far we been spared by the weather. The fires started about 10k south of us and the wind direction blew the flames and smoke away from us. Most vineyards seem to have been missed.”
McHenry-Hohnen were less fortunate with some damage to 2 hectares of chardonnay in their Burnside vineyard. Winemaker Ryan Walsh explains: “All okay in lives and buildings here just a little chardonnay gone from this year…..There is no long term loss in vines, the loss will only be taken for this coming vintage 2012. The Sauvignon Blanc from Burnside is untouched and looking very good for the coming 2012 vintage. Freya and I live approximately 2km North East from the Burnside vineyard and were evacuated Wednesday to Friday as a precautionary measure. We have now returned. The house is fine.” And Vanya Cullen by text “We r ok, fires are in the south, we r in north, but it is sad.”
Buyer for Australia
David Hohnen of McHenry Hohnen recently visited our offices in Stevenage to talk to us about the wines produced from their small family vineyards in Margaret River.
Hohnen, one of the pioneers of this region, who came here in the early seventies to plant vineyards for Cape Mentelle, revealed the mysterious reason for a change in style of wine from the 1995 vintage, particularly for the reds.
He explained that one of the big threats to grape growers in this region is the highly destructive tiny Silvereye bird (Zosterops lateralis) which can wreak havoc on a whole crop within hours. The birds usually feed on tree blossom; ‘but if the blossom fails, we’re in trouble’, says David. Though the birds are small they live in large flocks. They wait for when the grapes are perfectly ripe and then descend in their masses. Their high-pitched call attracts birds from far and wide and before you know it you have no more grapes. The birds’ tiny beaks are not designed for grape munching so they make lots of tiny puncture marks in the skins allowing rot and disease to sweep through the vineyard.
Winemakers in Australia are used to having to net their vineyards against birds, but the tiny Silvereye was able to make its way through the standard-sized netting. Luckily an Australian winemaker on business in China had a chance ‘eureka moment’ when watching local fisherman at work and thought the finer nets they used could be adapted for protecting vines.
The idea worked perfectly and since 1995 these have been used extensively in the vineyards of Margaret River much to the frustration of the local avian population. ‘It did have a noticeable effect on the quality of our wines’ David said, ‘it’s vital to harvest at the right time when the grapes are properly ripe, especially for the reds. Before 1995 we often had to harvest early or risk losing the whole crop.’Now that the threat from the Silvereye is lessened, grapes can be safely left on the vine into autumn when the proper ripening takes place. David explained that it isn’t just a question of sweetness in the grapes, it’s essential that lignification has started in the vine. The roots sense the on-set of autumn and start to draw energy back into the vine from the fruit and vegetation. The leaves change colour, bark hardens and so do the seeds…‘they become crunchy, with no hint of bitterness. This is the sign of properly mature tannins which means that the wines don’t need tannic structure supplemented by oak barrels.’
If you’d like a taste of perfect ripeness the McHenry Hohnen Rocky Road Zinfandel from the 2009 vintage gives just that. David has had a long connection with zinfandel since his student days at Fresno, California. He and brother-in-law Murray McHenry are among the first to plant the grape in Margaret River. The result is extraordinary, lovely sweet-sour flavours of black cherry and chocolate with a lovely freshness about it too and super length.
Earlier this month 90 members and guests were treated to a wonderful meal at Smith’s of Smithfield, the great eatery just across the road from London’s meat market, owned by chef John Torode. It was a fitting Aussie-owned backdrop for a dinner that highlighted wines from two of Western Australia’s finest winemakers – Vanya Cullen from Cullen Wines in Margaret River and John Durham from Plantagenet Wines in Great Southern.
The weather was kind and as the evening wore on a aperitif-friendly south-facing blue-sky panorama from the terrace with St Paul’s Cathedral as the centre piece gently dimmed into a full-moonlit night.
Vanya was delighted with the full moon, as it became her visual aid when talking about the biodynamic way that her vines are grown and wines made. The Mangan Vineyard Sauvignon Semillon (soon to come into stock) matched beautifully with the scallops expertly prepared by the SoS team, the Mangan Malbec Petit Verdot Merlot 2009 would knock spots off many a similarly-priced Claret and the Diana Madeleine 2002 (we have the 2008 currently available) was simply sublime.
John’s vibrant Riesling 2009 got proceedings off to a crisp start, and his Omrah Shiraz 2008 made an interesting gutsy comparison with the aforementioned Mangan Red with our aged fillet steak. The 1999 Shiraz again contrasted robustly with the finesse of the DM, both accompanying the excellent cheeses (Yarg, aged Montgomery and Caerphilly), and his cheeky sweet Ringbark Riesling 2009 matched wonderfully with the pear and lemon dessert.
The wines are very different in style, as are the winemakers, and we got the full picture from both on this moonlit night. The venue doesn’t give itself over to being a quiet and venerable eating place – sociability is definitely the watchword, and perhaps a full moon made members even more gregarious and loquacious than usual … or was it the wine? Either way, a good time was had, the food and service were of a very high standard and the beautiful wines spoke for themselves. We shall return there some time soon.
Head of Tastings & Events
Margaret River is in full harvest swing and I’m at Cullen Wines, a pioneer of this great cabernet sauvignon region.
I was struck by the intensely-coloured, almost fluorescent bloom of Vanya Cullen’s cabernet grapes (which will go into her best wine, “Diana Madeline”, due to be harvested any day soon).
I hope the above photo does justice to what must be one of the healthiest vineyards in the area, proof that biodynamics works.
Vanya, not one to oversell, reckons 2011 may be her finest vintage ever. The grapes certainly tasted delicious: pure, fruity and with perfectly ripe pips. For the wine, well, we’ll all just have to wait three years once Vanya has worked her winemaking magic.