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ADT: Margaret River Chardonnay 50th Anniversary Masterclass

It has been a hectic but rewarding last week attending all three Australia Day Tastings in London, Edinburgh and Dublin to present Margaret River 50th Anniversary Chardonnay and Cabernet Masterclasses on the Margaret River Wine Association’s behalf. Not only did it afford me the chance to compare and contrast stellar examples of those wines for which the region is most famous.  It also gave me the chance to compare and contrast their performance according to the biodynamic calendar.

There were subtle differences in how the same wines performed in London (23 January, Flower/Leaf day, Chardonnays only) and Edinburgh (25 January, Leaf/Fruit day, Chardonnays and Cabernets), whilst the Cabernets were markedly tighter and less fruity in Dublin (29 January, Root day, Chardonnays and Cabernets).  However, most striking of all across the tastings was the consistent regional thumbprint which climate and heritage clones in particular visited on the wines, yet the diversity of style within that – especially for Chardonnay, that most malleable of grapes.

You’ll find a synthesis of my Chardonnay notes from all three tastings below, while the Dublin Edinburgh Tasting Booklet includes helpful vital statistics about this long, skinny 100km x 27km region, a map, producer profiles and vintage/winemaking information.  My notes also reference the detailed, insightful exchanges I had with the producers/winemakers during my preparation for the masterclasses.  My thanks to one and all.

Margaret River history & evolution

We kicked off each flight with evocative videos prepared especially for the 50th anniversary tastings about the history/making of Margaret River Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon.  Our flights of current releases provided an insight into Margaret River’s evolution over the last 50 years and, on this topic, you can find videos about present day Margaret River Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon here and here.  The videos neatly lift off the page the speed of progress and places and people behind the wines, as well as the key stylistic/regional influences on the wines.

I must admit that, until I watched the Making of Chardonnay video, it had passed me by that Leeuwin Estate’s maiden Art Series Chardonnay (the 1980) was declared Best Chardonnay in the World by Decanter magazine.  Quite an achievement, especially when you put it in context.  This was very early days for Chardonnay in Western Australia, indeed Australia full stop.  In ‘The Way it Was,’ their recently published book about Margaret River’s modern winemaking pioneers, Peter Forrestal & Ray Jordan posit that Western Australia’s first Chardonnay (made by Swan Valley’s Valencia Estate) was produced in 1975 – only a year before Leeuwin Estate and Moss Wood planted Margaret River’s first Chardonnay. At that time, the area of Chardonnay in Australia as a whole was insufficient to warrant being separately recorded in official planting statistics.

That success came so early to Margaret River can be attributed to the heady cocktail of optimal climate, soils, variety and Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon clones identified by Dr John Gladstones (climate and soils), Professor Harold Olmo and the Agricultural Department (Gin Gin Chardonnay clone) and Jack and Dorham Mann (Houghton Cabernet Sauvignon clonal selection).  And, of course, the talented bunch of mixologists whose intellectual curiosity, ambition and super-swift appliance of science set the bar high from the off.  Whilst the pioneers (doctors and entrepreneurs) successfully nailed Margaret River’s varietal colours to the mast early in the piece, the continued pursuit of excellence has seen today’s producers interrogate sub-regional, site and clonal differences and explore a range of winemaking options.  It was exciting to see this articulated by the wines.

Pioneering doctors and francophiles Dr John Lagan of Xanadu & Dr Tom Cullity of Vasse Felix

In this post, I focus on the Chardonnays, which I showed in London, Edinburgh and Dublin.  It was interesting to reflect on changes since I spent a month in Western Australia in 2007, two weeks cellar ratting at Cullen and two weeks visiting producers. As I’ve picked up in subsequent visits, in line with countrywide changes, earlier picking (slightly), more restrained oak and less/no malo, has tempered the Gin Gin Chardonnay clone’s tendency to produce powerful, sweet fruited (think rock melon) wines at full ripeness in favour of tighter, citrus-driven Chardonnays for Margaret River’s classic, fruit-driven styles. Funkier, more savoury, textural styles have emerged too thanks to wide-ranging use of wild ferments and, especially, use of high solids/turbidity.

Whilst Gin Gin, Western Australia’s dominant Chardonnay clone, predominated at this tasting, other clones featured in the line up, especially Burgundy clones.  I shared with my audience a vivid experience from my 2007 visit when I had the chance to compare Voyager Estate 2007 barrel samples.  Prone to hen & chicken/millerandage (peppercorn-sized ‘chicken berries are acid banks with a high skin to juice ratio), the Gin Gin ferment was bright green with this clone’s hallmark terrific acid drive/citric backbone.  Contrastingly, the paler, milkier Burgundy clone 95 ferment produced a rounder palate, with more mouthfeel, less punch.  Savoury even.

Lenton Brae’s Ed Tomlinson – using a diverse selection of clones

So what can the consumer of Margaret River Chardonnay expect?  First, a high quality experience.  Where Chardonnay performs so well in this temperate region, Chardonnay specialists abound. (Margaret River’s typically dry growing season starts early – great for Chardonnay – and finishes late – great for Cabernet).

In contrast with Victoria’s and Tasmania’s cooler climes, also Pemberton and Great Southern to its south, “Margaret River is generally in the ‘more generous’ bandwidth of the new school style,” says Xanadu’s Glenn Goodall so, while you’ll find freshness to temper the fruit, you are unlikely to find austere wines here. In general, expect wines from the cooler, cloudier southern Margaret River sub-regions like Wallcliffe, Karridale and Forest Grove to be finer framed, with more overt acid backbone/persistence.

As for style, many of the producers featured in the line up make a range of Chardonnay styles, from entry level fruit-driven (with classic Gin Gin drive) to funky and textural, the latter typically being the flagship wines which gun for a solids’/sulphides-driven flinty, textural, Burgundy style.  According to Penfolds’ Peter Gago, there has been something of a swing away from this style which garnered so much praise on the show circuit, however my take on the wines shown (which, bar one, was shared by those attending), was that use of solids/sulphides was deftly balanced.  On that note, Flametree’s Cliff Royle observed, “[I]f sulphides are now a wine fault, then the greatest wines I’ve ever drunk are faulty…..RIP Leflaive, Coch, YCM, Roulot and so on…..That said, we shouldn’t forget where the fruit comes from and what the house style is. I’ve never heard wine critics say, ‘Margaret River wines just lack a little fruit for my liking’.”  

Mention of Leflaive et al brings me to the question of accessibility/price point.  Vasse Felix’s entry-level Filius Chardonnay is a regular purchase in this household and widely listed, while I’ve tipped Xanadu’s Exmoor and Estate Chardonnays for great bang for buck in Decanter and in these pages (you’ll find a recent vertical Xanadu tasting reported here).  At the top end I can do no better than point you to Jancis Robinson MW’s recent articles about comparative Australia, Burgundy, California, Oregon Chardonnay blind tastings, entitled “Triumph for Margaret River Chardonnay” and “Margaret River’s superior Chardonnays [free for all].”  Her conclusions elicited many a nodding head from my audience.

Last, on longevity, check out my above-mentioned report on a Xanadu vertical tasting and these reports on Cullen Chardonnay vertical tastings (1997-2010) & (2010-2015).

The tasting

Here are my notes on the Chardonnays.  Don’t forget you can find a producer profile together with details of the fruit sourcing, vintage and winemaking in the linked tasting booklet (see above).

Lenton Brae Southside Chardonnay 2016 (Wilyabrup, Margaret River)

With Fraser Gallop, one of two 100% northern Margaret River, Wilyabrup Chardonnays in the line up, both made solely from estate fruit.  Winemaker Ed Tomlinson, whose parents founded the estate in 1982, joined me for the London presentation and shared with us his motivation for using a mix of clones.  Southside is 49% Gin Gin, 18% Penfolds clone 58, 12% of each of Burgundy clones 76 & 96 and 6% Burgundy clone 95. Although these days he reckons earlier picking, better handling of Gin Gin and wild yeasts/solids has brought dimension (texture/mouthfeel/complexity) to Gin Gin, he had found 100% Gin Gin Chardonnays “sometimes be overbearing (power and heat) with alcohols pushing 14%.”  Tomlinson has used other clones to “massage some of that blocky, overbearing tendency, producing more floral aromatically and sleek and delicious in the mouth.” He also observed that the French clones are flavour ripe at lower baume’s so final alcohols are lower too.  Stylistically, the winemaker’s aim is “to maximise the wonderful fruit we’re capable of growing.” Shows dried pear lift and fruit with citrus (green pineapple/lemon/grapefruit) to the palate, balanced acidity (max 10% malo) and restrained oak (it spent 10 months in 300l French oak, 30% new).  In London and Dublin in particular it showed a little more texture, a subtle nuttiness even which, for Tomlinson reflected its pH (higher than he had thought).  Fruit-driven but measured.  13.5% £14.95 at The Wine Society (2015 vintage).

Fraser Gallop Estate Parterre Chardonnay 2016 (Wilyabrup, Margaret River)

When I first met founder Nigel Gallop in 2009, he made it clear that his decision to plant in Wilyabrup in 1999 and stick with the tried and tested Gin Gin & Houghton clones stemmed from the success of its early pioneers in that place, with those grapes and clones.  Together with three of them – Cullen, Moss Wood and Woodlands – he formed Wilyabrup Valley Vignerons in 2013 whom, last year, applied for official GI status for this northern sub-region which is particularly revered for its Cabernet.  Gallop showed me the 2007 and 2008 Chardonnay back then, the first with 70% new oak which, the following year reduced to 30%.  Pretty much the same as for this wine – Parterre – a new middle tier since my visit, soon to be joined by Palladian which top cuvee sees higher solids/turbidity and 100% puncheons. This wine – Parterre – is produced from only free-run, so has limited solids.  It was fermented and aged in a combination of barriques and puncheons with a light toast.  At all three tastings, I was struck by its fruit purity and its light kiss of cedary oak.  The nose is pretty, with dried pear, white flowers, even a hint of tangerine (especially in Edinburgh – the leaf/fruit day), but the dry grown Gin Gin (and no malo) brings delicious drive to the palate.  Lovely line and persistence, with salivating salty grapefruit.   Intensely (and not in the least densely fruity), it flies. I suspect an earlyish picking window – 4th to 9th February – accounts for that.  13.5%  RRP £24.99

Stella Bella Chardonnay 2016 (Margaret River)

The philosophy at Stella Bella revolves around focusing on southern Margaret River fruit in pursuit of distinctly medium bodied wines where, says winemaker Luke Joliffe, “Margaret River Chardonnay has plenty of fruit power to hold high natural acidity.”  Each time I tasted this Chardonnay, Joliffe’s comments about “looking for a defined spring water mineral line in the Chardonnay” resonated.  Though, like its predecessors, the focus is on the fruit, this is a finer framed, citrus-driven wine, pacy of delivery and super-persistent with snappy grapefruity, mineral acidity and a subtly complexing flinty lift to nose and tail (elements of this wine see a touch higher degree of turbidity – up to 500 NTU – compared with the Lenton Brae and Fraser Gallop).  Unlike his predecessor, Flowstone’s Stuart Pym, Joliffe is using an element of wild ferment (c. 30%) which he reckons “really helps the higher acid sites as the glycerol produced in wild fermentation provides texture and sweetness.”  A minority element of clone I10V1 adds “texture and lusciousness,” while Gin Gin (the predominant clone) is all about acid line and provides more solids to work with. This is a beautifully crafted, cool, chiselled Chardonnay, with mouth-watering persistence and arrow-straight line.  12.5%  RRP £18.99

Xanadu Chardonnay 2015 (Wallcliffe/Karridale, Margaret River)

Xanadu has seen significant changes in ownership/philosophy during Glenn Goodall’s tenure as Chief Winemaker.  The Wallcliffe-based, southern Margaret River producer is relying much more on estate fruit for premium tier wines, particularly Stevens Road (acquired 2008). Within Wallcliffe, Goodall especially rates “this little area I call Boodjidup (the Boodjidup Brook runs through our property along with Leeuwin and Voyager) as magic for Chardonnay!”  Together with the countrywide Chardonnay revolution, it has signalled changes at this pioneering estate (founded 1977).  Summing them up for Chardonnay, the winemaker observed “our wines are generally getting a bit tighter, with earlier harvest maturity, and less new oak influence over the years (don’t want to get too lean though!).  We’ve been 100% wild ferment in barrel (all price points of Chardonnay) since 2013, with no MLF [malo/malolactic fermentation] since 2006 vintage.” Where, he says, “I love ‘funk’ and complexity, but don’t chase any overt struck match characters in our wines,” though he uses quite high solids, he practises regular batonnage (which avoids reduction and the pronounced sulphides which come with it).  Solids typically range between 300 – 400 NTU, and as high as 800 – 900 NTU for some (not many) leaner batches.  Since I tasted it last July, the savouriness/funkiness and leesy texture is more evident (or perhaps it’s because it follows on from the finer framed Stella Bella and strikingly pure-fruited Fraser Gallop?), but it still has lovely drive and freshness to its grapefruit, dried pear and saline, oyster shell nuances.  In Edinburgh, I picked up a hint of lemon verbena too.  Very complete, with lovely complexity and length.  13%  RRP £18.49

Flametree SRS Wallcliffe Chardonnay 2016 (Wallcliffe, Margaret River)

Flametree’s Cliff Royale

I first met winemaker Cliff Royle in 2004 when he worked at Voyager Estate in Wallcliffe, southern Margaret River.  He has always been a Chardo-nut and, when I visited at Flametree shortly after he’d joined in 2010, I knew that this relatively new producer’s Chardonnay would flourish.  When we discussed this wine before the tasting, Royle told me “Margaret River is blessed with fruit power but you can work against this in some ways to make finer Chardonnay styles,” which is whilst he has always been keen on earlier picking and fruit from the south.  Since his Voyager days, the trend in favour of working with solids has opened up a more savoury dimension for Margaret River which he pursues avidly in this top tier Sub-Regional Series (SRS) single vineyard Chardonnay from the southern end of Wallcliffe. His aim is “trying to harness the natural fruit power of the region and add subtle elements to the wine that make it more interesting, in this case a little more savory and drier…..rather than powerful and sweet fruited.”  With a high NTU range (between 400-1000, rising to more than three times the turbidity of the first wine), this is the wine that pushed the funk artefact over terroir a little too far for one attendee.  For me, while the fruit is very much on the backfoot, it was still balanced with exciting complexity and a true southern Margs finish, with great line and persistence.  Toasty, nutty and flinty with smoked hazelnut, bacon fat and crushed oyster shell nuances, pillowy lees flesh out a tight backbone of acidity (this is 100% Gin Gin, no malo).  Incidentally, Royle is the winemaker with whom I did the comparative tasting of Gin Gin and Burgundy clone 95 barrel tasting.  Telling me he has come the full circle on clones (i.e. back to Gin Gin), in his opinion, “it delivers the most grapefruit, pear and white florals, the complete wine on its own and walks the line beautifully between power and purity & more consistently.” 13%  RRP £31.99

Vasse Felix Heytesbury Chardonnay 2016 (Margaret River)

Virginia Willcock was very much the whip-cracker for funkier/high solids styles of Chardonnay in Margaret River.  Over the last decade, she has overseen earlier picking, fermenting with high solids, a shift to 100% wild ferment, selection of finer distinct oak coopers “that match our fruit,” stirring on lees depending on the batch requirement, no racking and taking all solids to final blend for harmonisation before clarifying and bottling. MLF is only allowed to happen if acidity is high as a natural reduction, as was the case in this vintage – 2016 – when unusually cool nights in early February resulted in high malic acid levels and the wine underwent 100% malo.  When an attendee queried if solids/sulphides overlay terroir, I remembered an interview with Willcock in which she told me wild yeasts and solids help her to “make an estate style which is individual to Vasse Felix. I’m just embracing a bit more of what comes with the fruit from the vineyard.” As with most things it’s a question of degree.  What I can say is that I like this savoury, textural style with its struck match and sour dough notes very much, though the lamb fat/glycerol will not appeal to everyone! I reckon its softer mouthfeel is particularly evident in this vintage because of 100% malo (and compared with other wines in the flight, with more evident acid drive).  But it remains balanced, persistent, indeed long and powerful as it builds and gathers impetus in the mouth, suggesting the best is yet to come.  Oak provides support, smoke and spice.  Funnily enough, I found the fruit – dried pear, stone fruits, with citrus riffs – much more evident in Dublin (on a root day).  This is a multi-layered, powerful Chardonnay, still unfurling.  On clone and sub-region, Willcock told me that Vasse Felix’s Chardonnay sites have been developed throughout Wilyabrup, Wallcliffe and Karridale with mostly Gin Gin clone and small sections of Bernard 96,95 and 76. Where once Heytesbury was a barrel selection, “as our vineyards have developed and stabilised and we are understanding them better, we are now generally using the same parcels which produce unique characters that make up the funky perfume and tight tense palate of Heytesbury Chardonnay.”  13% RRP £39.99

Flowstone Queen of the Earth Chardonnay 2014 (Forest Grove, Margaret River)

Co-founder Stuart Pym has been making wine in Margaret River for over 30 years, initially helping his parents establish Sussex Vale (now Hayshed Hill), then at Voyager Estate (1991-2000), Devil’s Lair (2000-2008) and Stella Bella (2008-2013). Once released from the apron strings, he has solidly gravitated to Margaret River’s south, where he planted the 2.25ha Flowstone vineyard in 2004. I visited in 2014 and you can read more about it here.  I guess it’s a combination of being his own boss, production being so small and having been in the game for a while that, he says, “the focus is to make wines that I enjoy and find interesting.”  For Chardonnay especially, that means “wines with some depth and richness of flavour, because this is what the varietal characters taste like, and it is what Margaret River as a region delivers in the grapes.” So while the trend has been towards tightness, with earlier picking, less oak and less/no malo, Pym picked relatively late (24th February for this vintage) and, having undergone 100% malo, Flowstone Queen of the Earth Chardonnay 2014 was aged in 50% new French oak barriques for 18 months then bottle-aged for 20 months before release.  He is not a fan of wild ferments either, preferring to inoculate (2-3 different yeast strains).  Whilst, he jokes, “I am not good at fashion (you can tell by the way I dress),” he has deviated from the traditional Margaret River path in a major way when it comes to clones.  Entirely eschewing the Gin Gin clone, he planted Burgundy clones 95 & 96 because “I just like a little more of an open feel to the palate, with a bit more mid palate generosity and texture.” Together with the spicier, toastier/smokier oak and, as one would expect from its relative maturity, hints of dried honey and nutty brown butter, it certainly expresses itself very differently to the Gin Gin clone led Chardonnays.  Tasting it next to the super-intensely pure fruited yet focused and linear Leeuwin Estate Art Series (which does Gin Gin to a power of 100), the Flowstone cleaves to the mid-palate, exuding satiny, spicy stone and orchard fruits as opposed to commandeering the back palate like the ‘straight through to the keeper’ Leeuwin with its spearing, citric acid drive.  Relatively open-knit and sleek, its firm under-pinning of southern Margs acidity is deftly balanced by a malo-derived creaminess. Perhaps because the vines are young (70% planted in 2004, the balance in 2008) it doesn’t have the length of its peers.  13.3% RRP £34.99

Leeuwin Estate Art Series Chardonnay 2013 (Wallcliffe, Margaret River)

The quintessential expression of Gin Gin from Wallcliffe, southern Margaret River was, from the off, a legend in its own lifetime, so if it ain’t broke, why fix it?   Its backbone is still blocks 20 (the oldest, most concentrated 1976 parcel which delivers strength and finesse,) and 22 (planted 1978, which delivers less aromatics, palate width and length).  It still undergoes skin contact – unique in this line up (and anyway very much a niche practice); half the fruit (relatively late picked between 13 and 28th February in 2013) underwent skin contact for 6-8 hours (for flavour, al dente texture/structure and longevity). And, with that fruit power and structure, it was aged in 100% new oak.  Like I said, this is a commandeering, powerful, linear wine.  Uncompromising and unrivalled in its fruity purity, sheer intensity and focus – qualities which doubtless stem from the “treat ’em [the grapes] like eggs” motto about fruit handling which Forrestal and Jordan report in their book (along with the original winemaker Bob Cartwright’s preference for “fish arse tight” super fine grained oak barrels).  “We are searching for the clearest and purest expression of fruit and site, not necessarily chasing secondary characters – although they are present in the background,” says current head winemaker Tim Lovett.  I admire Leeuwin for sticking to their guns but subtly refining Art Series Chardonnay.  These days, reported Lovett, they are “capturing marginally earlier to enhance clarity and purity of its varietal fruit spectrum,” this wine spent 11 months in barrel versus the more traditional 17 months of times past and, since 2006, Leeuwin has blocked malo.  Wild yeast has crept into vintages from 2012 (“but will always be a minority component”); it represented 35% in this wine.   Almost the polar opposite of Flowstone’s open-knit Chardonnay with its tertiary nuances,  the Art Series’ tight-knit, concentrated nose and palate (I could borrow a phrase from Cartwright there!) features rapier-like, al dente, grapefruity acidity – terrific drive and focus – with a swashbuckling, resonant back palate perfumed with vanillin oak and dried pear. Contained opulence.  A baby.  13.5%  RRP £75

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