McHenry Hohnen – from vine to swine

I first visited McHenry Hohnen in 2007.  At that time, the winery was still under construction but far advanced enough to be put to good use, it being vintage.  David Hohnen (pictured), his winemaker daughter Freya and co-investor/brother-in-law Murray McHenry, set up a makeshift dining cum tasting room.  Perched on low gym benches, we dined on freshly caught dhu-fish (WA’s finest) accompanied, of course, by some cracking Margaret River chardy – McHenry Hohnen’s Calgardup Brook is a beaut and showed its pedigree at a vertical on this trip – see below.

No mucking about, well only the sheep…

In 2009, the new dining area may be a little flashier with its panoramic, “widescreen” view of the vineyards, but there’s nothing flashy about David Hohnen, his daughter Freya or her husband Ryan Walsh, who now shares winemaking responsibilities.  The philosophy revolves around authenticity – being as true as possible to the land, the variety and vintage with no mucking about.  No mean feat when you’ve ridden the crest of the Cloudy Bay wave like Hohnen, the first recipient of the Len Evans Award for Leadership (see here for further details and a well-observed tribute from Andrew Caillard MW)

In the vineyard, this means “great grand pa farming,” working within the cycle of nature rather than resorting to chemical intervention.  Tamworth and bush pigs (pictured) do the work of rotary hoes, Wiltshire sheep get rid of Cape Weed and enhance soil quality by spreading nitrogen-fixing clover.  That’s not all they spread – sheep make valuable minerals available to the soil in organic form – that’s manure to you and me.  You can find out more about great grandpa farming here.  In the winery, the policy of minimal intervention continues with natural ferments and judicious use of oak (tasting notes below).

Farmer one minute, boulevardier the next

And the farm animals are not just an adjunct to vineyard activities.  Hohnen says he loves the values and down to earth honesty of farming and gravitates towards it  – “I wasn’t meant to be behind a desk.”  It shows. Driving through his paddock of Wiltshire sheep in a battered old ute, he pauses to admire “a ripper” and draws my attention to the travelling irrigator.  It allows him to finish his lambs on grass, not corn, which he says is better for flavour and nutrition.  Back on the home farm, though he says “I’m not a grinner,” Hohnen’s face breaks into a wide grin as the latest litter of Tamworth piglets hove into view.

When we stop for fresh ground coffee in a chi chi Margaret River café, he wryly observes “from farmer one minute to boulevardier the next,” but make no mistake, Hohnen is not playing the gentleman farmer.  He’s an ideologist who despairs of a society in which overproduction means that food and wine have never been cheaper. At Cape Mentelle, Cloudy Bay and now McHenry Hohnen, his passion has been to showcase regionality and nurture intrinsic quality from vine to wine, rather than chase volume.  He’s now setting out to do the same with his rare breed, free range lamb and pork products.  His aim?  To offer a paddock to plate alternative that persuades people to eat less but better.

Hohnen already supplies his meat to local restaurants and Margaret River retail outlets, but the current apple of his eye is the new Caves Road cellar door, farm shop and café, just west of Margaret River township. Here, meat will be butchered and aged on site to Hohnen’s exacting standards.  Charcuterie, sausages and pies for the shop and café will also be prepared on site.  He’s a real family man, so this venture is Hohnen nirvana – it will only sell family produce, including winemaker Ryan’s cheeses and Ryan’s parents’ olive oil.

There’s a sense of déjà vu when I visit the cellar door and farm shop.  It shares the same staggered roof design as the winery, with its south-facing “dormer windows” to maximise natural light.  Just as when I first visited the winery in 2007, it was nearing completion.  We didn’t improvise lunch arrangements this time, but I look forward to seeing the finished article when I next visit and having a spot of lunch!

A vertical of Calgardup Brook Chardonnay

David Hohnen developed his first Margaret River vineyard in 1970 and made Cape Mentelle’s first commercial release in 1976.  Between Hohnen, his wife and McHenry, they own four prime vineyards in southerly Margaret River.   Nonetheless, McHenry Hohnen only released its first wines in 2004, so it’s a relatively new operation.  Since I typically taste the new vintages on release (see here for my tasting notes of current releases, including the terrific new Rolling Stone), when asked what I’d like to taste, I suggested a vertical to get a feel for how the wines are evolving.

First up, a vertical of Calgardup Brook Chardonnay from 2004 –2008.  Planted in 1995/96 down by a brook, this site is shaded from the last hour or so of afternoon sunshine.  This makes for a tightly structured style, not least because the policy is to pick on acid not fruit (Chardonnay delivers flavour ripeness at an early stage) and avoid malolactic fermentation.   I’ve also included tasting notes for the Rocky Road Chardonnay, a contrasting single vineyard wine first made in 2007.  From a sunnier, north-facing site planted in 1997, it’s richer in style. In 2010, McHenry Hohnen will release a third single vineyard Chardonnay from 30 year old McHenry’s Vineyard fruit which had been under contract to Cape Mentelle.  I look forward to tasting it because Cape Mentelle’s and McHenry Hohnen’s Chardonnays are a strong suit.

Calgardup Brook Chardonnay 2004 – very fruity, flavoursome and rich but still tight with a scintillating zesty lime freshness and piquancy.  Very good – really flying now. Freya Hohnen was really pleased at the wine’s vibrancy  – reassuring given their low sulphur regime.

Calgardup Brook Chardonnay 2005 
– a relatively cool vintage.  Not as sprightly as the 2004 but more powerful, with greater length.  There’s a piquant push of exotic lime and underlying minerality.   Good.

Calgardup Brook Chardonnay 2006 
– the coolest vintage on record and this weighs in at 12.5% abv.  Still tight on the nose and palate with grapefruit and lime giving plenty of line; subtley savoury on the finish. Very good.

Calgardup Brook Chardonnay 2007
 – a little bit warm in comparison with a complex nose and palate showing a sour dough, savoury character and some smoky oak.  Quite expansive, textured and weighty in the mouth without being rich.  Good.

Calgardup Brook Chardonnay 2008 – Ryan has aimed for a leaner, punchier style so pulled back on the batonnage.  There’s plenty of tight line and lime here, not as textured as the 2007 which is the trade off.  Good.

Rocky Road Chardonnay 2007 – more grapefruit than lime with broader white peach. There a lively, juicy quality to this wine, a punchiness almost – my characterful (and enjoyable) is  Freya’s and Ryan’s touch of volatility.

Rocky Road Chardonnay 2008 
– again, broader fruits than the Calgardup Brook, this shows custard apple, white peach and apple.  More at one with itself than the 2007, it has good line, length and persistence with a lively sherbetty note to the finish.

A vertical tasting of 3 Amigos White

3 Amigos White 2005 – I first tasted this Marsanne, Chardonnay, Roussanne blend when I visited in 2007 and my tasting notes are as follows:– “floral, white pepper nose with fleshy white peach palate and hints of cashew.  Flavoursome and well balanced.” This time, I felt that the floral and white pepper notes I associate with the Roussanne had been superseded by the Chardonnay which is now very much to the fore. A rich, ripe but balanced palate with creamy custard apple.  Good.  Incidentally, the plan is to replace the Chardonnay with Viognier down the track.

3 Amigos White 2006 – the super-cool vintage is immediately apparent on a gorgeous honeysuckle nose and complex (slightly funky), long and persistent palate with stone fruits and a hint of aniseed/fennel.  Lovely.  Incidentally a barrel tasting of the individual components for the 2009 vintage suggests that the honeysuckle and fennel notes come from the Marsanne.

3 Amigos White 2007 
– a warmer vintage produces a more powerful wine with a floral edge to its ripe apricot and lychee fruit.  Quite exotic and more obviously Rhonish, with a well-balanced finish with that hint of aniseed.

3 Amigos White 2008 – a lovely honeysuckle lift to the nose and palate which has a generous girth of vanilla edged stone fruits.  No sign of blousiness though – very attractive.

Going horizontal  – a blind tasting of Shiraz, Grenache, Mataro (Mourvedre) blends

It’s always best to see things from different angles, so after a couple of verticals, what better than a horizontal? Ryan had arranged a fun blind tasting of 22 Grenache Shiraz Mataro-dominated blends – 11 from the Barossa, 1 from McLaren Vale, 3 from Margaret River and 7 from the Southern Rhone, including McHenry Hohnen’s 3 Amigos Red, a personal favourite of the range.

After tasting each flight blind, the assembled group of local winemaking talent and WA wine writer Ray Jordan (author of an excellent guide to WA wines, regions and producers) exchanged views. My big picture conclusion was that Margaret River sits neatly between the New World GSMs and the Rhone with well-defined, fresh red and black fruits backed by supporting tannins and balancing freshness.  In fact, much as I hate to admit it, I mistook 2 Margaret River blends for Rhone wines and I have to say, some Rhone blends for the Barossa, albeit the French wines had a bigger tannin profile and the South Aussie wines tended to be a bit sweet.  The honourable exception was John Duval’s Plexus SGM 2006, by common consensus, head and shoulders above its fellow South Aussie wines.

I was struck by the lack of tannin structure/dryness (balancing acidity and tannin) of the South Australia wines even before we got to the WA and Rhone wines.  While the Rhone wines were characterful, I sometimes found them a little lacking in terms of fruit profile – too baked/lacking freshness.  And this is where the WA wines looked good; a lower alcohol perception (reality) than the Rhone and South Australian wines too.   Here are my notes on the WA wines:

McHenry Hohnen 2006 3 Amigos Red
 – I mistook the (cool vintage) 2006 for a Rhone wine owing to its intense, light-medium bodied white pepper inflected bright red and black berry fruits.  Present but ripe tannins.  Good in a lean, lifted cool vintage style.

McHenry Hohnen 2007 3 Amigos Red – a deeper colour reflecting the warmer vintage, as does the denser fruit weight.  It shows a good depth of well-defined plum, juicy blood plum, sweet blackcurrant, blackberry and raspberry fruit, supported by sinewy tannins.  There’s a savoury, meaty edge and lurking minerality that I always like about this wine.  Good medium term potential.

Cape Mentelle Marmaduke Shiraz Grenache Mourvedre Zinfandel 2007 
– a powdered blackcurrant nose, with really nice fruit purity and freshness to the nose and palate; fine tannins.  I mistook it for a modern Rhone, in fact, even more embarrassingly, was convinced it was a Northern Rhone Syrah…hmmm…

Later, Ryan and I tasted some barrel samples.  Aside from the Zinfandel, all McHenry Hohnen reds are varietal blends since Hohnen says no one grape has the perfect tannin profile, so a barrel tasting is a great way to see what each variety brings to the party.  Though it didn’t surprise me that Mataro sports firm tannins, I discovered that, though thin-skinned, Grenache is pretty tannic in Margaret River and so Shiraz is the flesh pot of the three!  I guess the Shiraz makes sense given that I tend to find this variety produces much more open-textured and fleshy wines in Margaret River than those from the eastern states.  In fact I reckon that Shiraz blends like 3 Amigos make for the more interesting drinking.

A couple of final thoughts

There is a clear-eyed quality that I admire about Hohnen, daughter Freya and son-in-law Ryan and I love the way that this tracks into the wines.  Take 3 Amigos Red, which is aged in old oak barrels so there’s no “varnish” of new oak to detract from varietal and vineyard character.   The verticals offered vignettes of each vintage, for example, the light and shade of 2007 versus 2006.  It’s winemaking as it should be, without ego.