Western Australia – week one
It’s the end of my first week of three in Western Australia. Today the sun is shining and it’s a beautiful day in Margaret River, but my arrival coincided with some unseasonal wet and windy weather. Couldn’t help wondering if that’s why the Wine Industry Association of Western Australia have a file on me entitled “Sarah Ahmed Regional Challenge?!! Cold english weather fronts and all that…Anyway, here are just a few highlights from week one, full report to follow.
Dynasty – Lamont’s food and wine empire
Monday involved a gentle start, getting my bearings in Perth through a haze of jetlag. One of my missions is to find out more about the wine and food scene on which I’ll be writing a feature for Decanter magazine. As luck would have it, an unscheduled visit to the recently opened Lamont’s Wine Store Cottesloe, brought me head to head with popular WA chef, Kate Lamont (pictured). Kate is the grand-daughter of one of Western Australia’s pioneering wine heroes, winemaker Jack Mann. Her father established Lamont’s winery in the Swan Valley in 1978 and the family empire has since expanded to encompass a cellar door in Margaret River plus, spear-headed by Kate, restaurants in the Swan, Margaret River, East Perth and the trendy Perth coastal suburb of Cottesloe.
The Cottesloe outlet is a new departure because it takes the form of a vinoteca. It has a great selection of Aussie and international wines which can be consumed on the premises with simple seasonal food, just tapas if you like, for a mark up of $18.50 on the retail price. What’s more, each wine is available by the glass so it’s a great place to taste some top shelf kit without breaking the bank. And just in case I missed Portugal, they even stock Luis Pato’s Vinhas Velhas White - a bit of Portgual in Perth…This strong focus on wine reflects the philosophy extolled in Kate’s new book “Wine & food,” with chapters organised by wine style – now that’s my kind of priority!
The next day I headed just north of Perth to the Swan Valley. The region’s traditional strength is fortified liqueur wines made from Muscat, Muscadelle (known as Tokay), PX, and Shiraz and Verdelho so I made a bee-line for liqueur specialists Talijancich, my first biodynamic fortified wines. Fortified liqueur wines are a full on sweet and sticky style specific to Australia. Second generation winemaker James explained that the fruit is picked later and riper than say`for port or madeira. At this point, it’s so hard and raisined that the fruit is “minced” to extract the grapes’ syrupy sweet juice. Talijanich nonetheless achieve stunning balance in their wines and the just slated for release 1969 Tokay had fabulous floral lift and perfume. It’s rare to release vintage wines (as opposed to solera blends); the 69 Tokay will cost around $300 for a half bottle, but it’s right up there in my fine wine experiences. James says the secret to the fine balance in his wines is carefully to monitor evaporation and oxidation – “you don’t want to lose varietal character so you need an element of freshness.”
After Swan, on Wednesday it was down south to Pemberton and Manjimup, betwixt Margaret River and Great Southern, a journey speeded up by the opening of a new highway which cuts out Mandurah. In 2007 and 08 I drove the length and breadth of Great Southern checking out the region’s justly famous Rieslings. Then I heard whispers about a fine German style of Riesling from Pemberton. Unfortunately I got lost on forestry tracks trying to find Bellarmine, which was established by a German couple, the Schumachers, in 2004. This time I got to taste their wines and was thrilled to discover their Auslese – fabulous purity and scintillating tension, one of the most successful of the new niche breed of sweeter Aussie Rieslings I’ve encountered. Another name to watch out for is Herriot Wines, a biodynamic producer from neighbouring Manjimup whose early efforts show promise, especially the sweeter Natascha cuvee.
It’s a dog’s life
An exciting, relatively new development, taking the foodie world by storm, is Manjimup’s French black truffle industry. I rocked up on Thursday at The Wine & Truffle Company to find out more. Although the truffle season had just ended I was treated to a mock truffle hunt by truffle hunters Damon Boorman and his labradors Errol and Sky (pictured) who were keen as mustard despite having unearthed 900kg of “black gold” over the last 3 months or so – dogs with fine palates then.
Actually, the dogs don’t dig for the truffles, nor do they get their chops on them - they’re worth $3,000/kilo – so they simply track down their scent and alert Damon to the location. Damon then gently unearthes the truffles by hand, but only if they are ripe. After careful sorting, the truffles are despatched to top Aussie, Japanese, US and other worldwide destinations within 24 hours of being dug up, so they’re super-fresh. I was very sorry to have missed the season, but their truffle oil was delicious…
A veritable Pinot Noir vigneron
Amazingly, though The Wine & Truffle Company make wine, they don’t make a Pinot Noir – a variety which can share some of the heady aromatic and earthy characteristics of truffles. Later that day, I found more than ample compensation in a visit with Bob of Batista. He makes fabulous Pinot Noirs on his small farm perched high on a ridge in Middlesex, Manjimup, with fabulous views over the Warren Valley.
There’s no signage to Batista and, suffice to say, no website. Bob regards himself as “just a farmer” and, when it comes to winemaking, it’s very much about pleasing himself. And I’m very glad of that because he has a wonderful sensibility around Pinot Noir. He showed us his 98, 2007 and 2008, accompanied by a tasting plate with his own cheese (which we’d spotted earlier maturing in the wine shed); this was followed by artichoke and asparagus – his Italian heritage firmly intact around food too. I’m looking forward to writing up these wines more fully in my report.
WA has a number of chapters attached to the Slow Food movement which originated in Italy in 1989. On 24th September, Margaret River’s chapter received Slow Food accreditation and the group encourages and nurtures smaller, local producers who respect biodiversity and natural food. I attended a Slow Food lunch to celebrate at Cullen Wines, purveyors of fine biodynamic wines and food, with a menu inspired by other organic and biodynamic producers. I’m pushed for time so more details about the members/foods/wines later, but I’m lucky enough to be staying at Burnside Bungalows and organic farm, whose owners Lara and Jaimie McCall were founders of the group and the local farmers’ market, so there are plenty of tales yet to come from the Margaret River bank.
The Wine Detective