ADT: Margaret River 50th Anniversary Masterclass – the Cabernets

Following on from my report of January’s Margaret River Chardonnay 50th Anniversary Masterclasses, today I reflect on the Cabernet Sauvignons/Cabernet blends, which I presented at Edinburgh and Dublin Australia Day Tastings on the Margaret River Wine Association’s behalf.  Like the Chardonnays, these were confident, classy wines, which embraced the elegant properties of Western Australia’s dominant Cabernet Sauvignon clone – the Houghton clone.  Or, I should say, Houghton selection, since there is no single Houghton clone.

An evolution

Virginia Willcock – Vasse Felix vertical tasting & launch of Tom Cullity

Virginia Willcock highlighted this trend last year at the London launch of Vasse Felix Tom Cullity, lifting it off the page with a vertical tasting which took us through the evolution in Cabernet Sauvignon winemaking at this Margaret River pioneer.  A familiar, let’s call it ‘extractive to elegance,’ journey shared by a good many peers (in Margaret River and beyond).  Medium-bodied Cabernet/Cabernet blends are alive and kicking ass in Australia!  Among my audiences, there was appreciation for the accessibly medium-bodied, elegant profile – specifically the line up’s perfume, freshness, tannin management and balanced use of oak.

Prior to the masterclasses, I solicited producers’ views on the Houghton selection – so-called because, explained Willcock, in the 1930s, Western Australia’s pioneering winemaker, Jack Mann, took cuttings from bush vines, planting a five hectare plot at Houghton winery in Swan Valley.  His son, Dorham Mann, took a selection of cuttings taken from the 21 best performing vines, which were then distributed to Margaret River and beyond.

Referring to its fine and long graphite-like mineral” tannin profile (“key to its DNA”) and endless aromatic profile,” Tim Lovett, Leeuwin Estate’s Chief Winemaker, pithily summarised what makes the Houghton selection so special.  Unsurprising then that, for Willcock, it is better suited to producing lighter-bodied wines than the later wave of, she observed, more productive South Australian clonal plantings (clones SA 125 & 126).

Cullen vineyard. Wilyabrup

The pioneers did not record precisely which Houghton selection clone they planted. At Cullen, where eight Houghton selection clones were planted in 1971, Vanya Cullen told me “it’s a Masala blend – we don’t know which is which.”  These days, Voyager Estate’s Steve James told me, “[T]here is more understanding of the different selections of Houghton clone and, definitely more focus on the source of planting material than there was in the past. We are also working on our own in-house selections of Cabernet Sauvignon which will be interesting to observe any quality benefits in time.”

As for other clones, in Glenn Goodall’s experience at Xanadu’s Wallcliffe, southern Margaret River vineyard (he caveats, individual site matters), South Australian clone 126’s tannins tend to be more angular, with blackcurrant and plums and it “usually needs to get a bit riper [than the Houghton selection] to lose herbaceous characters and can have elements of leafiness/Mediterranean herbs/bay leaf even when quite ripe.

Aiming high – Voyager Estate Winemaker Travis Lemm & Steve James, Manager of Winemaking & Viticulture

James planted SA125 in 2007, which now goes into Voyager Estate’s top wine.  He describes it as producing “a more red fruit spectrum, with lifted perfume and elegance” and reckons “with another 10 to 15 years of vine age, it may become our best block of Cabernet!”  Entav clone 337 is a more recently trialled clone which, James observes, “ripens early with lower sugars…I’m hoping it will work really well with our style.”  So, while the rump of Margaret River Cabernet plantings (and the oldest plantings) comprise the Houghton selection, other Cabernet clones are contributing to the diversity and evolution of the region’s reds.  As for the bit part Bordeaux players in Cabernet blends, I touch on their role in my tasting notes below.

Inevitably, at the Chardonnay Masterclass, this most malleable of white grapes reflected winemaker inputs (especially the use of solids) as well as clone and origin, with discernible differences between north versus south Margaret River.  Winemaker inputs (including different blending partners and extraction techniques) did not produce such striking stylistic differences among the Cabernets. They were pretty classic.  I was most struck by the impact of the north/south divide, with perfume and acid line generally being more pronounced in the south.

Whilst winemakers from the cooler south have bolstered their Cabernet with northern Margaret River Cabernet (more often than not from Wilyabrup in this tasting), a combination of the swing towards elegance, earlier vintages and greater maturity (for vines and vis a vis viticultural techniques) has seen southern-grown fruit increasingly walk tall.   Whilst noting “viticulture and vine age is a key factor,” Stella Bella’s winemaker, Luke Jolliffe, contends “it’s not a challenge to ripen Cabernet in Southern Margs. Pyrazines are what need to be managed, which can be done through fruit exposure and site selection”.  Although Stella Bella’s top tier 2014 Luminosa was the only 100% southern Cabernet Sauvignon in the line-up, James told me that subsequent vintages of Voyager Estate’s Cabernet Sauvignon (after 2012) have relied exclusively on southern estate fruit.

Meanwhile, other southern producers are reducing the amount of northern fruit.  Thanks to a program of vineyard improvements instigated at Leeuwin Estate in 2002, joint CEO Simone Furlong (founders Denis and Tricia Horgan’s daughter) confirmed, “the component of Estate grown fruit has increased in our Art Series Cabernet Sauvignon, with a subsequent reduction in the amount of Wilyabrup fruit.”  Now “firmly based” on 43 years old non-irrigated Blocks 8,9,10, she explains that improvements have included “the opening up of the canopy to allow more sunlight into the fruit zone and maintaining a low and balanced yield to ensure optimum physiological tannin ripeness.”

Planted in 2009, the Cabernet Sauvignon at Stuart Pym’s Flowstone vineyard in Forest Grove is considerably younger, hence Flowstone Queen of the Earth Cabernet Sauvignon 2013 – the vintage shown – was 100% Wilyabrup-sourced.  However, subsequent vintages have incorporated 25% of his own estate’s fruit.  A percentage which, looking ahead, he can only see increasing.  Still, given Pym’s generally accepted observation that “Wilyabrup gives more volume and richness,” it’s not uncommon for southern producers (including Stella Bella) to blend northern Margaret River fruit with southern fruit at the value-driven end of the price point spectrum. Another case in point with 30% ‘friendlier’ Wilyabrup fruit, is Xanadu Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 (tasting notes below), which was shown at the masterclass. Xanadu’s top tier, finely-honed Stevens Road Cabernet, on the other hand (the 2014 vintage reviewed here), is from a single southern (Wallcliffe) vineyard which, according to assistant winemaker Brendan Carr, “comes in with pretty perfect numbers every year.”  X, as they say, marks the spot.

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

From a broader perspective it is worth noting that Margaret River’s most famous area for Cabernet Sauvignon, Wilyabrup, has applied for official sub-regional (GI) status.  Inevitable, one might say, in a region which thanks to Dr John Gladstone’s climate and soil reports, was terroir-focused from the off.  In this ‘Cabernet History’ video, Mann junior and other pioneers reflect on Gladstone’s role and how the west was won over to Cabernet Sauvignon as the red grape of choice.  It’s a fascinating insight into the triumphs and tribulations of establishing it in Margaret River, which Pete Forrestal’s and Ray Jordan’s book ‘The way it was’ fleshes out with lively anecdotes about the pioneering doctors’ mend-and-make-do use of (retired one hopes) pumps from a hospital heart/lung machine and modelling of a fermentation vat airlock on an intravenous drip.  The follow up ‘Cabernet Present’ video explores the variety’s evolution 50 years on.

Below you’ll find my tasting notes on the Cabernets.  Follow this link –  Dublin Edinburgh Tasting Booklet – for helpful vital statistics about this long, skinny 100km x 27km region, a map, producer profiles and vintage/winemaking details for each wine.  You might also find my reports of leading Margaret River pioneers’ vertical Cabernet tastings insightful:

The tasting

Cullen Wines Diana Madeline 2015 (Wilyabrup, Margaret River)

While this wine’s single vineyard wine’s pedigree is positively blue-blooded, Vanya Cullen has continued her mother’s pioneering work.  For her, “quality of tannins make a great Cabernet great,” hence her introduction of Scott Henry trellising, organic and biodynamic viticulture, Mistral® apparatus to separate out leaf material and infertile berries and part fermenting/macerating in amphora (not this vintage). In consequence, she achieves her aim to “get ripe tannins and the fruit ripening naturally every year to complete physiological ripeness,” whilst simultaneously producing the earliest-picked wine of the line up with the lowest alcohol by volume (13%) and the driest flavour profile.   Quite an achievement.  It makes for a finely honed, terroir-translucent wine, with this estate’s hallmark lifted rose petals and violets, bitter chocolate, a dance of tobacco and gravelly minerality.  The fruit – well-defined red and black berry and currant – is fresh and intense, yet un-pushed (no adds).  Rather, the delivery is delicate and nuanced, with tip-toe levity.  Whilst accessible on account of its elegance, it is also very young with fine but plentiful, powdery tannins.  The best is most definitely yet to come.  This inspirational wine is a blend of 87% Cabernet Sauvignon (mostly Houghton selection with a bit of SA126), 11% Merlot, 1% Malbec and 1% Cabernet Franc.   In Cullen’s words, “Cabernet Sauvignon is king, Merlot adds the length and mulberry mid-palate, Cabernet Franc raspberry and perfume and Malbec the power.”  Delightful.  13%  £75 at Laithwaites, £84.90 at Hedonism 

Xanadu Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 (Margaret River)

From top to bottom of the range, Glenn Goodall’s Cabernets deliver plenty of perfume and juiciness as well as as savoury undertones, thanks to thoughtful fruit-sourcing and winemaking. This artful blend of 91% Cabernet Sauvignon 5% Malbec 4% Petit Verdot is sourced from two northern Margaret River regions (Wilyabrup and Treeton) and from estate fruit (30%) in Wallcliffe, the latter being Cabernet Sauvignon clone SA126 (blackcurranty), while the northern Cabernet Sauvignon (more blue-fruited) is sourced from dry-grown Houghton selection clones.  For Goodall, the Wilyabrup Cabernet delivers “power and aromatics,” the Treeton Cabernet (from further inland) plusher tannins, while the home grown southern fruit has a “leafy freshness and fine-boned tannins.” The Petit Verdot (from Wilyabrup) contributes “lovely floral aromatics and oodles of tannin if we want/need it,” while estate-grown Malbec shows “inky blue/black fruits and a lovely spice, sometimes quite white peppery.”   Put it all together and this is what I got – lovely lift with perfumed blueberry, violets, a hint of mint and more savoury balsamic notes (the latter I suspect, down to the extended maceration component), with a juicy core of blueberry and cassis fruit.  A hint of black olive, spice and chocolate in Dublin on a root day – definitely a little more savoury than on Edinburgh’s fruit day.  Juicy fruit and fine tannins make for nice persistence.  A very appetising, expressive, medium-bodied Cabernet.  14% UK RRP £19.49, 2011 vintage £15.95 at Just in Cases

Stella Bella Luminosa Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 (Forest Grove/Wallcliffe Margaret River)

True to Stella Bella’s philosophy, the focus is on southern Margaret River fruit with, says winemaker Luke Joliffe, the aim of making a wine that is “nuanced and complex, combining finesse, elegance, purity and depth of flavour with remarkable persistence.”  Doubtless being made from 100% Houghton clonal selection plays into that style too.  I really enjoyed Luminosa’s fine frame, focus, minerality (gravelly tannins) and (rose petal) perfume.  Like the Cullen, it is at the drier end of the spectrum with a terroir translucency, lovely line and length.  Expanding on its provenance, for Joliffe, the Forest Grove vineyard (planted 1998) is “the most structural component,” while the Wallcliffe component (a 1997 vineyard) brings the ‘flesh’ such as it is – red and blue berries.”  Amplifying my ‘such as it is’ comment, the winemaker confirmed that picking dates have moved forward at Stella Bella, “chasing fresh, perky fruit flavours,” which he then seeks to preserve (together with perfume) with minimal racking and restrained oak.  It may not have the extract of some of its peers but, given the age of the vines, I think its a terrific representation of southern Margaret River.  14.1% UK RRP £39.99, 2009 vintage £39.99 at The Vinorium 

Vasse Felix Tom Cullity Cabernet Sauvignon Malbec 2014 (Wilyabrup, Margaret River)

This is the second release of Vasse Felix’s flagship red.  Named after the estate’s founder, it made its debut last year in honour of Vasse Felix’s 50th anniversary.  You can read more about the evolution of this wine here in my report of the London launch of the 2013.  Suffice to say for now that Cullity planted both Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec from the off (Petit Verdot came much later) and this wine honours those varieties and is exclusively estate-sourced from the Home Vineyard (which includes Cullity’s first 1967 plantings).  In this year, the blend comprises 80% Cabernet Sauvignon, 16% Malbec and 4% Petit Verdot – a touch less Malbec because, said Willcock,  “our old blocks of Malbec are very small and we had slightly lower yields in 2014.”  Fortunately, she added, “2014 was a super stunning year for Cabernet Sauvignon.”  Willcock likes the “plumpness and juiciness of fruit” which Malbec brings to the blend and, for me, while this vintage has less Malbec than the 2013, it seemed more prominent in the wine at this early stage. I found the 2014 strikingly chocolatey on both occasions, with quite slick, supple black fruits – a dark profile.  Perhaps a function of tasting it at a relatively younger age than the 2013 before the Cabernet really stirs?    Like the Cullen it is a baby, but a richer, broader-shouldered one, with more overt fruit power/plumpness and an intriguing, ruffled textural quality.  In Edinburgh – a leaf/fruit day – it showed a few more ‘colour’ pops, with violets and some enticing sage notes. And in Dublin, a balsamic note (which I associate with extended skin contact/open vat fermentation).  I’m looking forward to seeing this wine coming together down the track.  There’s no hurry.  Abundant, fine powdery tannins build in the mouth, steadily stealing up on the fruit. I have no doubt it will age very well, just as its maker intended.  Slow is good.  Willcock practises cold soaking and wild fermenting whole berries because she believes it produces the “slowest, most harmonious result.” Providing me with a technical insight into why, she explained, “better access to oxygen during fermentation (because yeast numbers are lower [with a slower ferment]) & more oxygen means more resolved tannins, less reductive ferment, less racking required [which preserves fruit], so more time on yeast lees building body.”   Post-fermentation, extended maceration (up to 35 days) helps “stabilise these fine tannins for the long haul.” 14.5%  UK RRP £99.99, 2013 £98.00 at Harrods

Flowstone Queen of the Earth Cabernet Sauvignon 2013 (Wilyabrup, Margaret River)

From a single dry grown, vineyard in Wilyabrup, planted in the late 70’s, most probably to Houghton selection clones.  As with Flowstone Chardonnay, Pym embraces oak and his wine shows a more open knit mid-palate, less overt fruit/acid drive and more savoury tannins.   Conscious of Margaret River’s tannin levels (the highest in Australia, he believes), this wine spent three years in 100% new French oak thin stave barriques to increase the oxygen exchange to help manage the tannins.  The wine was bottle-aged for a further 15 months prior to release last year.  A barrel regime which, he told me, was inspired by tasting the Guigal ‘La la’s’ in 1998.  The long time in oak, he adds, “is very important with the high percentage of new oak to allow it to become integrated into, and a part of, the wine.”  Which indeed it is.  The tannins are fine and savoury with vanillin and cedar, earth, dried herbs and eucalypt riffs, which complex its fleshy, juicily persistent plum fruit and blackberry fruit.   More substantial than my description sounds, whilst it’s ready to go, there’s gas in the tank.  £41.95 at The Vinorium

Voyager Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 (Margaret River)

The 2012 is a blend of 91% Cabernet Sauvignon, 6% Merlot, 3% Petit Verdot.  There was no Cabernet SA125 clone in the 2012, rather the Cabernet material is 100% Houghton clonal selection.  It shows the most pronounced cassis/blackcurrant character of the line up.  Intense, polished fruit is supported by sinewy tannins and a fine but firm acid line, pointing to its largely southerly, estate (Wallcliffe) origins.  In Edinburgh, I picked up violet top notes, but in Dublin, whilst it showed fresh acidity, savoury meat pan juices emerged on the finish. Pretty classic Cab. Sav descriptions.  One third of the Cabernet comes from Wilyabrup – the last vintage to feature grower fruit which, says viticulturist James, contributes mulberry fruit and fine tannins.  As for the estate-grown interlopers, Merlot brings mid-palate flesh and sweetness and the Petit Verdot “a beautiful violet aromatic note.” Going forward, James reckons that the 2013 vintage made from 100% estate fruit is “clearly more reflective of our site and shows more of the darker cassis fruit spectrum with dark chocolate notes and a slightly more structured tannin profile.”   13.5% UK RRP £40.00, 2010 £28.95 at Wine Direct

Leeuwin Estate Art Series Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 (Margaret River)

Wallcliffe-based Leeuwin Estate’s aged dry grown Houghton clone(s?) have low vigour, small berries and low yields.  The resulting wine has a certain classical rectitude, even though it was the latest picked wine of the line up (between 25 March & 13 April in 2012, one of the region’s warmest summers and earliest vintages).  “Focussing on achieving optimum physiologically ripe tannins,” Lovett explains “we are tending to hold fruit on the vine a touch later to enhance tannin structure and profile.”  In the winery, tannin management involves cold soaking (for five days in 2012) to release water-based polyphenols, “ultimately stabilising naturally bound colour and tannin found in the skins,” aerative pumping over for generous ingression of oxygen to polymerise tannins and post-ferment maceration for up to 3 weeks “to fine tune and elongate tannin structure.”  In some ways, the resulting wine mirrors Art Series Chardonnay, with its impressive structure, line and purity.  In the mouth, it reveals a vivid but tight-knit core of cocoa-dusted redcurrant and blackcurrant fruit on a long, firm, mineral palate.  Youthfully intense, with terrific verve and polish, it is a cool customer.  I like it very much.  13.5% £38.50 ex. taxes at Four Walls Wine

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