Western Australia – way out west in 2007
I love tasting and writing about wine but a part of me yearns to get my hands dirty and get involved in a spot of winemaking myself – an impulse I’ve indulged every few years. I could not have been happier when Vanya Cullen of Cullen wines, Margaret River, agreed to take me on for two weeks this March – great wines and my first vintage experience at a biodynamic winery! My timing was perfect – a fast and furious vintage, so plenty to do, plus a truly outstanding vintage for Margaret River and, indeed, most of Western Australia.
I spent the rest of March visiting other Margaret River producers and managed to make it around all Western Australia’s far flung wine regions – yes, Margaret River may be the jewel in the crown, but there’s plenty of excitement elsewhere. Here’s my pick of the best of the west to whet your appetite.
The philosophy here is quality, sustainability and integrity. In practice this means dry farming some of Margaret River’s oldest vines for low yields, working biodynamically and, in the winery, gentle handling at every stage with minimal intervention. Having presided over the sorting table for some days, I can tell you that the quality of fruit coming off the vines is pristine, so why not let it do the talking? As Vanya Cullen puts it, the wines are making themselves with no yeast or acid additions.
You can find out more about Cullen – who became carbon neutral in September last year – at www.cullenwines.com.au. Issue 16 of The World of Fine Wine magazine (www.finewinemag.com) features my in depth interview with Vanya. Below you will find highlights of a vertical tasting of the flagship Diana Madeline Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon blend.
NB Between 1981-87, winemaking was lead by Di Cullen; 1988 was a joint Vanya and Di production and Vanya has lead the winemaking since 1989, since 1996, most ably assisted by Trevor Kent. The vineyard was certified organic with effect from the 2003 vintage and biodynamic with effect from the 2004 vintage.
Cullen Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot (known as Diana Madeline with effect from the 2001 vintage):
2004: expressive and enticing cassis nose with violets, cedar and cherry. Plenty of depth and breadth of flavour with glossy cassis and baked cherry notes amply supported by well integrated oak and rich, ripe tannins.
2003: a heft of blackcurrant, with chocolate and touch of gentleman’s club (cedar/cigarbox/tobacco) on the nose. The palate is already very expressive, with blackcurrant, chocolate and those cedar/tobacco notes; present yet supple tannins – nice line/purity.
2002: earthy nose with blackcurrant and blackcurrant bud. The nose has a lick of boot polish/linseed/earthiness; nice core of fleshy damson and mulberry fruit. Good vinosity/persistence with an elegant frame of fine-grained tannins.
2001: cassis nose with a lick of boot polish; a lovely saturation of fleshy, ripe blackberry and plum fruit seamlessly wed to sleek, fine grained tannins; very complete with elegant, vinous texture; understated powerhouse.
2000: more developed nose with boot polish and a slightly bloody note;a sapid palate with cassis and a cool, mineral undertow; very enjoyable now.
1999: a dark nose with cassis, hints of prune and earthy boot polish. The palate has a lovely seam of well-defined cassis and mulberry fruit underscored by beautifully textured, ripe tannins; terrific balance, with a persistent, long finish. Excellent.
1995: a lovely purity of cassis and mulberry with hints of boot polish on the nose. Really complete on the palate with excellent balance and structure. Shows plush cassis, succulent blackberry and plum amply supported by supple tannins. Long, persistent finish.
1994: a gravelly, savoury nose. The palate is sharply defined with blackcurrant and berry fruits balanced by persistent acidity and firm, tightly-knit tannins; long finish, very intense wine.
1992: a vibrant, well-structured palate with a lovely seam of persistent acidity to its spicy, tobacco-edged blackberry/currant and damson; nice polished tannins. Excellent.
1991: showing very well now with fine-grained tannins, good balance and depth of flavour – cedar-edged blackberry/cherry fruit.
1989: Lifted cassis and mulberry, lead pencil with a mineral undertow; lovely vinosity/persistence. Very complete, understated yet intense wine.
1988: Developed, slightly bloody nose; a flavoursome, generous palate shows warm earth, cassis and blackberry framed by supple tannins. Well balanced, pleasurable wine.
1986: Very well-mannered, succulent, juicy wine with blackberry, plum and cherry fruits.
1984: Tightly structured wine with firm tannins, mouth-watering acidity and liquorice spice to its dark berry fruit.
1982: Still very vibrant wine with a tight core of juicy cassis and blueberry, hints of boot polish and attractive bay leaf wed to a firm backbone of tannin. Imposing.
1981: Touch tarry with boot polish and some leafy notes; big tannins make for a relatively robust wine with flavoursome black fruits.
2005: sweet floral nose with vanilla bean/white chocolate; the palate shows smoky oak/vanilla bean under which lurks a very textured, layered palate of great depth and complexity with honey and nougat characters to its dried pear and mouthwatering melon fruit. Yet to be released, so expect the oak to have become more integrated by the time it hits these shores.
2004: a smoky, struck match nose leads onto an intense palate with citrus, limeflower and white peach, balanced by mouthwatering acidity; a long, lingering finish shows nougat and honeysuckle and a mineral undertow.
2003: a super-expressive, flamboyant style with more tropical fruit – dried pineapple, citrus core; mouthwatering finish – dead flavoursome.
2002: leesy, creamy malo nose with lots of vanilla bean. Poised oak informs the structure as does a lively seam of acidity – lifted and lively palate with citrus (lemon/grapefruit) and pear. Long and intense.
1999: Developed, Burgundian style with subtle toast, spice and honey; long, persistence with excellent balancing acidity.
1997: Terrific purity and concentration of white peach, pears and grapefruit – a real mouthful but all about the fruit (not oak, malo etc) – great structure – wow! Great to see it holding up so well since I tasted it on my first visit to Cullen in 2004.
1996: Rich, ripe style with pears and white peach poached in cinammon and saffron – a little low on acidity so drink up.
Cullen Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon
2006 Mangan*: pungent, thistle/artichoke nose with asparagus around a tight, citric core on the palate. Good persistence and length with mouthwatering acidity. *Fruit from the younger, neighbouring Mangan vineyard has previously been incorporated in the estate wine. In 2006, it was felt that the two vineyards did not marry, so instead 2006 sees two single vineyard wines.
2006: the older vine estate fruit has a broader, more textured palate than the Mangan with pungent artichoke and more delicate lime blossom; long, fine and pure finish with a mineral undertow carried by classy, delicately smoky oak.
2005: floral, lifted nose with lime blossom. Super intense, almost painfully intense concentration of flavour – fabulous depth and concentration of flavour with a pronounced mineral, fine, flinty edge to its long, tight finish. Terrific.
2004: lemon/lemon curd nose with a smoky oak note. The palate is quite funky with a core of lemonlime fruit – a more semillon-oriented spectrum of flavours with lovely texture and depth of flavour…long with a hint of struck match. Very complete.
2004: lemon/lemon curd with a smoky oak note; quite funky on the palate with a core of lemonlime fruit – more semillon-oriented spectrum of flavours; lovely texture and depth of flavour…long with a hint of struck match. Very complete.
2003: a pungent thistle/artichoke nose. Lanolin and waxy semillon characteristics cut with Sauvignon’esque pea pod in the mouth enhanced by subtle bath salts/floral hints – complex texture and flavour spectrum.
2001: bouquet of developed petrol/kerosene notes; in the mouth this is very tight with spicy, pungent coriander seed and a smoky herbal core; mouthwatering, mineral finish. Very good.
2000: intriguingly different with a sweet, slightly developed note and a little more girth with flavours of warm stones, lemon/lime peel…
1999: a really good depth of flavour, lovely mouthwatering acidity, those warm stones again – mineral hints with bath salts (very Alsace) – secondary floral notes…Very good.
1998: Deep colour – gold glints and, like an Aussie Riesling it shows roses lime cordial/lime blossom getting into more developed pot pourri spectrum. Limpid, mineral, mouthwatering palate – very reminiscent of an Alsace Riesling.
1996 (Reserve – 100% new oak for SB and 50% new oak for Sem): very Graves – floral, blackcurrant bud nose with distinct whiff of gunflint. Pronounced minerality on a chiselled palate with lively, racy acidity, intense blackcurrant bud core. Very well-balanced, long and persistent.
Other Margaret River highlights
Woodlands “Margaret” Reserve Cabernet/Merlot 2005 – Woodlands are based in Willyabrup, home to M.R. superstars, Cullen and Moss Wood. Their vineyards were planted around the same time, but the fruit was sold on, forming the backbone of many a medal winning wine. Stuart, the owners’ son is now making wine from the estate fruit and I thought the reds were terrific. This shows a touch of balsamic on a lifted nose with fresh blackcurrant, blueberry and spice, which follow through on an intense and long palate. Great concentration and structure.
Woodlands Cabernet/Merlot 2005 – more savoury style with tobacco and spicy, curranty notes to its intense cassis and plum. Good length and structure – very classical style.
Woodlands Cabernet Sauvignon 2004 – masculine style with lots of tobacco and a rasp of spicy green peppercorn rubbing along nicely with a good depth of blackcurrant and chocolate.
Glenmore Cabernet Sauvignon 2000 – made by Ian Bell, former winemaker at Moss Wood, this has a lovely aroma and sweet core of tobacco-edged mulberry and blueberry fruit.
Glenmore Cabernet Sauvignon 2005 – a small percentage of Petit Verdot and Malbec produce a really complete, elegantly structured wine with fine grained tannins.
Moss Wood Ribbon Vale Semillon/Sauvignon 2005 – rich round and toasty with lemon and lime peel nose and palate; good balance.
Moss Wood Amy’s Cabernet Sauvignon 2004 – Malbec and Petit Verdot add violets, blueberry and an attractive fleshiness to the cassis at the core.
Moss Wood Cabernet Sauvignon 1996 – vibrant, fresh cassis nose and palate of great purity and line with subtle notes of chocolate and tobacco adding interest; fine tannins through a long, intense, beautifully balanced finish.
Moss Wood Cabernet Sauvignon 2003 – lovely perfumed nose with cassis and spicy fruitcake flavours wed to ripe, grainy tannins.
Moss Wood Cabernet Sauvignon 2004 – big, rich, ripe wine – very fleshy with plum, blackcurrant, chocolate and fruitcake; plusher tannins than the 03. Long, persistent finish.
Pierro Chardonnay 2005 – lemon oil, smoke and cashew nose; on the palate, grapefruit mingles with vanilla, custard creams and cashew; good balancing lemony acidity.
Pierro Pinot Noir 2004 – perfumed nose with beetroot, cassis and cranberry which follow through on the palate; good intensity of flavour with savoury tannins.
Pierro LTCF 2003 – I liked this, the junior Bordeaux blend, which gets an extra dollop of Cabernet Franc (no surprises there then!) Very spicy, fruit cake nose with cinnamon that mingles with classic Margaret River blueberry, mulberry and chocolate flavours on an elegant palate.
McHenry Hohnen 3 Amigos White (Marsanne, Chardonnay, Roussanne) 2005 – floral, white pepper nose with fleshy white peach palate and hints of cashew. Flavoursome and well balanced.
McHenry Hohnen Calgardup Brook Chardonnay 2005 – lemony nose and palate with delicate white peach and good freshness – well done.
McHenry Hohnen 3 Amigos Red (Shiraz, Grenache, Mourvedre) 2005 – damsons and fruit spice with a mineral undertow and savoury tannins; nice acidity makes for a restrained, very food-friendly SGM by Aussie standards.
Voyager Estate Semillon VOC 2006 – a small parcel of the best Semillon 40% of which sees Russian and French oak. Poised and intense with lime peel and juice giving mouth-watering acidity; attractive spicy coriander seed notes.
Voyager Estate Chardonnay 2004 – very well balanced this shows delicate nutmeg, struck match, lemon and grapefruit with fresh acidity.
Voyager Estate Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot 2004 – tight knit palate with cassis, savoury black olive hints with bayleaf and a mineral core; ripe, firm tannins. Very good, well-balanced wine.
Howard Park Leston Shiraz 2004 – a cool, mineral style with excellent fruit purity – blood plums, sweet raspberry and blackberry – and understated oak.
Vasse Felix Heytesbury 1997 – inky, boot polish nose with a developed meat pan edge though the palate shows great intensity of flavour with plenty of cassis with chocolate and a lively seam of balancing acidity.
Green, rolling hills, orchards, avocado trees and the extremely tall Karri gum trees distinguish Pemberton from its neighbours, Margaret River to the north and Great Southern to the south east. Less fertile soils are home to vines and while its cool climate reputation produces Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc of good potential, I was not prepared for how well the white Rhone varieties play here.
Smithbrook Sauvignon Blanc 2006 – restrained fruity style with brisk acidity, green fig, lime peel, grapefruit and a salty, savoury edge; plenty of focus.
Smithbrook The Yilgarn Blanc 2005 – an oaked Sauvignon/Semillon blend with talc, lemon, lime, grapefruit and vanilla bean buffed by french oak; poised with a mineral undertow. Very good.
Picardy Pinot Noir 2005 – Bill and Dan Pannell are Burgundy lovers and are leading the way in terms of planting Burgundian clones which have only recently come onstream in Australia. Stand out Pinot Noir of rare depth, intensity and balance, the 2005 has a nose of bilberry, beetroot and strawberries which follow through on the intense, slightly creamy palate. Very good.
Picardy Tête de Cuvée Pinot Noir 2005 – tight cassis, wild berry and beetroot with soaring violet top notes. The tannins are supple and ripe but the structure is a model of delicacy, intensity and finesse – only 200 cases – very Tête de Cuvée!
Picardy Chardonnay 2005 – well made, restrained, style with white peach, fresh fig and cashew with mineral and fennel hints; mouth-watering acidity.
Lillian Estate Viognier 2005 – ex-Leeuwin Estate man John Brocksopp is carving out his own Rhone valley here in Pemberton and with great aplomb – this shows a lovely nose of peaches and cream leavened with floral and fennel notes. They follow through on the palate together with some classic, musky apricot flavours.
Lillian Estate Marsanne Roussanne 2005 –refined stone fruits, honeysuckle and acacia with that cinder toffee Marsanne edge; waxy note to the texture – ab fab.
Lillian Estate Shiraz Mataro 2001 – very spicy, textured, meaty well-balanced wine with red and black fruits, especially black cherry – hmm, complex, subtle and thoroughly enticing.
Salitage Chardonnay 2005 – smoky white peach nose and palate – a linear, mouthwatering style with pithy citrus and a touch of nougat in the mix.
Fontys Pool Viognier 2006 – creamy apricot nose with cedary spice augmented by citrus and honetsuckle on the palate – well-balanced, subtle Viognier.
Fontys Pool Rosé 2006 – dry, slightly creamy Pinot Noir with delicate raspberry & cherry with a subtle hint of mint.
Remote and cooler than Margaret River, Great Southern is a vast region divided into five sub-regions: Frankland River, Denmark, Albany, Mount Barker and the Porongurups. It produces scintillating Rieslings (see my July column in Wine & Spirit), savoury Shiraz as well as the usual W.A. suspects.
Harewood Estate Denmark Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon 2006 – zippy cool climate style with fresh pea pod, lemon and lime peel and spicy coriander seed; very focused.
Harewood Estate Denmark Chardonnay 2004 – very nicely balanced with well managed oak, a lovely purity of citrus fruit and custard apple and limey acidity giving a long, persistent finish.
Forest Hill Mount Barker Block 1 Riesling 2006 – made from Great Southern’s earliest vines, planted in 1965, a wild yeast ferment ups the complexity stakes: sweet talc nose with hints of grapefruit; palate shows citrus and grapefruit pith chiselled with minerals; long, layered, slatey finish.
Forest Hill Mount Barker Block 9 Shiraz 2005 – great fruit purity with fruit tannins and spice (liquorice/clove) rather than oak dictating the style – very good, savoury style.
Forest Hill Mount Barker Block 5 Cabernet Sauvignon 2004 – perfumed with lovely purity of cassis and blueberry with very fine grained tannins; well-balanced.
Howard Park Cabernet Sauvignon 2001 – fragrant spicy nose; very savoury acidity on the palate with a tight core of fruit; long and mineral with fine powdery tannins – will go the distance – very good.
Howard Park Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot 1994 – super intense, with concentrated blackcurrant, coal soap/boot polish a mineral undertow and layered, tafetta tannins – still plenty to deliver – excellent.
Howard Park Great Southern Riesling 2006 – because Howard Park are one of the region’s larger wineries they buy in fruit from across Great Southern, “picking the eyes out of fruit” from across the sub-regions. This produces a wine with a lovely, silky texture which shows nectarine with age – the 1997 was superb. The 2006 has a honeyed texture & flavours cut with mouthwatering lime; talc and steelier, slatey notes on the finish.
Ferngrove Frankland River Cossack Riesling 2006 – tightly focused with mouthwatering grapefruit, lemony acidity and a slatey undertow.
Alkoomi Black Label Frankland River Riesling 2006 – Lime, lime blossom & warm stones with hints of talc; taut acidity lends tension. Very good.
Plantagenet Mount Barker Shiraz 2004 – blackberry, bramble and sweet raspberry fruit with liquorice; svelte tannins and good balancing acidity.
Plantagenet Mount Barker Shiraz 2001 – succulent blackberry with a savoury game notes and a mineral undertow; fine tannins and mouthwatering acidity.
Castle Rock Porongurups Riesling 2006 – floral, limey nose; long, linear, mineral palate of great intensity.
Castle Rock Porongurups Riesling 2002 – Inviting lime cordial and toast nose; spicy, pithy palate with a steely undertow shows great line.
Castle Rock Porongurups Pinot Noir 2004 – delicate, intense Pinot Noir with pretty red cherry fruit.
Jingalla Porongurups Vignerons Select Riesling 2006 – Subtle, supple style with golden delicious, lime juice & bath salts.
Jingalla Porongurups Sauvignon Blanc/Verdelho 2006 – really zingy, persistent tropical flavours of paw paw, ogen melon tease the palate and mingle with grassy Sauvignon notes – an inspired blend.
Dukes Porongurups Riesling 2006 – frisky, pithy style with grapefruit, lime shots and peel.
Dukes Magpie Hill Porongurups Riesling 2006 – perfumed, floral nose with hints of talc; tightly wound, steely, concentrated pithy grapefruit; a keeper.
To the north of Margaret River, this region also benefits from cooling breezes off Geographe Bay, especially around Capel. The Ferguson Valley area, which benefits from cooling coastal and altitude influences, is tipped as a one to watch.
Willow Bridge Estate Reserve Sauvignon Blanc 2006 – complex, focused Sauvignon with floral notes, blackcurrant bud, Thai basil and fresh coriander. Very good.
Willow Bridge Estate Shiraz Viognier Reserve 2005 – plum, blood orange apricot and spice; lovely velvety texture.
Willow Bridge Estate Black Dog Shiraz 2004 – succulent, juicy cassis with briary fruit, coffee notes and good freshness.
Willow Bridge Estate Black Dog Shiraz 2005 – closed on the nose but full on, assertive palate with concentrated ripe black fruits with liquorice and vanilla.
Capel Vale Verdelho 2006 – paw paw and pineapple nose and palate with spice hints. Delicious crisp, mineral, balancing acidity. Very good.
Capel Vale Whispering Hill Black Label Shiraz 2002 – a good example of Mount Barker Shiraz with plenty of black pepper, violet hints and good fruit depth. Very Rhone.
Capel Vale White Label Merlot 2005 – complex nose with mint, autumn leaves, cherry chocolate and spice; the palate shows generous, but not overblown, mulberry and cherry chocolate.
The Peel wine region just south of Perth is defined by its “Tuart sands” soils – a limestone subsoil, the historic coastline, lends fresh acidity to its wines.
Peel Estate Verdelho 2006 – citrus, blossom and green mango nose with a lively, intense citrus dominated palate with pink grapefruit to the fore.
Peel Estate Chenin Blanc 2002 – an oaked, dry Chenin with vanilla and smoky notes on the nose and palate mingling with orange peel, tropical fruits and honey; crisp balancing acidity. Ageworthy.
W.A.’s oldest region is north of Perth with a warm to hot climate which works well for Verdelho table wines and fortifieds.
John Kosovitch Verdelho 2006 – dry, clean, focused style with green fig, green mango and citrus acidity; good persistence and length.
John Kosovitch Liqueur Verdelho 1982-97 Solera – very Madeira nose with orange peel and walnut and, though the palate is richer with less acidity than Madeira, it is well balanced. Good.
John Kosovitch Liqueur Muscat Limited Release – super spicy with dates, orange peel, coffee and sandalwood – very good.
Lamont Verdelho 2006 – very ripe, creamy tropical fruit salad with good balancing acidity.
Lamont Frankland River Riesling 2006 – sweet lime, honey and talc – 15% botrytised fruit adds texture and complexity. Delicious.
The Wine Detective