The 2006 West Australian Tour Diaries
Click here for Chapter Two
Chapter Three – Day 4 - Saturday in Margaret River
After an early night last night, I couldn't believe it when I woke up this morning and it was after six; that's a real sleep-in. After I booted Brian out of his bed, we decided to go for a walk and this time walked around the area in which we were staying. WA does not appear to have the economic difficulties of grape disposal that is plaguing the rest of Australia. The houses in this area required serious money to build; the affluence of Margaret River was noticeable and the economy is bubbling. Obviously the same thing cannot be said of places like the Barossa.
...................The house next door to where we were staying
Once we got back to the house after our morning constitutional Brian dived straight into the makings of a breakfast. Once again it was healthy muesli with orange juice but this time we had obtained some Lavazza coffee to use in the coffee plunger; heaven. At last, a real cup of coffee before 7 a.m., which is still two hours too late.
When Davo had confirmed he was renting a car to join us, he said he would be at the house in Margaret River and would bring breakfast, but as the drive was over three hours, his breakfast time might be our lunchtime. The wineries don't open until 10 so if he was a little late it would normally not be a problem, but today we were lucky and had an appointment booked at Hesperos for nine o'clock. The only problem was I had been asked to confirm the appointment the day previously, but when my reminder went off, we didn't have phone reception.
For those of you who are not aware, Australia has two mobile phone systems; GSM and CDMA. GSM is the main network and although I live in the country, as I'm not way out in the country, it works perfectly. The other network, according to Davo will give you reception 30 km out to sea. Margaret River must be "way out in the country” as I had very little mobile phone reception whilst I was in the Margaret River area. About the only time I had really good reception was in the township itself; therefore making phone calls tended to be very difficult.
Unfortunately I had forgotten to confirm the Hesperos appointment yesterday so decided that I needed to do it first thing this morning. I also wanted to ascertain what time Davo would actually arrive so we could work out where to meet him. I hopped in the car and headed towards town, checking my mobile for reception on the way. When I got to the outskirts of the township, it finally went from zero bars reception to full reception.
I rang Davo's phone, but he was out of range; obviously he wasn't 30 km out to sea, so I still had no idea what time he would arrive. When I called Hesperos the dreaded answering machine picked up. I confirmed that I was available for the appointment and asked if they could please call me back ASAP to confirm if they were available. I filled the bus up with petrol, and after hanging around for a while hoping to hear from either Davo or the winery, gave up and headed back to the house.
About 9.20 am, Michael Schumacher raced his Holden Commodore down our driveway and at the last moment swing the steering wheel to the right, narrowly avoiding wiping out our rental car; he slammed on the brakes sending up an avalanche of flying pebbles and came to rest two foot (61 cm for you young metric people) from the front door of the house. The car door opened; hummmmm it looks like the Schu has shrunk and gained a little weight; what's more there is an amazing resemblance to Dr Davo Pearson.
He walked in carrying a take-away cup of espresso coffee (bastard) and a paper bag that contained his breakfast. In theory, they were two toasted ham, cheese and tomato sandwiches, but in reality they could have been used as doorstops or house bricks; how he got them into his mouth without a pneumatic jack defies the laws of science. As mentioned previously, Davo said he would bring our breakfast as well; just as well we hadn't relied on his renowned generosity and had already eaten some muesli. His excuse was that he didn't know what to bring us, because he couldn't get through on the phone, as if anyone would believe that one!
Our next appointment was not far from home, at Xanadu; one of the most established wineries in the area. Since the vines were first planted in 1977, the winery has had a chequered history. Expansion is not necessarily a good thing, something that Xanadu managed to prove admirably. In 2001 they listed on the Australian Stock Exchange and then purchased Normans wines. This purchase was subsequently almost their undoing and after a warehouse fire and critical financial problems, the Rathbone family became involved. If anyone can turn this winery around, it's the Rathbones; they are not exactly new to the wine industry, owning Yering Station, Mount Langi Ghiran and Parker Estate in Coonawarra.
When the Rathbones purchased Xanadu, they were smart enough not to buy the operation holus bolus; they picked out the best components of the assets and left the rest. They purchased some (85 ha) of available vineyards, selected components of the finished wine, the restaurant, the winery and the Xanadu brand. The rest of the former Xanadu Normans Group is now operating under the name "Global Wine Ventures" which is still listed on the ASX.
The drive from the street to the cellar door seemed to take longer than the drive from our house to the winery; Xanadu has one of the longest driveways in Margaret River, they should consider putting a petrol station in, in case people run out of juice trying to get from the street to the cellar door. Our appointment was with Natalie Schaefer, the brand manager for Xanadu. Prior to the takeover of Xanadu by the Rathbones, Natalie was already working for them in their London office so she is well versed with the corporate structure and the internal workings of the organisation.
I have met a few brand managers in my time, in fact I was one in my previous corporate life, so I know how they think and how their minds operate. Some brand managers make great bean-counters, some are the greatest political animals you will ever see (and perhaps the emphasis there should be on the word animal,) some are marvellous at marketing, and some of them appear to be regular human beings; Natalie certainly fits into that last category and besides being charming, she certainly appeared to know her stuff.
We met Natalie at the cellar door, and to put things in perspective, instead of going for a walk through the vineyards, we got out grappling hooks and climbed up to the catwalk that connects the top of the tanks together. Wow, the view certainly was panoramic; looking out over the lush green vineyards and huge old trees, you could see for miles in every direction. Whilst we were up there, we discussed the financial meaning of life as far as Xanadu was concerned.
Natalie told us the Rathbone philosophy and objectives for Xanadu are very simple; improve quality and over-deliver on value, a formula that is simple but bound to impress wine lovers. This year it is anticipated they will produce around 50,000 cases, which is a dramatic drop over the previous year's production. If you include the Xanadu/Norman wines that were being made in South Australia, the drop might be as high as 50%.
Like any good winery, they realise that good wine is made in the vineyard, and that was why not all the existing vineyards were purchased, or the existing growers’ contracts taken up. Being selective in the vineyard is seen as the first step in improving the quality of the wine produced.
Reserve wines will not be released every year, they will only be released in years were the fruit is of sufficient quality. In one year there might be a Reserve Chardonnay and the next a Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon; it will all depend on vintage conditions and the quality of the fruit available for each varietal.
Once we had come back down to earth, we headed into their laboratory: talk is cheap, and it was now time to taste some wine and see if besides talking the talk, they could walk the walk.
Xanadu 2003 Secession Merlot sells for $14 at cellar door. A ripe, fruit driven plummy nose with attractive spice; there were enough unobtrusive tannins to hold the wine together and provide a backbone, and the balance was complimented by the pure fruit. A very-drinkable, fruit driven wine that would be perfect in a bistro situation, flavours of plum, chocolate, blackberry and char/tar provide a big bang for the bucks. Ample-weight with a supple consistency and almost seamless structure, the wine is rated as Agreeable with **** for value.
The next wine opened was a barrel sample that had been put into a bottle and sealed with a cork on the previous Thursday. It was absolutely rank with cork taint; revolting: what a pong! I wouldn't have believe a wine could be so badly affected in such a short period of time unless I had smelt it, and tasted it myself. The second bottle was glorious. When the wine goes for final bottling, it will be sealed with a screw cap so consumers won't have to worry about this sort of problem.
The wine was a 2005 barrel sample of their Secession Merlot, it had fantastic colour and an attractive plummy nose with a touch of vanilla and spice. The wine had a good amount of tannin, with a supporting clean acid finish; it's a baby, but a pretty damn good wine. It has very good structure and should be excellent value. It is a bigger wine than the 2003, and the 2004 is not being produced. This 2005 vintage wine will probably be released around July or August.
Xanadu 2004 Secession Shiraz Cabernet is a 53-47% blend and sells for $14 at cellar door; it has just been released. 80% of the fruit is sourced from Margaret River with 20% (all Shiraz) being sourced from Frankland. The bouquet is both plummy and earthy with some cigar box and herbaceous notes, and a touch of lifted alcohol (15%). Smooth, unobtrusive tannins combine with refreshing acid and deep, strong fruit to deliver heaps of plum, liquorice, blackcurrant, and a touch of herbaceous character, but it's completely ripe. Muscular-weight with a firm but supple consistency, a solid structure and more than agreeable complexity, there is a lot going on here; a very drinkable wine with a good mouthful of flavour; it is rated as Recommended with ***** for value. This wine over-delivers big time in terms of value and if this is what we can look forward to from Xanadu, the future looks good from a wine lover’s point of view.
Our host Natalie Schaefer............
Xanadu 2004 Shiraz sells for between $22-25 on the street and is a blend of 80% Frankland and 20% Margaret River fruit. A brooding bouquet; mushroom chocolate plum and cigar box were evident after some gentle coaxing. This wine is a dichotomy; with enough drying tannins to provide a solid structure and firm consistency, the wine is tight and needs time to soften and gain complexity, yet it is very drinkable already. Muscular-weight, with plum, mulberry, chocolate, cigar box characters, and mint, it finishes with crisp acid. Rated as Recommended with **** for value, the rating should improve as the wine matures around 2009 and beyond.
Xanadu 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon also contains 13% Merlot and a drop of Cabernet Franc; it sells for $25 at cellar door. A dusty, varietal Cabernet bouquet with a touch of spice and ripe sweet fruit; this wine is just lovely with a soft entry on the front palate, solid dusty tannins on the mid-palate and a clean acid finish. The fruit is pure, deep and delivers cassis, cigar box, green bean and chocolate flavours which finish long. This is a solid, serious and seriously well-made, muscular-weight wine that's also great value; rated as Highly Recommended with **** for value; it should age well, give it about five years and then get stuck into it.
Some of the wine that has gone into this blend had been set aside for a premium label, but it was decided to include that premium wine in order to lift the quality of this one. A smart move!
Xanadu 1999 Lagan Estate Cabernet Reserve sells for $55 at cellar door. Very stinky upon opening and the wine needs decanting. (We opened a second bottle to make sure that it was sound.) Loads of drying tannins and the delicate sweet fruit is overshadowed by the tannins which numb the mouth but finish with good length. Ample-weight with a very firm consistency and an agreeable complexity, the wine is rated as Recommended with * for value. Every top breeding kennel normally has a mongrel hanging around, and this one is it; but in fairness it was made years before the current owners took over.
Judging by the 2004 and 2005 vintage wines that we tried, and especially when looking at the value aspect, Xanadu is going to be a very serious contender not only in this region, but competitive with anything this country can produce. At this point during the trip, the value of these wines looked very good, by the end of the trip, without a shadow of the doubt they were some of the best value wines we found in Margaret River.
Our next appointment wasn’t until after lunch so we took the short drive to Leeuwin Estate. Luckily Davo was navigating so not only did we fail to get lost, there was plenty of warning before each turn.
As an aside, driving around my local area I don't have to look at street signs and know my way round the small country towns. When we were driving in WA, whilst I had been to Margaret River previously and knew the layout reasonably well, knowing the names of some streets and being able to read the road signs certainly make navigation easier; especially when you have a slack navigator like Brian. The reason that I probably noticed Brian's “indescribable navigational skills” so much on this trip was because as we got further into the journey, the more obvious my own navigational shortcomings surfaced: I couldn't read the damn road signs until we were on top of them. By the end of the trip, Brian was threatening to send my Golden Retriever (Red) for guide dog training unless I went and got my eyes checked.
Leeuwin is regarded as a majestic jewel in the Margaret River crown; its Art Series Chardonnay is regarded by many as if not the best, one of the best Chardonnays that Australia produces. Naturally it is priced accordingly. The winery itself is a class act and is manned by professional staff that do not miss a trick. The quality image of the winery is maintained from the time you walk past the sign post at the entrance to the winery, that provides directions to places like Bordeaux, through to the cellar door itself. Like most of the other wineries in the region, this one sells clothes, but the focus couldn't be regarded as big enough to be in the “clothing store” business.
........Got'a love a winery that advertises no BYO
Whilst we were tasting the wine, Davo wandered over to the clothing and came back pleased as punch; he had found a couple of quality long-sleeved shirts that were half price and were perfect to wear when he goes fishing. Sacrilege! I am always on the lookout for winery T-shirts so wandered over to have a look. Unlike all the other wineries that we had been to so far, Leeuwin actually had some that were made out of cotton; you beauty! As I looked through the available samples, there were none in my size; I had a feeling that finding cotton shirts was too good to be true. When I got back to the counter, the ones Davo were buying were my size: four letter words!!
When the person serving as asked us what we would like to try and I said “Reds only for me”. They replied, “Are you sure you don't want to try the Chardonnay?” And I said “No, thank you”. They handled it with good grace, but you could just about see them thinking “Cretin.” ….. and they are possibly right. Both Davo and Brian tried the Chardonnay and thought it was a pretty good wine, but both of them thought the value aspect was non-existent; after all, it is still only a Chardonnay.
Leeuwin Estate 2003 Art Series Shiraz sells for $34 at cellar door. Tightly-grained dusty tannins and crisp acid combine to form a clean, medium-weight wine with a supple consistency, elegant structure and refined complexity. The palate shows plum, spice and blackberry; there is a green tinge to the wine on the mid-palate but it finishes crisp and with reasonable persistence. Rated as Recommended with ** for value.
Leeuwin Estate 2001 Prelude Cabernet Merlot sells for $28.50 at cellar door. The bouquet showed intense blackberry and a touch of mint. A cerebral, medium-weight firm wine with a solid, elegant structure and an agreeable complexity, the wine needs time to show its best, at least another three years. Pure fruit delivers blackcurrant, cherry, and mint; initially I thought it was boring but the wine grows on you the more attention you pay to it. Rated as Recommended with *** for value.
Leeuwin Estate 1994 Cabernet Sauvignon is a back vintage that was kindly opened to show us how well their wines can age. The bouquet showed blackcurrant and sweet cassis below with some aged characters starting to develop. Loads of powdery, drying tannins and distinct, deeply-seated fruit produced a muscular-weight, chewy wine that was firm and solid. A big wine with loads of everything that is just coming good, there was enough deeply-seated, bright and vibrant fruit to punch through the tannins and finish with excellent length and persistence. Loads of chocolate, blackberry and mint; this was damn good stuff. Rated as Excellent.
Leeuwin Estate 2001 Cabernet Sauvignon sells for $51 at cellar door. Whilst the nose was bright and vibrant with lots of chocolate it didn't seem like a varietal Cabernet. Now I know why they showed me the 1994 first. This wine has loads of ultra-fine tannins, much of it derived from oak but there should be enough fruit to eventually surface. With blueberry and cassis, the wine is savoury on the uptake with minimal mid-palate sweetness and a clean acid and oak finish. Medium-weight with a firm consistency, the structure is solid and tight; rated as Highly Recommended with ** for value, the wine should look a lot better with at least another three years in the bottle.
African shoe leather and chips ..........
Our next appointment wasn't until 2.15 so we had oodles of time to amuse ourselves and as we were driving through the Margaret River township the boys decided it was Pie O'clock and in a vote of two to one, decided the bakery where Davo had purchased his door stopper sized sandwiches for breakfast should make a passable lunchtime pie. Needless to say, I was not impressed!
When I walked in and saw the array of food on offer, I was even less impressed. There was a selection of pies that was big enough to keep the boys happy but as for the rest of it?? Pre-made sandwiches were available but none of them particularly grabbed my fancy and whilst they were prepared to make up sandwiches to order, the selection was rudimentary and “the makings” were out the back; I avoid ordering sandwiches that are not made in front of me from places like this, because invariably they are disappointing. So what to have? The Chicken Schnitzel with chips, although not an exactly healthy option, and not something I would normally eat for lunch looked like the best of a very limited number of options.
Eventually, after the pies were reduced to crumbs, my food arrived, and if the chicken had been fried for one more minute, I would have been able to have re-soled my shoes with the two fillets; there was certainly big enough and almost tough enough. The chips were edible but nothing great. I cannot remember if we had coffee, but if we did it must have been average as it didn't stick in my mind.
As I had made the key appointments at the wineries that I really wanted to visit, it was only fair that the boys could decide on a few they wanted to visit. Davo thought Ashbrook Estate was a must and Brian thought it was a pretty good idea too, having had a nice Cab-merlot from them in the past. Knowing nothing about the winery; I had no opinion on the subject but was happy to tag along with my learned colleagues, even though Ashbrook is probably better known for its whites than its reds.
On the way up to Ashbrook, Brian was navigating whilst I was driving. Davo summed it up beautifully when he said, "Brian must have a degree in Confusional Psychology. That can be the only explanation for the way in which he navigates.” (Brian: Nope, I’m just a natural and some people are easily confused. ) Brian’s specialty was telling me to turn in, 500 meters after we had passed the entrance, and he thinks I need glasses. (Brian: That’s not too bad, the map we had was accurate to the nearest kilometre or three and Ric couldn’t check the odometer distance without putting on his reading glasses. )
The current owners have owned the land for over 50 years and planted their first vines in 1976. We were met by a vivacious and lovely young lady who was bubblier than a bottle of Bollinger.
Ashbrook 2001 Cabernet Merlot sells for $27 at cellar door and has just been released. The bouquet was broody showing earthy notes, chocolate and a little varnished oak. The palate is a surprise; there is loads of fruit with dark ripe multiple berry flavours, chocolate and some minor herbaceous characters; it finishes with fresh, lively acid. Medium-weight with a firm but supple consistency, there are enough unobtrusive tannins to hold the wine together. Whilst there is nothing wrong with this wine, it's a "grey suit wine" that gets lost in the crowd. Rated as Recommended with *** for value, another couple of years in the cellar won't do it any harm.
Ashbrook 2002 Shiraz sells for $27 at cellar door and this is the first release of this label. The bouquet shows smoky vanillin oak over bright, black berry fruit. Piquant, sharp acid combines with distinct fruit to form a muscular-weight wine with a firm consistency and an agreeable complexity. Plum, blackcurrant, and other black flavours including liquorice provide a good flavour profile and whilst the fruit does appear to be rich and ripe, I found the acid to be a worry. Rated as Agreeable with ** for value.
After we walked out from Ashbrook, Davo said, “She had absolutely no idea what she was talking about but you have to admire the 110% confident manner in which she expressed her opinions.” Very true, she was a real character and a delightful person who would have little trouble selling Bibles to the Gideons.
As previously mentioned, in many cases in Margaret River, the length of the driveway is directly proportional to the cost of the wines, and although the wines are reasonably priced at Ashbrook, you should take a packed lunch to enjoy whilst navigating their driveway.
Another wag who shall remain nameless said if you want to be taken seriously in Margaret River, you must have a long driveway; after all many of the wineries are making Bordeaux style wines. In this case, Ashbrook definitely qualifies as their driveway is about the distance of Perth to Bordeaux.
Our next appointment was at one of the Margaret River icons, Howard Park. To be brutally honest, I have had very mixed feelings about wines from this winery in the past. Some of the Howard Park Cabernets can be brilliant, but in less than stellar years I have found the value to be very questionable. As far as their Leston and Scottsdale range are concerned, I have frequently had trouble getting my head around those and understanding what they are all about, despite some very positive write-ups from well-respected professionals and amateurs alike. We were looked after by Cathy, the very competent cellar door manager.
Port Lincoln Parrots (aka 28's)..
are very common in this region
We started with a wine that I had never heard of, Mad Fish 2004 Carnelian which sells for $24 and is only available at cellar door. They had ordered Sangiovese cuttings, but the vines didn’t look right as they grew. It turns out that, according to DNA tests, they actually received Carnelian, an obscure crossing of Cabernet Sauvignon, Carignan and Grenache. Although a fresh bottle had just been opened, and it was sealed with a screw cap, the bouquet was volatile and showed coffee oak. Stacks of powdery tannins, lively acid and strong, deeply seated fruit make this wine rival a big Rutherglen Durif. A full-bodied wine with a firm consistency, and solid structure I have no idea how it will develop but would have thought it needed another five years. According to the wine maker, it should be drunk over the next five years. Rated as Recommended with *** for value.
Howard Park 2003 Leston Shiraz sells for $35 at cellar door. The bouquet showed leafy notes, hints of mint and coffee oak nuances. The wine has a pleasant mouth feel but finished with slightly angular tannins and noticeable acidity. Plum, blackcurrant, char, liquorice, aniseed and chocolate flavours were agreeable; the wine is ample-weight, firm and solid. Rated as Agreeable with *** for value based on a street price of $25 or ** for value based on the cellar door price.
Howard Park 2003 Scottsdale Shiraz sells for $35 at cellar door. The black bouquet which also shows abundant milk chocolate is dominated by oak characters. A huge amount of powdery, drying tannins and oak characters anaesthetise the palate; flavours of blackberry, plum, pepper and mint are found. Muscular-weight the wine is rated as Agreeable with ** for value based on the cellar door price or *** based on the street price of $25.
Howard Park 2003 Leston Cabernet sells for $35 at cellar door. Dusty, leafy notes with blackberry and char on the bouquet lead to a palate that is typical of a varietal Cabernet, but it has a ripe green flavoured edge. Abundant drying, dusty tannins are well proportioned to the distinct, strong fruit which combine to form a muscular-weight, firm wine with a solid structure, and well-developed complexity. Rated as Recommended with *** for value (street price of $25,) it needs another four years or so in the cellar.
...A typical MR winery driveway that goes on forever
Howard Park 2003 Scottsdale Cabernet sells for $35 at cellar door. A noticeably more oak driven and blacker nose than the Leston, the influence of the oak carries through to the palate and whilst there is loads of flavour from the coffee and plum there is a sharpness to the finish that is a concern. Muscular-weight with a firm consistency, solid structure and an agreeable complexity it is rated as Agreeable with *** for value (based on the street price.)
Howard Park 2003 Best Barrels Merlot retails for $75 at cellar door. The wine shows nice plummy fruit with loads of coffee oak but it needs time. Dusty, drying tannins provide a firm consistency and solid backbone and whilst the complexity is agreeable, the piquant acid sticks out. Rated as Recommended with * for value.
Howard Park 2002 Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot sells for $75 at cellar door. The bouquet shows some cigar box, leafy notes and lots of dark charred coffee (varnished) oak. Fine, drying tannins and pure fruit combined to form a muscular-weight wine with a firm consistency, solid structure and agreeable complexity. Sweet fruit on the uptake with coffee/char oak and cigar box; the herbaceous characters and the acid are both far too noticeable. Rated as Recommended with * for value.
Oh my goodness gracious, what a disappointing visit! Not one wine rated above Recommended and the value aspect (based on the cellar door prices) is better off not talked about. As much as I tried to like these wines and look for positive aspects, they were hard to find and this winery would take the gong for the greatest disappointment (based on its perceived standing) of the whole trip.
After typing up these tasting notes, I was wondering if it was just me, (my two sidekicks were champing at the bit to get out of the winery as fast as they could) and could I have it totally wrong; or just not understood the style that this winery is trying to put out, so I had a look at Jeremy Oliver's tasting notes to see his thoughts. Whilst I hate using scores as an indication of quality, in this case I will use them as a benchmark and comparison tool. Jeremy scores were as follows:-
Leston Shiraz – 16.7
Scottsdale Shiraz – 16.9
Leston Cabernet – 18.2
Scottsdale Cabernet – 15.8
Howard Park Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot – 16.4
These scores, in many ways speak for themselves and our tasting notes in many respects are similar, although he frames his tasting notes in a more positive fashion than I do.
According to their web site, Howard Park's philosophy is as follows:-
““At Howard Park we have a philosophy and dedication to producing wines of distinct character; subtle multi layered without dominant characters but with balanced whole flavours and textures, complex and rich with extended ageing potential”
The extended ageing potential (my bolding) was not something that I would have thought true based on my recent visit, so once again I had look at Jeremy Oliver's web site to see what he had to say about the subject.
Leston 2003 Shiraz 2008-11 (The 2002 vintage 2004-07+)
Scottsdale 2003 Shiraz 2005-08 (The 2002 vintage 2007-10)
Leston 2003 Cabernet 2011-15+ (The 2002 vintage 2007-10+)
Scottsdale 2003 Cabernet 2008-11 (The 2001 vintage 2006-09+)
Howard Park 2002 Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot 2007-10+ (The 2000 vintage 2005-08+)
I would hardly call these dates “extended ageing potential.”
Frankly, after this visit I'm still scratching my head wondering and trying to work out why this winery is so highly thought of by so many people.
We had a small amount of spare time to kill and by chance had to pass Gralyn Estate to get to our next appointment. In Chapter 2, I detailed one of the best highlights of this trip, the visit to Gralyn, but unfortunately Davo was not with us at the time.
Being in a magnanimous mood, but more importantly wishing to show Davo that I actually do know how to pick wineries that produce excellent quality wines, another stop at Gralyn was called for. I (perversely) also wanted to watch Davo drool over their wines.
Those people that have not read the 2003 WA Tour Diaries may not be aware of Davo’s attitude towards wine. The boy loves the stuff; he adores drinking it, he doesn't mind buying it, but he hates paying for it. In all seriousness, Davo would have to be the most value-conscious wine buyer I know. He doesn't care if a bottle of wine costs five dollars or fifty dollars, as long as it represents value. Much of the wine he purchases, whilst very drinkable, tends to be at a lower price point than many of the wines other serious wine lovers would purchase; each to their own.
Davo drooling over something else........
- lunchtime meat pies..................
I was looking forward to seeing Davo's reaction to the Gralyn wines. He took a sip of the 2003 Shiraz and his face lit up, he wasn't drooling yet but we were off to a good start. He then took a sip of the 2003 Reserve Shiraz, put his head down, started muttering to himself and scrawled a few notes in his unintelligible doctors handwriting, the sort that only a chemist could understand.
It looked like he was enjoying himself and appreciating the wine.
Then he tried the 2002 SBR. There was a grimace on his face and more quickly scrawled hieroglyphics.
Finally he tried the 2002 Cabernet and the grimace turned to a scowl as his pen flew across the page in a flurry of what looked like a demented birds footprints.
And then, after careful consideration and much thought, he looked up with a huge smile and said, “I will take six of the SBR and six of the Cabernet.” Naturally he wanted the ones with the slightly defective labels, so Davo forked out $864 for a dozen bottles of wine. The frowns and scowls on his face were not due to the wine, he was trying to work out what he wanted to buy.
So although these wines are not cheap at $72 a bottle (with minor damage on the labels,) Davo was more than happy to buy a dozen of them because he thought they represented real value. Personally I have to agree with him, the wines are fantastic quality and worth the asking price, that's why I purchased six of them: (but then I'm not a rich doctor - or in this case, should that be witch doctor?)
The next appointment was at Sandalford. They have a renowned “cellar door and tourist facility” located about 15 minutes away from the Perth airport, but luckily we were not going there (one visit there was enough.) Our appointment was at their Margaret River vineyards, which also has a small cellar door and “mini tourist facility.”
According to their web site, “[Sandalford was] Founded in 1840, Sandalford is one of Western Australia's oldest and largest privately owned wineries. Supported by one of WA's leading wine tourism facilities, recognised with winning 3 major categories at the West Australian Tourism Awards. Offering multi-award winning premium wines, stunning wedding and function facilities, luxury river cruises, culinary distinction and world class concerts, Sandalford leaves no stone unturned.”
As you can see from this description of its activities, tourism and weddings seem to be critically important methods of moving wine.
I wondered why the emphasis on the tourism and whilst looking at their web site found that their owners, the Prendiville family “has control by ownership and/or management, over 40 hotels.” Peter Prendiville purchased the company in 1991 and immediately spent over $6 million redeveloping the facilities. (Since typing this, I have been informed that the hotel assets have been sold.)
Our interest lay not in the wedding or tourist facilities, we wanted to know about their wine and what made their Margaret River wines good, so who better to ask than the man that makes the wine in the vineyard, Peter Traeger, their viticulturalist. When Peter walked into the door, one was immediately struck by his open, honest smile and forthright, dinki-di Aussie farmer mentality. We had a bit of the chin wag; the only thing missing was a good, long piece of straw stuck in your teeth. After exchanging pleasantries we walked out the back door (farmers never use the front) and piled ourselves into a well loved ute for the working man's tour of the vineyard. No brightly smiling hostesses and hot coffee on this journey.
From the day that the winery was taken over by its present owner, changes have been made all over the place, including the vineyards. Virtually right next door to the cellar door are the old Shiraz vines (over 30 years old) whose grapes are destined to go into their premium Margaret River Shiraz, which retails for about $32. In 1971 they started planting approximately 60 ha of grapes so in its day, this was one of the largest and earliest vineyards in the area; not bad for region that was unknown for its wines. The total site is 280 ha and they now have 96 ha of vineyard planted.
According to Peter, they chose well; the site has great soil and terrific drainage. Paul Boulden, their current winemaker started with them in 2001, and since that time some major changes have been made. Prior to that time, the winery was into "interregional blending" and produced Mount Barker/Margaret River blends and the excess Margaret River fruit was sold off as bulk wine. Whilst that may have produced volume, it certainly didn't capitalise on the quality or the potential. Since 2003 changes have been made to ensure the potential of the Margaret River fruit is realised and the the Margaret River product has now became single site, single varietal wines. The Shiraz vines are now cropped at 6-8 tonnes per hectare and the Cabernet at 5-7 tonnes per hectare.
One third of this vineyard is Cabernet and all those vines are over 30 years old. Paul Boulden (winemaker) believes that it is the quality fruit, from well established vines, that is the strength of the vineyard and the underpinning foundation that goes into the wines that wear the Sandalford Margaret River label.
As we were driving between the rows of vines and being bounced around by the ruts, gullies, and bumps, Peter's incredible passion for this vineyard, and the part that he plays in being its caretaker and guardian was unashamedly apparent.
Talk to any viticulturalist worth his salt, and the subject of vine balance will come up. During this trip we have heard about all sorts of different methods of canopy management, and Peter was happy to share his thoughts with us. “I don't believe vine balance is throwing on a big crop and then cutting off half of it so that you can get it ripe. We can run around in circles talking about what we mean by vine balance, but to me, for a vine to be balanced, the fruit should ripen reasonably early. I am also not overly keen on having to trim through the season. To some extent, we are lucky here because we don't have a vigour problem. The soil has reasonably low nutrition levels and it's fairly harsh. The vines don't bolt out of the ground with vigour but they do have an extensive root system.
The vines just tend to bounce along; the last thing I would want to see is a yellow ball of leaves in the fruit zone that has to be trimmed; as a viticulturalist that's my worst nightmare. I want the whole vine to look green! All of our reds are planted on gravely loam which means they have to work hard.”
At that point, Peter said “We get about 4 kg of grapes per vine and as quick as a flash Davo replied, “That’s about 2 1/2 bottles per vine.” There was a palpable level of stunned silence in the car as Peter did his mental arithmetic to work out if Davo was correct, and was quite surprised when his answer confirmed Davo's lightning fast comment. Suddenly, Peter realised that he was not talking to three viticultural cretins (2 1/2 possibly. )
The viticultural practices at this Sandalford vineyard are almost diametrically opposed to those at Moss Wood, yet the vineyards are not all that far from each other, which only proves one thing; no one single individual method of growing grapes is guaranteed to give the best result in all circumstances. If only it was that simple.
Where Moss Wood is looking for exposure, Sandalford is looking for dappled light. There is also the pricing impact. Moss Wood Cabernet retails for about $90 a bottle so they can afford to spend much more on labour, going through and plucking off leaves by hand, compared to Sandalford who are selling their Cabernet at around $32 a bottle.
As Peter said, “Viticultural sustainability includes economic sustainability.”
Whilst they do have drip irrigation available, it is used very infrequently as a preventative measure. For example, if the weather forecast is for say five days of 40° heat, a small amount of water will be put onto the vines before the heat hits. On average, they only water mature vines twice each growing season.
When you talk to anyone who is involved in the farming business, the most important subject is always the weather, so it was no surprise when this subject surfaced. 2006 has been a very difficult growing season in Margaret River. The ripening is three to four weeks behind and a number of the growers seemed to be worried, although according to Paul it has been tough but he is not overly concerned.
As we were going up hill and down dale in the ute, Brian noticed a number of the bunches were still green and had not gone through veraison and yet there are a few bunches on the same row of vines that were decidedly darker in colour, so he asked Peter about the differences. Peter said, ”The bunches that are in front (gone through veraison) have only done so in the last couple of weeks and I am confident that the rest of the fruit will catch up; hopefully the fruit will wind up being pretty good. It has been a tough growing season and I am not going to pretend to you that it has been viticultural heaven this year, but the weather over the last week had been reasonably kind and is certainly helping.”
Surprisingly enough, there are 14 ha of Verdelho and apparently it's popular and selling well. When we got to one particular row of “weeds” Peter said “Those rows are part of the 11 ha of 30 year old Riesling vines on the property. There used to be 40 ha but as you would know, Margaret River Riesling has never exactly been a cult variety, but in the early 70s it was fashionable. We crop it at 3 - 4 tonne to the hectare and the reality is that it is not economically sustainable but we have a solid foundation of customers that buy it every year.”
These guys cause real problems for the growers..................
Some wineries have Roo proof fences erected to keep them out..........
When we got to one particular point in the vineyard, there were some younger Shiraz vines (about seven years old) that became the subject of discussion. Peter pointed out that some of the young vines were weaker and were not doing as well as they should, and where there were patches of them, they were hard to manage. Davo said “If you don't treat them roughly when they are young, they won't be tough when they are old.” To which Peter replied, “I was brought up on that theory:; but he never did tell us if it worked on the vines, or himself.
After we had been bouncing around for about twenty minutes, we got to other vines that looked like they were fairly young too and Peter (reluctantly) admitted they were Chardonnay. He said, “When you plant something like Chardonnay, you can't look at what the industry will be doing in two years time; these are being planted as an investment and they will be producing great fruit 10 years down the track. That is the sort of long-term view you have to take.”
We then drove along the side of a dam, but this is no small farm dam; it holds 300,000,000 litres. Now that is one damn big dam! Peter proudly told us they had fantastic resources on the property, and they had only used water from this dam once in the last four years. There are two other dams on the property with a further capacity of another 200 mega litres.
Speaking about assets and resources, there's another 50 ha that could easily be planted to vines, but at this stage that would be economic stupidity.
By the time we got back to the cellar door and had completed our round-trip “bone shaking” journey, I think my fourth thoracic vertebrae was somewhere down around my metatarsals. I'm not sure for the exact viticultural description for that condition, but I think it may be called “a vine ute shake.”
As we got out of the ute, Peter's final comment was, “If I can get my grapes to 14 baumé without seeing huge amounts of shrivelled fruit I believe I have achieved my viticultural objectives.”
It was now time to taste the fruits of his labour.
Sandalford 2002 Merlot sells for $31.95 at cellar door. The fruit from this wine comes from a contracted vineyard and this vintage will be the last wine of the style. The wine showed a slight volatility with sweet plum on the uptake, a savoury mid palate and chocolate on the finish. Although the tannins are unobtrusive, there is enough of everything for the wine to be reasonably balanced. Ample-weight with a soft consistency and harmonious complexity, this is a good, easy drinking red with reasonable complexity. Rated as Recommended with ** for value.
Davo baffled Peter with his brilliance once, and Peter is still
listening to him; but the body language says "I'm not sure"
Sandalford 2002 Cabernet Merlot sells for $24.95 at cellar door. The bouquet shows a reasonable level of coffee oak influence over ripe fruit with floral nuances. Medium-weight with a firm but supple consistency, solid structure and simple complexity there is red berry fruit and chocolate flavours but the juice seems a bit thin. Rated as Agreeable with *** for value.
Sandalford 2003 Margaret River Shiraz sells for $31.95 at cellar door. 70% of the fruit for this wine is from old vine material. A clean bouquet, it shows a good interplay between dark, ripe fruit, white pepper and oak nuances. The wine is well constructed and balanced with abundant smooth, drying tannins, fresh acid and perfectly ripe, pure, deeply seated fruit. Loads of plum, white pepper and mint flavours have excellent intensity but finish short on the back palate. Muscular-weight with a firm consistency, solid structure and well-developed complexity it is further enhanced by an attractive mouth feel. Rated as Highly Recommended with *** for value, another couple of years in the cellar will do it the world of good.
Sandalford 2004 Margaret River Cabernet Sauvignon sells for $31.95 at cellar door. Creamy tannins provide an attractive mouth feel and its well matched to the fresh acid and deeply seated pure fruit. Blackcurrant, mulberry spectrum fruit, mint, cigar box and well judged coffee flavoured oak have a harmonious complexity. Muscular-weight with a supple consistency, and a solid, tight structure; this is a good wine that will only get better and is worthwhile cellaring. Rated as Recommended with *** for value; drink from 2010+.
Sandalford 2002 Prendiville Cabernet sells for $90 at cellar door. This wine is made from a selection of the best 20 barrels of the fruit produced at Margaret River which equates to approximately 500 dozen. A very attractive bouquet it is squeaky clean; there is lots of coffee oak nuances but the fruit should be able to handle it. Silky smooth tannins, unobtrusive acid and pure, deeply seated fruit combine to form a muscular-weight wine with a supple consistency and refined complexity. The structure is tight, shows some elegance and is solid, so it is no surprise that this classy wine needs time to show its best. Rated as Excellent with ** for value, it is technically perfect with ripe and attractive tannins but I found it boring. (I bet James Halliday would love the style.)
What a great visit; it was all about wine and far better than my last experience at the Sandalford “tourist facility” in Perth. We walked back to the car feeling quite chuffed and figured we had just enough time to do one more winery.
Fermoy Estate is just down the road and the last time I was there a few of the wines were worthwhile, so I thought the place was worth a shot. Unfortunately when we got there, they had already closed. Pierro Estate was on the list of wineries we wanted to visit so although it was about twenty to five by the time we got there, we dropped in.
Brian does a c-through; and not for the first time on this trip!
Pierro 2001 Fire Gully Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon sells for $38.90 at cellar door. The bouquet is bright and vibrant but has some subtlety; with blackberry and a touch of white pepper it translates to a palate of blackberry, blackcurrant, spice, tobacco leaf and chocolate flavours. Ultra-fine tannins and pure, deep fruit combine to form an ample-weight wine with a supple consistency, solid structure and well-developed complexity; the wine has a great mouth feel. A lovely wine, it's well worth the price; rated as Highly Recommended with *** for value, the rating may improve as the wine matures.
Pierro 2001 Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot sells $57.90 at cellar door. An ample-weight, well constructed wine with terrific balance; the consistency is supple, the complexity harmonious and the structure tight, elegant and solid. Cinnamon, blue, red and black berry spectrum fruit have an excellent complexity of flavour. Rated as Highly Recommended with ** for value, drink from 2010 and beyond.
These were two lovely wines but from my perspective, the Fire Gully was the better buy; the Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot was marginally better, but a lot more expensive.
It's always pleasant to finish the day of wine tasting on a high note and today we certainly managed to do that, which was especially gratifying, because after a good start this morning, the middle of the days tasting was pretty ordinary.
We drove back to the house with enough time to relax and have a shower before heading out again for dinner. We had arranged to meet Mark Gifford, (a local lad that owns Blue Poles Vineyard) at Prideaux restaurant.
Davo had brought wine with him from home, and Brian decided to sacrifice one of the two bottles of Gralyn he purchased the day before, but as I didn't have any wine, on our way to the restaurant, we detoured via the local bottle shop (the one at the bottom of the hill behind the supermarket.) We had a quick look around this bottle shop the day before and they had a reasonable range of wines, but I was after a very good bottle of Sparkling Shiraz to kick off our dinner. I had a look in the fridge and there wasn't much there, so asked the manager “if they had a very good bottle of Sparkling Shiraz.”
Oh yes he replied, we have the Seppelt's Original Sparkling Shiraz! Now dear readers, there is absolutely nothing wrong the Seppelts, indeed I had consumed a vast quantities of it during the hot months of December and January and whilst it's a very enjoyable and good quality quaffer, it's certainly not in the "very good bottle" category. Unfortunately that was the best they could offer; it appears that Sparkling Shiraz is not popular in Margaret River; bloody heathens!
I walked along the shelves looking for something else and noticed a bottle of Bowen Estate 1998 Ampelon Shiraz for $75. I had tried this wine almost 2 years ago at an offline dinner in McLaren Vale and wasn't impressed by it, although all the other wine nuts were going ape over it and telling me I was crazy. So, thinking I may have got it wrong (I did taste the wine towards the end of a very boozy night) purchased it to take to our dinner.
We arrived at the restaurant and Mark was already seated at the table (for four) that looked like it had either been designed to seat anorexic midgets, or had been designed by the people who design economy class airline seats.
.....................................Davo and Mark
The first bottle of wine opened was a Wolf Blass 1993 Black Label (Cabernet Sauvignon Shiraz) which was kindly brought by Davo, to make up for the fact that when he served me one of these three years ago, the bastard deliberately picked a corked bottle. This bottle opened up beautifully, with ripe sweet fruit which belies its age; a fantastic result for the vintage. The tannins have softened and integrated beautifully, although there is still fair amount of oak influence on the palate. Flavours of coffee, chocolate and liqueur blackberry; the wine won't improve any further but it will certainly hold for ages. The length is good, but it's not particularly persistent. A delightful wine, it's rated as Excellent.
For a starter, I ordered a Caesar Salad. The croutons were the largest I have ever seen; they were basically bits of bread that were chopped into chunks rather than small finely toasted croutons. There was a partially blackened fried egg on top that defied description; no anchovy pieces were found and the dressing was oily and insipid. Aesthetically, it was the worst looking Caesar Salad I have ever seen in my life; and I have seen a few shockers; and “the palate matched the look.”
Our waitress came over, and in a North American accent asked if everything was all right. Naturally as I had hardly touched my Caesar, I said “No, the salad was terrible” and she asked me what was wrong with it.
My response was, “you are American, you will know what a good Caesar looks like, does this look like a good Caesar salad to you?” Naturally, considering the Caesar salad is a staple food in the US, I expected her to agree with me but that was not the case.
Now dear readers, and let me tell you, just you in case you don't know; if you want to upset anyone from Canada, accuse them of being American; that will instantaneously have the same effect as if you are an American and judge a New Zealander's accent to be Australian. One very pi$$ed of person, and guess where our waitress came from? Not the good old of US of A; she was from Canada.
Our waitress didn't answer my question about what she thought the Caesar salad was like; she neatly ducked it by saying there was anchovy in it, but it was in the dressing, and that a lot of their customers actually like their Caesar salad. The plate was whisked away and the offer of a free replacement entree was made. I had certainly been put in my place and declined the offer of a replacement starter.
Later, the waitress who took our order and was obviously senior, was extremely apologetic and told us we would not be charged for the Caesar. The Canadian waitress must have felt guilty, as they had decided to waive corkage too. No judgments here, either good or bad; just the facts as they occurred.
The next wine had been brought by Mark. Saint Joseph 1996 Tardieau Laurent showed earthy mushroom, very truffle like; with lovely sweet fruit on the uptake, in the red to blue fruit flavour spectrum, finishing dry with loads of drying tannins but with minimal oak impact. Quite an enjoyable drop, it was very different to most of the wines we normally drink. The bouquet also showed lots of violet characters which was a surprise.
The next wine opened was my contribution, Bowen Estate 1998 Ampelon Shiraz. The bouquet was very ripe showing cassis, blackberry and vanillin oak. The palate exuded very intense fruit and Mark thought it was like drinking syrup. The palate was not quite as ripe as the nose suggested and the wine probably has a fairly high level of residual sugar (for a red wine). My previous analysis, unfortunately had been confirmed, it lacks complexity, was too sweet and was an over-the-top caricature of a wine.
Mark was kind enough to also bring a bottle of his own wine, it was a bottle of Blue Poles Vineyard 2005 Merlot Cabernet Franc. Being such a young wine, it is not ready for release yet but it was interesting to try it. The bouquet was very closed and the wine was very tight, that he did show violet notes from the Cabernet Franc. At the start of the night, it was quite closed but opened as the evening progressed; and it showed promise but I would like to see it with a bit more bottle age before I pass any meaningful comment.
For the main course, all four of us had pie. Why may you ask am I eating a pie? The answer is simple, there was not a lot on the menu that took my fancy and as this one was cooked in a ramekin and didn't come with a kilo of soggy pastry, the chances are it would be good. It was cooked to perfection and the pastry on top was light, crisp and brown. The filling it was rich, full of flavour and the quality of the meat was good. According to Brian, it was the best pie he had had in a long time. If the Pie King of South Australia had been with us, no doubt he would have agreed with Brian and added: “Too true; I haven't had a good pie since lunchtime.”
Brian then went on to compare this pie, as only a true pie aficionado could do, with the Wagyu Beef Pie we had eaten at Red Fingers in Coonawarra last May. According to Brian, “This pie had better balance and better consistency to the sauce. According to Davo, it had great ‘pieness’ and the boys loved that new expression. I thought it lacked dignity and class so came up with a more dignified descriptor.
Holy cow, we now have an “official” new pie term – “pieosity.” In honour of this monumental new culinary descriptor I have decided to promote Brian (for the purposes of the South Australian Tour Diaries) from the Pie King’s Apprentice to the Pie Aficionado. And may God have mercy upon all our souls. (Brian: Ric’s normal rating scheme will apply, except the bottom two ratings will become “Barely Edible” and “Eat only if death by starvation is imminent”)
At this point, Mark told us a true story. The pest exterminator arrived at his house and told him that he had just had a job at a winery (which shall remain nameless.) Apparently, they had a major white ant problem and the pests had eaten their way into many wine barrels, to the point where it had manifested itself with lots of wine on the floor. Apparently white ants love wine barrels; it’s their favourite tucker.
As they were white ants, I hope they didn't attack the red barrels!
After all the fun and frivolity, it was time to get serious and Mark gave us an erudite account of his philosophy on viticulture, and it was so good, it has been made the subject of a short article in its own right.
By the end of the night, the Saint Joseph 1996 Tardieau Laurent was the first bottle to be emptied. By contrast, the Ampelon was still over half full and when you consider the amount that was tipped out of the glasses very little that it had been consumed. The Gralyn that Brian had brought was absolutely delicious but the Saint Joseph was actually better with the food.
After a most enjoyable evening, and it wasn't a late night, we drove back to the house and I headed for bed with a good book. Halfway through the night, I woke up with a start; in fact I jumped so high I almost hit my head on the ceiling. What the hell is a chainsaw doing blasting out 500 dB in the middle of the night, in the middle of nowhere? (Brian: The 500 dB is about as much exaggeration as the 500 metres mentioned earlier. TORB: )
Upon investigation, the chainsaw was manufactured by “Pearson” and the model was “Davo’s Ripper Snores.” Bloody hell; I have never heard anything like it! Davo should see a doctor; he is a menace to society and a health hazard.
There is heaps more in store so stay tuned until next week.
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