Cape Leeuwin is where great forces of nature, propelled by the roaring forties, create a natural foment. It is here the Great Southern Ocean collides and confluences with the Indian Ocean. The seas smash and roll into a jutting coastline or swell and break against endless white beaches with relentless power. Westerlies and southerlies waft and breeze or muscle it out with stupendous strength. In February the landscape is a rich cloth of gold exaggerated by the afternoon light.
The land pitches and yaws along Caves Road through immense stands of apricot pink Karri timber, past Tasman blue dams, ancient caves and generous pastures dotted with Friesian cattle and Merino sheep. Viridian vineyards stretch and undulate into the distance cutting a swathe across dry flaxen paddocks. The Margaret River region of southwest Western Australia is one of the most ancient parts of the world – a weathered granitic island conjoined to the Australian mainland by a sedimentary basin rich in mineral sand deposits.
Leeuwin Estate winery – purchased originally as a cattle farm by Trish and Dennis Horgan in 1969 – lies just south of the Margaret River township almost exactly equidistant between Cape Leeuwin and Cape Naturaliste. The soils are deeply weathered and laterised with rocky outcrops of gneiss and ironstone gravels. Enormous gum trees with orange-coloured trunks, serpentine branches and olivary canopies (reminiscent of John Glover paintings) sprawl and encircle the property creating natural wind breaks. On the left of the driveway is Block 20 – Australia’s Montrachet – where nature and nurture conspire to create the most exquisitely balanced and long-lived chardonnay. The road sweeps further down through a wood, over a creek and into an open paddock finally arriving at Leeuwin Estate winery.
“It has been a great journey in life,” says Dennis Horgan, a self confessed surfie and beer drinker who found Margaret River and wine along the way. Leeuwin Estate celebrates thirty vintages this year, an important milestone. While the road has had many twists and turns it is a deep sense of family, a strong and meaningful commitment to making something unique and “an affinity with technical people” that underscores the Leeuwin Estate’s brilliant achievement.
Leeuwin Estate is in every respect a family affair. While Dennis Horgan plays the role of patrician and bean-counter, it is his diminutive but quietly determined consort Tricia who runs the ship. Their children Simone, Justin and Rebecca are all understudies ensuring a clean baton change when the time comes. There are few wineries, however, around the world that can boast over twenty five years of incredible loyalty and creative input from its technical team. Winemaker Bob Cartwright and vineyard fundi John Brocksopp are both legendary wine industry characters. While the Horgans have finessed the business of wine into a beauty of its own, Cartwright and Brocksopp have taken their skills beyond craft into a synthesized philosophy of simplicity. “We grow individual grapes for individual wines,” says John Brocksopp. “Fundamentally we are against the homogenised and prescriptive recommendations of scientists. We seek to find and promote what is individual in our vineyards and our wines.”
Brocksopp talks about walking through the vineyard to understand its true potential. “It takes four to five years to comprehend vineyard performance. A regular stroll along the rows, tasting the fruit and working out which pockets bring the best acid levels and flavour profiles can tell you a lot more than a pH meter.”
Leeuwin Estate grows 62 acres (25 hectares) of chardonnay divided into eight parcels. Block 20 – the backbone of the highly regarded Art Series Chardonnay – has been singled out as an exceptional vineyard on the 300 acre Leeuwin Estate. The un-irrigated vineyard planted to the “Gin-Gin” clone gently slopes towards Stevens Road on the western boundary. The soils are gravelly and well drained. “The soils here are older than Japan!” says Brocksopp. “Can you imagine that?”
During the growing season dry cool air from the Southern Ocean funnels up through the hill system. It is largely responsible for the phenomena called ‘hen and chicken’ or ‘millerandage’ a problem associated with fertilization which leads to an erratic development of bunches comprising berries of different sizes. At harvest the normal size ‘hen’ berries are “smooth and silky like a princess,” says Brocksopp, whereas the smaller ‘chicken’ berries are quite lean and acidic. Combined, the chardonnay fruit brings exceptional concentration and flavour with naturally high natural acids. Ripening is assisted by growing rye between the vine rows. Not only does it provide some wind protection but by February it is a bright golden colour reflecting the sun’s rays into the canopy. Yields during vintage are generally moderate at around 1.9 tons/acre. Although the ‘numbers’ are checked, the fruit is picked on flavour development, texture and weight.
“We are only as good as our raw materials,” says Bob Cartwright. “We seek to preserve the pristine fruit characters of our chardonnay throughout vinification and maturation. Everything is minimally handled or gravity fed.” The chardonnay is 100% barrel fermented in selected new French oak and matured in the same barrel. Battonage (lees stirring) is regularly employed and partial malolactic fermentation is encouraged in most vintages to bring further texture and flavour complexity. The wine is usually bottled eighteen months after vintage. The overall approach to winemaking has not changed since first vintage illustrating the sheer focus in vineyard management. The investment in winemaking, however, is extraordinary.
Leeuwin Estate’s Art Series Chardonnay was first classified by Langton’s in 1991 and was awarded an Exceptional status in 2000, making it the only Australian white wine in this category alongside Penfolds Grange, Henschke Hill of Grace and Mount Mary Quintet Cabernets. At a recent retrospective of vintages its sheer class wafted through the Leeuwin Estate’s gallery of contemporary Australian paintings. These are rare long-lived fine-boned chardonnays with superb fruit definition and clarity. When youthful – notwithstanding vintage – they are a balance between exuberant fruit and savoury complexity. The palate is creamy yet a fine bead of acid cuts a swathe across the palate giving life and incredible length. With a few years of bottle maturity, the Art Series chardonnay seems to shed its aniseed top notes. The wine becomes a harmonious whole with beautifully defined grapefruit/melon aromas and complex lanolin nuances. The palate is richer and fleshier but remains tightly bound by acid – as if all the elements are woven together.
The 1999 (97/100 points) vintage looked particularly stunning in this line up, but really it’s a close run thing with the 2000 (95/100 points). The 1997 (90/100 points), which I have admired in the past, looked surprisingly developed with some crème-brulee notes. I still like the wine and in the context of Australian chardonnay it is still top-notch. The 1995 is the quintessential Leeuwin with intense melon/lychee/peach/perfumed violet aromas and savoury oak characters. The palate is a perfect balance between fruit, acid and oak (100 points – still!). Once the wine approaches ten years of age, it becomes an issue of vintage. The wines seem to develop more apricot/honeyed characters and more flavour richness – yet that rapier-like acidity remains the constant. 1995 will age for another ten years. The 1987, which has looked tired on numerous outings, looked stunning – presumably the aging process has been retarded by cold storage conditions (94/100 points). Both of the 1986 (85/100 points) and 1982 vintages (81/100 points) had developed even further with caramel/brassy bass notes. Len Evans – who needs no introduction – has described old Australian chardonnays as “Picasso Bulls; all head and shoulders but with skinny behinds”. Leeuwin Estate Art Series Chardonnay is not such a beast. It’s rather more like Lord Leighton’s painting Flaming June – a ravishing beauty of perfect poise and structure.
On the other hand Leeuwin Estate Art Series Cabernet Sauvignon is more of a work in progress. Immediately it is linked to Art Series Chardonnay and as a result it leads to comparison. Firstly I must declare that I have scored the 1997 vintage a magical 100/100 points in Langton’s Wine Investment Guide. Certainly Leeuwin Estate Art Series Cabernet Sauvignon has excellent overall fruit definition and complexity. I haven’t seen the wine recently, but I suspect that the tannins are muscling in over the fruit. The opportunity to review eight vintages over a period of 23 years can only give you an impression rather than a definitive view. The Leeuwin cabernet style has certainly evolved. Indeed it has emerged as an important Australian cabernet and one of Margaret River’s better wines. A rigorous selection of vineyard parcels has resulted in wines of excellent fruit definition and palate richness. It is classified Distinguished by Langton’s.
The estate-grown grapes are harvested on flavour profile with a cursory eye on the basic rules of analysis. Yields are about 2/3 tonnes per acre. Cartwright takes a gentle approach to vinification. The fruit is nowadays de-stemmed and transferred into closed fermenters without crushing, promoting a partial intracellular fermentation or carbonic maceration, a technique widely favoured in Bordeaux. Fermentation is controlled at approximately 30 degrees Centigrade with regular pumping over. At dryness the wine is left on skins for up to three weeks before pressing. After malo-lactic fermentation each of the vineyard components are blended and racked into a combination of 40% new Alliers (French) oak and used chardonnay barrels. A proportion of Petit Verdot (structure and colour), Malbec (mid-palate richness) and Merlot (softness) is also added to the blend to add complexity. Maturation time is about two years in barrel and a further year or so bottle maturation prior to release.
The Art Series Cabernet style remains quite sinewy in structure, a feature of many southern Margaret River Cabernets. Certainly Cape Mentelle and Xanadu have made wines with pronounced tannins. Some of them have aged quite gracefully. However there appears to be a strong move towards softer structured cabernets achieved through both vineyard management, the addition of softer fruit (particularly Merlot) and vinification techniques including micro-oxygenation. Both Cape Mentelle and Voyager Estate (Leeuwin Estate’s neighbour) now make more approachable and indeed better wines than ever before. While Cartwright and Brocksopp are keen to retain “individuality”, Leeuwin Estate seems to be moving in that direction as well, although rather sluggishly. I was impressed by core blackcurrant pastille fruit in the 1999 vintage (87/100 points), but the tannins remained quite muscular. The 2001 – not yet released but in bottle – is very deep set and concentrated and the tannins are quite aggressive. Yet the fruit is beautifully perfumed and laced with mocha/cedar complexity (85/100 points). The 2003 – still in barrel – has yet to reveal itself. The wine smacks of adolescence with exuberant blackcurrant/aniseed fruit, elemental flavours and pronounced rather forceful fine tannins. It is however very early days. Curiously I have a hunch this wine will eclipse all vintages preceding it.
The Leeuwin Estate Art Series Riesling retrospective tasting was insightful. The variety is not considered a perfect partner to the Margaret River ‘Climat’. Yet the most recent vintages are on the brink of being top-notch (from an ultra-fine wine perspective). They all appear to have similar orange blossom/whetstone aromas developing some oilskin characters with age. The natural mineral/flinty palate structures and delicate sweet fruit flavours are of particular note. Indeed both the 2000 (90/100 points) and 1998 (88/100 points) vintages were so delicious on the palate I didn’t bother spitting them out!
After thirty years Leeuwin has much to celebrate. Through its connection with wine, art and music, it has become something of an institution in Western Australia. Over 6000 people from throughout the State, Australia and the world converged in February for the annual Leeuwin Estate concert celebrating 20 years in 2004. Under a canopy of stars surrounded by floodlit Karri trees, we listened to Lesley Garrett the English soprano and Anthony Warlow the Australian tenor and boozed away on Art Series Chardonnay. I wondered for a moment whether I was on an earthly paradise – until I saw the queue for the loos.
Andrew Caillard MW
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