As part of the recent London Australia Day tasting I attended a celebratory Margaret River Chardonnay masterclass hosted by Sarah Ahmed. Like last years McLaren Vale Grenache event, it put an extreme focus on both variety and location.
Western Australia (WA) is well away from other Australian wine production, and the recent 2017 vintage marked 50 years of wine making in the region. A landmark 1966 research paper by agronomist Dr John Gladstone detailed that the free-draining gravelly soils and consistent wet winters/dry summers provide the perfect conditions for viticulture, which was the catalyst for modern day wine-making in the region.
Home to luminaries including Cullen, Leeuwin and Cape Mentelle, people often note that terroir and wine-making techniques are key to the finished wines, but less focus is given to the vine clones used. In the case of Margaret River Chardonnay, this is absolutely key.
Introduced as a 1957 experiment to detect viruses, the Gin Gin clone is fairly unique to WA, giving late ripening low yields and smooth textures from high skin/juice ratios. Known as ‘hen and chicken’, the clone produces grape bunches of different sizes, larger and fully ripe fruity ‘hen’ berries mixed with smaller less ripe ‘chicken’ berries with characteristic high acidity.
The 3 flights highlighted the differing aspects of regional Chardonnay through 8 multiple award winning wines (94+ points from respected critics). All had precision, richness and depth of fruit.
Flight 1 – Acidic Drive and Textured Fruit
Lenton Brae Southside 2016, 13.5%, £16.95 – Winemaker Ed Tomlinson was on hand to guide us through his wine as well as some insight to the fellow producers he knows so well. From the northern part of the region, grapes are hand-picked and go through a wild yeast ferment to add texture. With oak playing a secondary character, this wine showed a mineral, linear, high acidity and a depth of lime citric buttered fruit. A medium plus finish which retained smoke and butter.
Fraser Gallop Estate Parterre 2016, 13.5%, £24.95 – Another from the north, and similar in style to the Lenton Brae. A big advocate of the acidity found in the Gin Gin clone, the 2016 harvest saw warm/rainy/warm weather, allowing the grapes to deliver layers of flavour.
Golden green in colour, this was densely packed with fleshy apple/pear and a twist of tropical melon. A subtle touch of chalk led the way to a rich, fruit driven finish.
Stella Bella 2016, 12.5%, £18.99 – From the central part of Margaret River, grapes are hand-picked and whole bunch pressed. This took all of the cues from the first two wines but added in more butter and, if possible, more acid. As a note of interest, this producer wasn’t showing at the main event and so it was a rare opportunity to taste.
Flight 2 – Use of Oak and Malolactic Ferment
Xanadu 2015, 13%, £18.49 – Back to central Margaret River and the first of two wines aged in oak (25% new in this case) and that haven’t seen malolactic fermentation. The 2015 vintage saw early mild weather followed by a warm renaissance.
The difference in fruit character here was very evident, becoming thicker and with added tang. There was still an extremely fresh and biting acidity and a lightly grippy finish.
Flametree SRS Wallcliffe 2016, 13%, £31.99 – This relatively new winery (2007) sits at the very northern tip of the region. The grapes were picked several weeks early for the 2016 vintage (early Feb), pressed in French oak puncheons and left to age on the solids for an extended period. This manifested itself in solid and darker green fruit notes, a dense weight and a light grippiness to the end palate.
Vasse Felix Heytesbury 2016, 13%, £39.99 – The nose was dense, rich and showed smoke from the 9 months in new French oak. Malolactic fermentation provided a lush creamy, yeasty character. A good wedge of lime set off the weight and depth of the rich ripened lemon and butter. For me this was in my top two wines of the masterclass.
Flight 3 – Traditional Oak Spice and Aromatics
Flowstone Queen of the Earth 2014, 13.3%, £32 – Another young winery with their first vines planted in 2004. Hand harvested and fermented in French oak (50/50 new/old) and the first wine on show not reliant on the Gin Gin clone. A wonderfully spicy nose and stylistically different from everything in the tasting thus far. Very rich with a zippy acidity and a heavyweight fruit finish. Intense green fruit and an oaky overtone.
Leeuwin Estate Art Series 2013, 13.5%, £75 – A fitting end to this retrospective, and a stunning wine from pioneers Vasse Felix. The 1980 vintage was the first to be singled out by Decanter magazine for being of exceptional quality, and from vines just 4 years old. This wine saw 6-8 hours of skin contact, 100% barrel fermentation in new French oak and regular lees stirring. There was a massive depth of flavour here, just on the nose alone. Powerful green lime and kiwi was followed by dried pear (a Gin Gin characteristic) and, at 5 years old, this was still as fresh as a daisy and looking like it could last a whole host longer. Having recently scored 100 points from Matthew Jukes, it also got top points from me and was the highlight of the masterclass.
With thanks to Wines of Australia for providing the ticket used in this tasting.