The 2006 West Australian Tour Diaries
Click here for Chapter Four
Chapter Five – Day 6 - Monday in Margaret River
Fore-warned is fore-armed so tonight before going to bed, I took preventive action against Davo's sonic-boom snoring; I closed the door to my bedroom, stuffed some cotton balls into my ears and took a sleeping tablet. I slept like a baby and not even Davo's raucous racket could wake me up!
We decided to have a slack start to the day; no walkies this morning. We lounged around the house and took things easy, which was nice for a change. Brian and I had a healthy breakfast of muesli with orange juice, and after a few days of this combination I'm starting to get used to the strange taste. In many ways it is more attractive than muesli with milk, but on the other hand, Eggs Benedict is more attractive still. There was no way Davo was going to have anything healthy like muesli for breakfast, so we headed into Margaret River so he could put his nose into the feedbag.
Although it was only about 8.30, there were a number of coffee shops open and we went to one a few doors down from Ze Arc of Iris. Davo ordered a toasted bagel with bacon and eggs that was smothered in a spicy sauce. Although a bagel with bacon is an oxymoron, it looked and smelt good and Davo wolfed it down faster than my garbage-guts (tautology) Golden Retriever could. Brian and I had short black coffees and they were good, but for my liking, there was not enough coffee in the cup, it was only about half full.
My ankles and shins had developed a heat rash from wearing the same shoes every day, so I wanted to try and buy open sandals, but when you have size US 14 feet, it's not easy to find anything and invariably choice ranges from limited to nonexistent. (Brian’s comment: It’s amazing how he manages to fit them into his mouth so often!) (Ric's comment: ) We tried Sports Power with no luck and a local shoe shop across the road with the same result.
We headed down to the health food shop because if I couldn't fix my feet, at least I could get something for my tongue in its fight against the inevitable tannin build up. We bought more nuts and oven-baked sweet potato chips. I also wanted to find a gift for Lynne to thank her for looking after the dogs and my business while I was away, so we went into an eclectic store that sold everything from camping and fishing gear, through to wine accessories, exotic soaps, jams and upmarket crockery. Nothing took my fancy but Brian bought a zippered wet-suit material wine sock and other bits and pieces.
On the way to our first appointment, we stopped at Brookland Valley so that I could buy Lynne a small, beautifully crafted bird made out of petrified wood that I had seen yesterday. When I told the boys how much it cost they were horrified and Davo said, "You can get a real bird and a sauna for an hour for that much money."
Weeks before the trip, I requested an appointment at Saracen Estate for nine o'clock today. As they did not respond to an e-mail, I sent them a fax requesting an appointment to taste their wines. When people take the trouble to send a personalised fax requesting an appointment, even if the winery decides to decline, at least they can have a common decency and manners to respond and say “No thanks”. As Saracen Estate was the only winery that I approached that did not respond, they get the Gold Medal and Trophy for rudeness.
On my last trip to Margaret River, the conclusion that I came to about Juniper Estate was that “they were safe, honest, well made good quality wines but they are nothing to get madly excited about” yet for some strange reason, although I had no reason to suspect I would find anything different on this trip, I was looking forward to the visit, possibly because I was finally going to meet their winemaker, Mark Messenger who has been with them since 1999.
When we arrived at Juniper, all sorts of winemaking equipment had been removed from the winery and a Vineline Mobile bottling plant was clanking away at the back of the winery. At this time of the year, many wineries are bottling in order to make space in the winery for the new season's vintage.
Juniper is located in the heart of Wilyabrup; when we were having lunch at Vasse Felix and looked out the balcony window, we couldn't help noticing the strategically placed Juniper sign. They are directly across the road from the back of Vasse Felix.
In 1973, twenty-one acres of dry-grown vines were planted which makes it the sixth oldest vineyard in the district. In 1999, an additional two acres of dry-grown Bordeaux varieties were planted which will give the winery increased flexibility in making their Cabernet blends. The vineyards are hand-pruned and the grapes hand-picked. They have two labels, their Estate grown wines and the Crossing label which is primarily for purchased fruit.
Mark had been out the back supervising the bottling when we arrived, and after a short wait he came out to greet us. I don't know what I was expecting, but Mark wasn't it. For some unknown reason, I had conjured up an image in my mind that was the total antithesis of what I found. Mark is a quietly spoken, easy-going, very amiable sort of guy; the nicest sort of person you could wish to meet. The cellar door is an L-shaped room and in the small leg there is an imposing solid timber table and benches, and we moved over to this area for the tasting.
Juniper 2003 Crossing Cabernet Merlot sells for $16 a bottle or $14.50 by the case at cellar door with free delivery; it’s a blend of 70% contract fruit and 30% estate grown fruit. A well and truly drinkable wine, the bouquet shows floral fruit with milk chocolate and earthy spectrum notes which leads to a palate that is similarly endowed; ripe fruit on the uptake with earthy chocolate finishing dry and with a tinge of green fruit character. Medium-weight, the silky tannins provide a supple consistency which further adds to the wines attractiveness. Rated as Agreeable with *** for value, it's a drink now proposition.
Juniper 2003 Crossing Shiraz sells for $16 a bottle or $14.50 by the case at cellar door with free delivery thrown in. The bouquet shows attractive, lifted pepper characters which leads to an off-sweet palate showing plum, and whilst there is some sweetness below, the pepper dominates the palate, and there is a touch of eucalyptus on the finish. Driven by distinct, obvious fruit this medium-weight wine has a supple consistency, solid structure and a complexity that is both agreeable and harmonious. Mark described this as a "lifestyle wine" and as it is a terrific barbecue quaffer, and easy drinking crowd-pleaser with lots of punch for the dollars, I guess he's right. Rated as Recommended with ***** for value (based case price.)
Juniper 2001 Estate Shiraz sells for $29 a bottle, or 10% off and free freight by the dozen, from cellar door. This wine was released at four years of age because the winery believes the Estate wines are capable of ageing and need time to show their best. The bouquet exudes earthy notes, coffee essence, pepper, plum and violets which are replicated on the palate with the plum and pepper flavours being dominant. This is another winery that uses whole bunch maceration to obtain the spicy characters in their Shiraz. Well judged fresh acid, dusty tannins and pure fruit combine to form a wine with excellent balance and mouth feel; the length and persistence of the finish also get a big tick of approval. Ample-weight with a firm consistency, solid structure and well-developed complexity, this is a very good wine that deserves at least another three years in the cellar. Rated as Highly Recommended with **** for value.
.................................Our Host - Mark Messenger
Juniper 2002 Estate Shiraz will be released in June or July and sells for $29 a bottle or 10% off and free freight by the dozen, from cellar door. Initially the bouquet was closed and tight but after a lot of work, floral characters with a hint of spice, and menthol lift started to look especially attractive as the bouquet blossomed; a wine and I wanted to keep sniffing. A well-balanced and well-made wine the dusty tannins are silky and provide an even better mouth feel than the previous vintage. Off-sweet with spices including nutmeg and black pepper, there is a lot happening here with plum, liquorice and a touch of green (ripe) mint flavour on the finish. Ample-weight with a firm consistency, solid and tight structure; the complexity is well developed and this was my favourite of the three Estate Shiraz we tried. Rated as Highly Recommended with ***** for value (based on the case price) the rating should improve as the wine matures around 2011+.
Juniper 2003 Estate Shiraz will be released in mid-2007. The bouquet shows oodles of violets, mushroom, liquorice and plum with a little spice on the tail. Abundant silky tannins, unobtrusive acid and pure fruit provide a good, solid structure for this medium-weight, elegant, tight wine that has a well developed complexity but needs time to soften and come together. Very earthy spectrum flavours combine with chocolate, pepper, and coffee but there is a green tinge to the flavour profile. Rated as Highly Recommended with *** for value, try it in 2010 to see how it's progressing.
According to Mark, the Estate Cabernet Sauvignon was the wine that pulled Juniper out of the “unknown wilderness.” the first release of the wine was in 1999 but production quantities were tiny; 2000 was the first real release.
Juniper 2001 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon is the past release and is now sold out. When I sniffed this wine I said to myself “ummmmmm…..” and smiled; good stuff: ripe, sweet fruit in the right spectrum with coffee, mint and blackcurrant. Loads of firm, dusty tannins and deeply seated, strong fruit provide a rock solid, well-balanced structure for this muscular-weight, tight wine with a well-developed complexity. An unmistakably ripe Cabernet; it shows off-sweet characters with blackcurrant, leafy flavours on the mid-palate, and a long, drying mocha finish. A very credible, serious Cabernet that needs time it is rated as Highly Recommended with **** for value, and the rating should improve as the wine matures around 2010 and beyond.
Juniper 2002 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon sells for $32 a bottle, or 10% off and free freight by the dozen, from cellar door. A sensational, floral lifted bouquet with mint, leafy and dusty notes but unfortunately the rest of the wine is not as sensational. Dusty, drying tannins are very solid to the point of being almost blocky. Loads of ripe, green leaf characters with savoury blackcurrant flavours finish with good length. Muscular-weight with a firm consistency and solid structure the wine is rated as Recommended with *** for value, but the rating should improve as the wine matures around 2012 and beyond.
Juniper 2003 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon is not due for release for some time. The bouquet shows incredibly youthful primary fruit with chocolate, hints of leather and spicy oak. A rock-solid wine that is tight and like a tortoise brooding in it shell; there is enough of everything, including fruit which is currently buried by the tannins. Blackcurrant, leaf, cigar box and mocha flavours are varietally correct but the wine needs to do a Rip Van Winkle. A very credible wine, it’s currently rated as Recommended with **** for value, but that rating should be significantly higher when the wine eventually gets to its drinking window around 2013.
The winemaking is consistent from vintage to vintage, which is always a good thing. Over time, the winery is heading to Stelvins across the range. Although Cabernet Sauvignon is not exactly flavour of the month in many areas, Mark made an interesting prediction. In his opinion, there will be a shortage of good quality Margaret River Cabernet Sauvignon grapes in the not too distant future. For many reasons, let’s hope he is correct.
One of the most rewarding aspects of these tours is when you get to do what we did Juniper. Whilst having a look at the current range is great, seeing three or more vintages of each label gives you a wonderful picture of the winery's talents and the direction they are taking. I started this section by stating they made safe, solid well-made wines that were nothing to get excited about that after this visit that perception is changed. They are still making safe, solid well-made wines but the value aspect will certainly be appreciated by those with deep pockets and short arms, or those who demand excellent value for their dollar. In addition, the quality of the wine is improving and now this is one of those wineries that is quietly “flying below the radar” and doing so with style.
Great, we had started the day off on a high, I love it when the first winery is a good one, and as I had made a number of appointments for today, I let the two sidekicks work out where we were going in between. Yesterday they did a credible job, so I felt like I was in reasonably safe hands (more fool me.) After some consultation, they decided we should head to Amberley Estate, Brian in particular wanted to go there to try the First Selection reds.
I can't remember how long their driveway was but the entrance to the winery is certainly picturesque. The inside of the winery is ultra high-class, to the point of being glitz and glamour.
Amberley 2003 Cabernet Merlot also contains 12% Cabernet Franc and sells for $19.50 at cellar door. The bouquet shows oxidised characters with charry oak and spice. A lean-weight wine with pure fruit and minimal tannins, the consistency is soft and the complexity simple. Whilst it seems to be light on fruit, the acid was noticeably sharp on the finish but what raspberry fruit was there finished with good persistence. An easy-drinking wine it’s rated as Acceptable with ** for value.
Amberley 2003 Shiraz sells for $19.50 at cellar door. Scents of spicy oak over sweet fruit translated to cherry, chocolate, tobacco leaf and spice on the palate. The fruit is almost delicate and combines with enough tannin to provide a firm consistency and solid, elegant structure. An easy drinking wine with a simple complexity, it is rated as Agreeable with ** for value. When Davo tasted this he said, "It's lucky to be called wine.” I got the impression he didn't like it.
Amberley 2000 First Selection Cabernet Sauvignon sells for $35 at cellar door and was released recently. The bouquet exhibited VA, earthy/leathery characters, red berry fruit, aniseed and cigar box notes. Smooth, unobtrusive tannins back a medium-weight wine with a firm consistency, a solid structure and an agreeable complexity. This was so elegant Pinot drinkers would love it. Red Cherry, and milk chocolate flavours finish with noticeable acid that is a touch sharp. Rated as Agreeable with * for value.
Amberley 2002 First Selection Shiraz sells for $35 at cellar door. After nosing the varnished oak and cigar box characters of this wine, and given the ordinariness of the previous three, I couldn't be bothered reviewing it.
As I was typing this up and obtaining the link for their web site I started crawling through it to see what they had to say for themselves. My first impression was of more glitz, more glamour, very big on the “marketing” aspect but a little devoid of real depth. For example, their Awards page is as long as your arm but two thing standout like bovine testicles, and they are much bigger than dogs you know what's: there are only two shows listed for 2004 with no newer awards being listed; and secondly, most of the medals awarded are bronze, many from minor shows and there are a precious few silvers and startlingly few golds amongst them. Big on glitz: short on impressive depth!
Their marketing philosophy states, "We present to the market a diversified range of wines that offer excellent value and superior presentation complemented by unique flavours and characters.”
Yes, some of those flavours were certainly “unique” and unfortunately you can't drink “presentation.” As for “excellent value” absolutely: compared to the occasional wines that are rated Recommended with * for value costing $75, some the Amberley wines are excellent value.
Let's just say that Amberley was not exactly the highlight of our day.
After that experience, we decided lunch was in order and headed to the Bootleg Brewery. Although it was February, I'd decided that lunch today was not going to be the time for my annual beer. Judging by the strength of some of these brews, it would have been hard to sensibly taste wine after drinking them. The boys both ordered Newcastle Brown Ale and I had an iced coffee which was terrific. Good strong coffee and very rich. I guess there's no need to wonder what the lads ordered for lunch, just the specific variety; in this case they were Raging Bull pies. Why is it that I can't get away from these pie-eating bastards? They are all over Australia!
Their sign says "An oasis of beer in a desert of wine"
For lunch, I had a steak sandwich which would have to be rated as Highly Recommended with ** for value ; in reality, it was cooked to perfection with a big slab of medium rare tender meat. It was served on a sesame seed and wholemeal bun and the whole thing was very tasty. It was one of the best steak sandwiches I have ever eaten. The highlight of the meal however was the chippies; they were divine. Golden brown and crunchy, they had been cooked in hot clean fat for exactly the right length of time. It's a bit like making a perfect fried egg, it sounds easy to do in theory, but the reality is something else. With the main courses averaging just over $20, it's not exactly cheap but the food is good. For a Monday, there was a fairly large crowd so its popularity indicates its underlying attributes.
I had a chuckle; well sort of. All the tables have metal stands with numbers on them. When you order your food, you tell them what table you are sitting at so they know where to deliver it. Whilst we were there, "some little darling child” was running around and would pick up a table number, run to another table at random, and plonk the wrong table number down; pick up the number from that table and then place it on what ever table “the little darling’s” heart desired. The staff was going to have fun trying to work out where to deliver food later that afternoon.
Right now the boys’ batting average has just taken a dive. The selection of one very ordinary winery followed by a joint that specialises in beer and pies for lunch did not leave me with an overwhelming sense of confidence in their ability to select suitable establishments. (Brian’s comment: Ingrate, it was a lot better than shoe leather and chips he ate yesterday at lunchtime.)
The pie and beer junkies decided to select Flying Fish Cove, I don't know why, but that's where they wanted to head next. From what I can gather, in 2000 the winery was set up by a group of 20 local growers who invested money primarily to build a massive contract processing facility. In 2003 they released wines under the Flying Fish Cove label with the fruit coming from shareholders vineyards. They have a fairly broad range of wines but as we were limited for time, I only tried three of them.
Flying Fish Contract Wine Making Facility ........................................................and The Cellar Door
Flying Fish Cove 2003 Upstream Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon sells for $35 at cellar door. A soft, sweet fruity nose, with ripe blackberry and coffee scents. Silky tannins provide a supple mouth feel and solid structure but they are deceptive; the tannins sneak up on you big time. The flavour profile is reasonably varietal and earthy, with blackberry, mushroom, coffee, chocolate and tobacco, it lingers nicely. Ample-weight with a supple consistency, solid structure and an agreeable complexity; if the fruit surfaces from underneath the tannins and the lively acid settles down, this could be quite good. Rated as Recommended with ** for value, the rating may improve as the wine matures around 2009+.
Flying Fish Cove 2004 Upstream Reserve Shiraz sells for $35 at cellar door. The bouquet showed touches of estery varnished oak and earthy wood influenced characters. Cherry/raspberry, milk chocolate and a touch of white pepper flavours finishes fresh and crisp but there is a slight touch of green character as well. Dusty tannins build up and provide ample-weight and a firm consistency; and whilst the structure is solid there is some elegance to the fruit. Rated as Recommended with ** for value, there are better wines around for the price.
Flying Fish Cove 2001 Prize Catch is their top-of-the-line wine and sells for $65 at cellar door. Shaved oak characters dominate the black fruit on the bouquet and lead to a palette of mulberry, black coffee oak and mocha. Very-fine, tightly-grained tannins combine with pure, persistent fruit to form an ample-weight wine with a supple consistency, solid structure and agreeable complexity. Rated as Recommended with * for value, it would have rated higher but it is very short on the back palate.
I have to admit this winery to be disappointing, although Davo liked it more than I did. We tried their premium wines and they certainly do not measure up with for example, Watershed which offers wine of a similar or higher quality at lower prices. The winery may be do well moving its lower-priced wines in volume, but the premium end of the market is extremely tough and they will need to lift their game if they want to crack it.
The next winery should need no introduction; Cullen is one of the stunning jewels in the Margaret River crown. When we arrived at the winery there was an impressive looking table all set up for the tasting, including a whole lot of white wine glasses. I took one look at the table and thought “Oops, when I made the appointment I forgot to mention that I would have Dr Davo and The Pie Aficionado carrying my bags and opening doors for me.”
The cellar door manager was quite understanding when she had to reset the table for two extra people and remove the c-through glasses.
Some wineries in the district claim they are, say, the third or sixth oldest, but like life itself, age is not necessarily the be all and the end all; what you do with that time is the important factor, and in this case, the Cullen family have been trailblazing wine in the Margaret River region for 35 years.
Most Australian wine lovers with know that Cullen’s was started by Dr Kevin Cullen and his wife Di, but most people, unless they had read the Cullen story, would probably make some false assumptions about how it happened. In today's environment, when we think about doctors owning wineries, we think about them sinking a pile of dosh into the venture and hiring people to do most of the work for them, whilst they concentrate their time and energy running their medical practice.
That was not the case with the Cullen family. They lived in Busselton but their 2000 acre sheep and cattle farm was located in Margaret River. Di would make the one hour trip each day whilst the rest of the family used to pitch in on the weekends. The farm wasn't exactly a goldmine and in 1976 they sold their house in Busselton to finance the vineyards. The family moved into a beach house but Kevin stayed in Busselton to be near his practice and would come down to the farm for the weekend.
In 1977 the farmhouse was completed, which made things easier, but it wasn't until 1994 that the winery broke even. They had been losing money for 23 years and they didn't get federal government tax incentives for planting vines in those days. Over the years, vine plantings were increased but by 1987 yields had decreased to less than 1 tonne per acre because, not to put too fine a point on it, the soil was now ratshit. It was this degradation in the quality of the soil that made the Cullen family realise the importance of sustainable agriculture/viticulture that has become the driving force in the vineyard today.
The estate vineyard has an organic certification and is now also farmed using biodynamic practices. The vines are pruned and harvested by hand, and with 53 acres of vines, that's a big job. Fruit is also sourced for the Mangan label and the vineyard that supplies this fruit is also organically and biodynamically farmed.
Many people are not aware of what organic viticulture involves. Basically it means growing grapes without using synthetic chemicals but substances such as sulphur and copper sulphate, as well as organic fertiliser are allowed.
Biodynamics is taking the process one step further. With biodynamics, special preparations are used to increase the biological activity in the soil, but actually it is somewhat more complex than just soil preparations. Rudolf Steiner developed an all-encompassing holistic horticultural system that is as much a philosophical approach to farming, as it is a set of strict rules. It takes into account the spiritual aspects, the phases of the moon and the cosmos, and believe it or not, wines are racked at a certain point in the lunar phase, because they work on the principle that if the moon can affect the tides, why can't it affect the sediment in wine? Many readers would probably think that’s a heap of genuine (versus synthetic) bovine manure, but from my perspective, if it happens to make wine of inarguable quality, then who cares; and if the agriculture is sustainable, so much the better. More power to them for doing it the way they believe best.
It was with this philosophy in mind that I was looking forward to a walk through the vineyard with Trevor Kent (Production Manager - read assistant winemaker) and their viticulturalist, XXXX.
When we arrived at the winery, it looked like they were having a garage sale; there was winemaking “junk” everywhere. It turned out it wasn't a liquidation sale; they were resurfacing the winery floor and had to move all the winemaking equipment out of the winery.
As we moved up towards the vines, on our left was a fairly impressive looking veggie patch. Naturally, it is biodynamic and produce grown on the site is used in the restaurant. Good vertical integration! And when I saw the cows in the next paddock, I was wondering how they were going to move that much beef through their restaurant, but it turns out the dairy cows were on the next-door neighbour's property.
(Note from Davo after this went up: Just perusing your latest epistle and not that the black and white creatures in Hutton's paddock next door to Cullen's appear to have undergone a sex change as I can see pizels on all of them. They are steers you gig, not dairy cows ) (TORB's comment: )
Trevor told us that improving the biodynamic activity in the soil was critically important. Biodynamic preparations including compost “teas” are used (and considering what I think of tea, this is a most apt use for the stuff ) which is made from their own compost! Further questioning indicated that it was not actually from the staff…. The compost is actually made up of dust, straw and other green matter, chook poo and other good things and then it is spread out at the rate of five cubic metres per hectare.
One major problem in many vineyards is controlling vigour, because with too much growth it's easy to overcrop which can result in poor quality grapes. They certainly do not have this problem at Cullen’s; in fact it's the reverse. When I commented that there Scott Henry trellised vines were not as high as others we had seen in the district, Trevor told us why.
“Geologically it is a very old area, its pre-Cambrian and it's also a high rainfall area, averaging 1150 ml (46 inches in the old money) a year resulting in soils that are heavily leached.”
(They currently crop at around 2.7 tonnes per acre.) When the analysis was done in the late 1980s, because cropping levels were at an economically unsustainable level, tests showed that there was nutrient in the soil but the uptake of the nutrient was the problem. A number of options were examined, including putting in a herringbone subsoil drainage systems but that was discounted and biodynamics was seen as the best solution. The combination of organic and biodynamic increases the beneficial bacteria in the soil and the amount of worms, which we all know do good things, and this activity all takes place in the root zone, which solves the nutrient uptake problem.
Increasing yields was not the only benefit of these programs. According to Trevor, once they start to take effect the wine no longer needed to be fined and the tannins are riper. Trevor then went on to say, “The use of preparations 500 and 501 stimulates the vine to go deeper into the soil and this helps with the calcium balance. The deeper penetration of the root zone will also improve the expression in the wine of minerality from the site.”
When I said to Trevor I noticed you didn't use the “t” word, as quick as a flash his response was, “I am Australian." He went on to say, “We hope that these practices will give us the next step up in quality and unlike a lot of other wineries, quality is put in front of quantity.
“In 2004 we carried out trials comparing biodynamically fruit to non biodynamic fruit that was grown side-by-side. The grapes were picked at the same time, kept separate and then fermented separately for comparison purposes. The wines that were made from BD grapes had brighter colour, and from a taste assessment viewpoint, these wines had much more vitality and freshness about them. And from a winemaking viewpoint, the BD wines completed fermentation faster. Those are all characteristics that you are looking for in good wine.”
The phases of the moon are important to the biodynamic philosophy. Research has been carried out which show that certain types of plants do best at certain stages of the lunar cycle and Cullen tries to pick their grapes based on the cycle. However, this window is only three days and as they handpick, it's impossible for them to get all the grapes off during this period, so they do try and pick their very best parcels during the three-day window.
I normally refuse to put pictures of vines into a story because they look about as
...........exciting as pictures of pimples; but these are "sensible vines."
.............They used to be Riesling but are now Cabernet Sauvignon.
Frankly I didn't understand how this could work. Given that there are close enough to thirteen lunar months, each being twenty eight days, in a Gregorian calendar it would mean that if you picked with the moon, you could feasibly have the best part of a twenty five day variance in your picking cycle. Also, how does it work in relation to different grape varieties? I am not saying it can't work, just that I don't understand how it can/does. When I expressed these comments to Trevor, he said, “You have to use commonsense and override it. Fruit ripeness still has to be assessed and the optimum time for picking determined. The dates don't coincide for all varieties.
Unfortunately Rudolf Steiner did not drink (silly man) so there is not a huge amount of information about how biodynamics can be specifically applied to wine, so we have to use the general principles and observe very carefully what's going on, and that's a good thing.
We have some good vines, and the Cabernet in particular is something special, and we would like to think that long after we are gone, the vineyard will still be producing excellent quality fruit, so sustainability is very important to us. We also like the integrity of it; consumers can be assured that no serious herbicides or pesticides have been used. Finally, we hope we get another notch in quality from it. It's all about quality, sustainability and integrity.”
And on this note, we moved back into winery to try the wine.
Cullen 2005 Pinot which spent eight months in French oak and sells for $30 at cellar door; it will be released very soon. Three hundred cases have been made and most will be sold through cellar door. As little intervention as possible occurs with this wine; wild yeast is responsible for its fermentation, both primary and malolactic, and only a small amount of sulphur is added at bottling. Cherry, chocolate, coffee together with some feral Pinot characters produce a lovely flavour profile that finishes gloriously long; I could go for this wine. It’s lean-weight but is well backed by drying powdery tannins and a clean acid finish. A good wine for the price that is very drinkable, it's rated as Recommended with **** for value.
Cullen 2004 Ellen Bussell Red is a 60/40 Cabernet Merlot blend and sells for $19 at cellar door; it is expected to be released shortly. A well-balanced, pure, fruit-driven wine that is well backed by unobtrusive, powdery, drying tannins that finishes clean. Red and blue berry fruit together with abundant milk chocolate and mint on the finish producers and ample-weight wine with a firm but supple consistency, and agreeable complexity; whilst it might be easy drinking, it is certainly a solid, credible wine. Rated as Recommended with **** for value, it can happily be consumed over the next five years. The fruit from this wine is sourced from two vineyards with much of it coming from Vanya’s sister's property 10 kilometres south of the winery.
Cullen 2004 Mangan sells for $45 at cellar door and is a blend of 60% Malbec and 40% Petite Verdot. A gloriously complex bouquet; it shows meat, earthy notes and spice from the Malbec, and bright, floral aromas from the Petite Verdot. Distinct, obvious fruit combines with fresh acid and dusty tannins to produce an ample-weight wine with a very firm consistency, solid structure and well-developed complexity. Sweet on the uptake with raspberry and chocolate on the mid-palate, it is also meaty, but the finish shows a green edge and some astringency. It’s a good wine, but it didn't grab me. Rated as Recommended with ** for value, give it a few years and the rating may increase.
Cullen 2003 Diana Madeline sells for $90 at cellar door. Sixty percent of the wine produced is sealed in Stelvin and virtually all of that is sold locally. A blend of 72% Cabernet, 20 % Merlot, and the balance split between Petit Verdot and Malbec; the wine was matured for 15 months in French oak, half of it new. The clean bouquet is as serious as the price tag; it's sulking but does show leafy characters, mint and menthol. Abundant drying tannins currently overshadow the deep, quality fruit. The palate is sensational; it's already showing harmony and balance, and the ripe tannins fill the tiniest of cavities and finish with exemplary length. Muscular-weight, it's earthy and shows lots of mocha oak but it does need a long time to gain further complexity, and for the acid, which is noticeable now, to soften. The more I sniffed and the more I tasted this wine, the more addictive it became. Rated as Excellent with *** for value; don't even think about opening one until 2013 or beyond.
...Davo thinking hard about the wine....
........- its not easy for him to think! ........
Cullen 2004 Diana Madeline will be released around the middle of the year. The bouquet is bright and lively but tight, showing multiple red and blue berry spectrum fruit, a touch of leafy characters and some earthy aspects. This is as warm as cuddly as you could want a Cabernet to get! Driven by the purest of fruit, it is beautifully backed by dusty tannins. Blackberry, blackcurrant, tobacco, cigar box and mocha flavours are further enhanced by a comet length chocolate finish. Muscular-weight with a firm consistency, the mouth feel is lush, further adding to its magnetism. The wine is very ripe so it is approachable now; whilst it's more enjoyable than the previous vintage it may not last quite a long, but who cares! Rated as Excellent with *** for value, the rating may increase as the wine reaches its peak around 2012+ and beyond.
Brian was bemoaning the lack of sparkling reds around the area and Trevor coyly said “We made a sparkling shiraz for a bit of fun, do you want to try it?” We treated that as a rhetorical question.
Cullen 2001 Sparkling Shiraz will sell for $45 and will only be available from cellar door when it is released. Ten barrels have been made. The wine shows good blackberry fruit characters that finishes clean and dry. In fact it is considerably drier than other Sparkling Shiraz and has a good bead. This is a “real man's style” rather than a bottle of confected lolly water. Rated as Highly Recommended with ** for value, it is certainly different.
When we were discussing the wine, Trevor told us the dosage used was Single Malt Scotch; now that is different. A few days after the tasting, Trevor sent me an e-mail saying that whilst some of the trial samples had been dosaged with Scotch, the final blend, which we had tried, had only been dosaged with 10 g/L of sugar and nothing else. This is where it gets interesting, the wine I tasted certainly seemed like it had a Malt Scotch flavour on the finish. From my perspective, I don't think it was the power of suggestion, because being a Single Malt Scotch lover, I am very aware of the flavour profiles.
An appealing array of wines with interesting results! Cullen has a solid gold reputation and whilst the entry-level wines are credible, much of the reputation has been based on the (now named) Diana Madelaine Cabernet Sauvignon.
At this stage, it looks like the Ellen Bussell will be discontinued as the return is not justified by the time and effort involved in making the wine and the winery has the luxury of being able to concentrate on the upper end of the market. However, I wouldn't like to have been Vanya when she had to tell her sister that her grapes will no longer be required.
According to Trevor, “It is hoped that the improvements to the business will come from improving the quality of the wine at the top end, rather than chasing volume.” That does make sense, but it also indicates that the likelihood of a price increase on the Diana Madeline is to be expected. In a tough market, the wine sells out incredibly quickly so it is unlikely a reasonable price increase will affect sales.
The organic and biodynamic aspects of their viticulture are certainly interesting and the chances are people will be prepared to pay a premium, especially if it improves the quality of the wine, and that's quite likely.
We didn't have much time between appointments but Brian had a mission that he wished to accomplish. His much loved, very old Redgate T-shirt needed replacing. The T-shirt reads “Enjoy wine in moderation -- frequently.” I wouldn't have minded buying one of these shirts in a polo style, but the only size they had available was small, so I missed out again. Based on my previous experience with this winery, it was quite probable that T-shirts were the best things they sold so I had no real intention of trying any of their wines.
These signs are seen all though the wine areas of WA.
In the rest of Oz, Skippers are known as designated drivers.
As Brian went to pay for his shirt, he and Davo decided we had enough time to enable them to try a few wines. As I had no intention of trying them initially, I didn't have my clipboard with me to take notes; however I decided to enter into the spirit of things and at least sniff a few. Let's just say I was glad I didn't have to make notes of the three 2003 reds we sampled, because it would have been extremely difficult to find anything nice to say about them. Not one of them passed my lips. The first showed green varnished oak and esters; the second had a distinct green edge and by the time I got to the third, I wasn't particularly interested and to even reduce that interest, it was heavily dosed with charry oak.
The lady working on cellar door must have known which way was up when she saw the seriousness with which the wines were being discussed and she produced a sample of their yet to be released 2004 Shiraz from a plastic jug. It was a huge step up in quality. With loads of primary fruit, the wine is ample-weight, and has excellent intensity and persistence. It's clean with none of the other undesirable characters shown in the previous vintage wines. The flavour profile was the pepper, liquorice and coffee; a very nice wine. This is worth waiting for and worth every cent of the $25 price tag.
Whilst we were there, although we hadn't introduced ourselves, the wine maker came out and had a chat to us. He immediately acknowledged the shortcomings of the 2003 wines, admitting the difficulties of the vintage. He then very proudly started telling us about the improvements that were being made in the 2004 wines and the word “moxed” (microoxygenation) was used frequently. According to our new-found friend, the “mox” made the wine a lot more approachable, improved the mouth feel etc etc. Certainly the samples that we tried that had undergone this treatment were far superior to anything I've tasted from this winery before, so this winery may be worth another look when their 2004 vintage wines are released.
Whilst at Redgate, I started thinking. When the Margaret River 2003’s were starting to be released, there was a reasonable amount of hype about the vintage and how much better it was than 2002; certainly that was the perception generated in the eastern states. The reality of the situation is very different. 2003 was a very difficult vintage and in some cases the wines are not as good as 2002; even though 2002 was generally regarded as very tough in the region. Many of the wines we tasted from 2003 have shown green and harsh or angular tannins and prominent acid, in some cases searing. Some of the 2003’s are also “under-fruited."
Our next appointment was at one of the least subtle wineries in the district, Voyager Estate. Why least subtle you may well ask, but if you have seen the winery you would know the answer. For those of you that haven't, let me draw you a picture.
You drive down a long driveway with enough parking spaces to accommodate the crowd from a small football match. The surrounding lawn, it certainly can't be called grass; most bowling green keepers would give their left one to be able to reproduce it. And when you walk on it, it feels better than $400 a metre broadloom carpet. At the end of the main driveway an Australian flag proudly flutters in the breeze, but this is no ordinary Australian flag; the only one that is bigger, and even then only marginally, is the one on top of Parliament House in Canberra. (Everybody knows there is no point in getting into a “mine is bigger than yours contest” with politicians, because even if theirs is smaller, you will wind up losing one way or another; such is the nature of politics.)
The gardens (flower beds) themselves are a picture. I am willing to bet they spend more per square foot on these gardens than most other capital city Botanical Gardens spend. The cellar door building itself, by Australian standards is very unusual. One could be forgiven for thinking that it was designed by a demented architect who had completely lost the plot, but the reality is very different. It was intentionally designed by a very talented Australian architect to look like one of the old wineries from the Cape.
As you walk from the car park into the winery, there is not a blade of grass out of place, I bet even weeds are not game enough to come within 500 metres of the boundary of the winery; they simply wouldn't dare. If all this sounds ostentatious, it is, yet there is a glorious sense of quality and style that embraces the opulence. It not only allows them to get away with something that could easily look kitsch; the way it is presented makes you go Wow!
Our appointment was with Sean Blocksidge, the cellar door manager. It's not often I have to crank back my neck when talking to people, but Sean must be all of 4 foot 34 inches tall. When you are physically imposing, it's easy for your size to be a dominant trait in your character, but two things immediately became apparent; firstly Sean is a genuinely nice guy, and secondly he didn't come down in the last shower; he is a very sharp business operator. After the introductions, we headed out into the glorious sunshine.
Being good Australians, we started off with a (bizarre) discussion about the flag. They cost $5,000 a pop and last year one was stolen. One Sunday afternoon, due to really bad winds, the flag was taken down and stored in its box. Apparently some yobs had had a glass or ten too much of the good stuff and decided they should own the second largest flag in Australia (15 metres long) and took a five finger discount. The bizarre thing is, as it is 15 metres long, it's not like they could hang it on their own flagpole without it being just a little conspicuous; and it's too big to use for a bedspread or wall hanging, so it's no use to anybody.
When Sean had to fill in the police report he was asked for "distinguishing features.” He wrote “it has a Union Jack and the Southern Cross.”
The winery is owned by Michael Wright who doesn't drink wine. Michael's father, Peter Wright was with Lang Hancock when they discovered all the iron ore in the Pilbara. Michael apparently also doesn't like roses but that's okay, there are only about 1500 of them around the cellar door.
To most people, that would sound completely wacky, but to him it makes perfect sense, because Michael intends owning a premium agricultural enterprise, and I guess when you have the odd gazillion dollars to spare; you can do what you like with it. Michael's passion is farming, there are a few thousand head of sheep on the property, a couple of hundred head of cattle, and there is no truth in the rumour there are a couple of goats running the cellar door. From what I am told, Michael loves growing produce, be it the grapevines or food crops. When Michael is in the area, he can frequently be found out in the vineyards digging holes and taking soil samples. Apparently there is a saying around the winery that there is more money invested underground with pumping stations and irrigation then there is above the ground.
I asked Sean what made Michael decide to build a winery that looked like it was a refugee from Cape Town. He responded, “Michael wanted to do something different; something remarkable and something that didn't look like any of the other cellar doors. He felt a Chateau or a castle would look ridiculous in an Australian outback setting. Most people wouldn't know that the first vines to come into Western Australia in 1829 came from the Cape, and it was this historical connection that gave Michael the original idea."
The attention to detail in the winery is bewildering; it's easy to import cobblestone from South Africa, but that's nothing. The downpipes have V’s carved into them to signify the VOC logo, and for those of you who don't know, to be able to use that logo, Michael had to buy the naming rights from the Dutch East India Company. All that purchase was just to be able duplicate a logo on downpipes! Twice a year, a South African landscape architect is flown in to consult on the gardens. Eighteen months ago, the consultant, Michael and Sean was standing outside the winery and the consultant said, "I think we need a row of red oak trees” and five days later the red oak trees were there. It is this incredible sense of detail that makes this place unique.
Whilst the winery has to be economically viable, it is one of the extremely rare examples where spending money is not an issue, as long as it can be justified. Yes, there is an economic reality to the business, but unlike other wineries that may have to scale back when things are getting tough, this winery can keep looking towards the future.
The property consists of 300 hectares, of which only 103 hectares are under vine at this time. Sean told us that if you fly over the estate, it looks like the moon; there are holes everywhere: apparently Michael has a fetish for digging them and analysing the samples. As a result, he has determined the soil in 160 hectares will not produce grapes of a high enough standard (that leaves only a further 37 hectares for future planting.) Overall, across the vineyards they are averaging five to six tonnes per hectare; that's a pretty low cropping level.
When I was there three years ago, they were doing a little construction work. Except for a few signs, and part of the garden being inaccessible, you would hardly have known that anything was going on; they were building a new barrel storage facility. From time to time, I have seen wineries build new barrel storage facilities; they are normally not much more than a concrete floor with an insulated shed built on top, but when Voyager builds a barrel shed its just a tiny, insignificant little bit different.
We walked through to the end of the garden, down a few stairs and then followed the dirt path down the side of the gardens and along the back of it. Now when most wineries build a new barrel shed, they throw up a new building, but, it will probably come as no surprise, that is not what Voyager did. We walked into beautifully cool, air-conditioned room that had been excavated under the gardens and Cellar Door and it was a reasonable size barrel storage room, the sort of size that you expect a winery like this to utilise. There were a fair number of barrels there, but there were certainly room for lots more.
And then it happened, Sean threw open some sliding doors into the main part of the barrel room.
Yourrrrrr kidding! This is a barrel room?
How many barrel rooms have you ever seen that have had their ceiling tiled with 70,000 inlaid bricks and is damn near big enough to stage a football match? The ceiling alone probably cost more to construct than most people's houses. Incredible does not begin to describe this facility. If Sean wanted to prove a point, he certainly did; but it was only one half of the point he wanted to make. He said, “When people see the grandeur and opulence, it gives the impression that we are a large-scale winery, when the reality is we are a small family business that only produces about 30,000 cases. And that leads to the question why did we build Australia's largest underground barrel cellar?”
My answer to that question was, “Because they could” but Sean had other reasons. Whereas most businesses think in terms of three and possibly five-year business plans, Michael thinks ten years, twenty years and possibly fifty years into the future.
Now if you think Michael has delusions of grandeur, and I'm not talking about the building but the potential business growth; in 1991 when Michael bought the winery he had a plan. The success of that plan indicates that Voyager is about 300 percent ahead of where Michael originally anticipated he would be at this point in time. If that is not proof enough of the success of the business, even in these tough times they are selling out of every single wine before the next scheduled release.
Whilst the new barrel storage facility is virtually empty at this stage, with the exception of some packaged cases of wine, the plan is eventually to move over all the barrels from the winery into this room and provide a walk-through winery tour using suspended gantries; it certainly will be spectacular.
As we walked out of the barrel room, we passed one of the tradesman's vehicles; you don't see too many handymen driving brand new Range Rovers; but then there aren’t too many handymen doing regular work for Voyager.
We trudged back up the hill and back into the cellar door for the important bit; time to taste some wine. We were introduced to Travis Lemm who is Cliff Royle's right-hand man and the assistant winemaker. As they had opened a number of vintages of Chardonnay, I couldn't be rude and had to taste one; and if I had to drink see-through, I would almost be happy drinking this 2002. The grapes for this wine are hand-picked. The wine spent 12 months on lees and was matured in French oak, 60% of which was new. The wine showed citrus character, with clove and a nutty character; it's a lovely wine. It has been built to last and will probably only get better. We then tried samples of the 2003 and the 2004; they were also charming wines and showed lovely fruit. It was interesting to compare the vintages because the oak spice characters had been beautifully matched to the weight and intensity of the fruit. And then it was on to the serious stuff.
Voyager Estate 2004 Shiraz sells for $29.50 at cellar door. The wine was matured in 80% French oak, 40% of the oak was new. Loads of silky, dusty tannins and distinct, deep fruit combine to form a well-balanced, solid and tight wine that is ample-weight and already showing signs of harmony which is further enhanced by the mouth feel. Red and blue berry fruit spectrum flavours with tobacco leaf finish with good length. A credible wine that is approachable now but it will improve as it matures over the next five years or so; it’s rated as Highly Recommended with *** for value.
Voyager Estate 2001 Cabernet Merlot is a past vintage but was pulled out for comparative purposes. A Bordeaux blend, approximately 80% of the wine is Cabernet Sauvignon and it was aged in 50% new French Oak for two years. The wine was freshly opened and showed some VA with ripe fruit and bountiful dusty, leafy notes. A well crafted, complete wine; it comprises pure fruit, refreshing acid, and dusty, drying tannins which are exquisitely balanced. Blackcurrant, lavish mint, chocolate, tobacco, green bean and clove flavours finish fresh and with meritorious length. Muscular-weight with a firm consistency, solid, tight structure and refined complexity, this is a baby that shows enormous promise. Rated as Excellent with **** for value, drink from 2010+ (I am glad I have some of this in the cellar.)
Voyager Estate 2002 Cabernet Merlot sells for $40 at cellar door and is the current release.
A brooding bouquet that was not being cooperative! Dusty, drying tannins, unobtrusive acid and obvious fruit combine to form a muscular-weight, solid wine with an agreeable complexity. Blackcurrant, loads of goodies and cigar box characters, tobacco and touch of green on the finish; it's still a bloody attractive wine that finishes with good persistence. Rated as Highly Recommended with *** for value.
Voyager Estate 2003 Cabernet Merlot will be released in November 2006. A very youthful wine; the oak is certainly showing through on the bouquet but the fruit will surface in time. A smartly structured wine; the tannins are lovely; they are ripe, chewy and dusty, and combine with youthful acid and deeply-seated, pure fruit to form a perfectly balanced wine that has an exemplary mouth feel. Blueberry, chocolate, mocha, and coffee flavours finish with meritorious length and persistence. Muscular-weight, it is already showing early signs of harmony and with time should be sensational. Rated as Highly Recommended with *** for value, the rating should improve around 2012 when it starts becoming approachable.
My order of preference for these wines is the 2001 first, followed by the 2003. The 2001 is more elegant than the 2003 but part of that could well be a factor of the age difference between the wines.
Voyager Estate 1999 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon sells for $58 and is only available from cellar door or by mail order. A delightful, sensual bouquet with lots of ripe, sweet fruit, mint and earthy notes leading to a layered palate showing both sweet and off sweet flavours including blueberry, mint, tobacco, and green bean which finishes clean and with extraordinary length and persistence. A classy-wine with some elegance, the complexity is refined and this was one of the best wines of our trip. Rated as Excellent with *** for value; drink from 2010 and beyond.
In relation to the 2002 Cabernet Merlot, I mentioned the bouquet was being uncooperative and thought this comment needed some expansion. When the first bottle was opened, I took one sniff and thought it was a little flat and muted, and although there was no sign of overt cork taint, figured it must be mildly tainted and the taint character would show later. A fresh bottle was opened; this was almost exactly the same. Not good! Travis then went and grabbed a bottle that had been sealed with a Stelvin closure. When it was opened it was noticeably livelier and fresher. At that stage, I was willing to bet that the first two bottles opened were both suffering from mild cork taint or possibly random oxidisation; not enough to wreck the wine, just enough to dampen it down.
Both Travis and Sean were convinced that the first two bottles were sound and so I asked them to have a look at them the next day to see if any cork taint had become apparent. After an exchange of e-mail, they confirmed that as Cliff was away, they had had a few of the more knowledgeable staff look at both bottles and they all thought both were both fine, although the bottle sealed with a Stelvin was more lively. There in lies the problems with cork, they produce so much bottle variation.
The visit was informative and impressive so how do I summarise the winery? Firstly they are not afraid to invest money; only one other winery I can think of (Kaesler) could come close to having pockets as deep as Voyager’s. Secondly, the level of grandeur and opulence is unique, not different; unique. Finally, the quality of the wine is unquestionably good. My perverted mind can only wonder how successful the winery would have been if the cellar door was a rustic old shack, but the quality of the wine was exactly the same; food for thought!
What a fantastic way to finish our wine tasting experience in Margaret River; there is nothing like going out on a high note and the Voyager experience did it. Unfortunately all good things come to an end but then by the same token, sometimes bad things stop happening too; our good mate Davo had to head home tonight, so at least the house was not going to be rocked by his sonorous snoring.
We thought that that was going to be the last we would see of him on this trip so said our goodbyes, hoping that in his hurry to get home, he would forget there was a dozen bottles of Gralyn wines stashed in a cupboard. We tried to push him out the door as quickly as possible, but the bastard hadn't forgotten and wasn't going without his wine.
After a huge lunch, we decided to have a light dinner and headed into town to get a barbecued chook. After days and days of tasting young wine, the last thing I wanted to do was to actually drink more of the same tonight, but I could have forced myself to do so had Davo have left one of his bottles of Gralyn. An aged bottle of wine would also have been a joy to drink, but unfortunately we didn't have any. Before picking up the chook, we stopped at the bottle shop and Brian decided to get a beer and a can of Guinness. As I'm quite partial to my annual Guinness, as well as the annual beer, I bought one of each also, and it is just as well I did.
When we got back to the house, I thoroughly enjoyed the chicken and savoury homemade coleslaw but the Guinness left me cold. The new style cans of Guinness imported from Ireland, which are supposedly superior to those made in Australia, were a thorough disappointment. (The Asian brew is undrinkable sweet molasses.) It contains a ‘widget’ which gases the drink as soon as the can is opened. The problem is the mouth feel is all wrong, it's not creamy the way it should be and the consistency of the gas seems to be inferior to the stuff available on tap. Just as well I bought my annual beer as well; that was drinkable.
When I went to bed, it was a pleasing thought that the loudest sound I would probably hear would be the kangaroos munching grass outside the window, and that's infinitely more pleasant than Davo snoring.
Stay tuned for the final chapter next week.
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