Marchand and Burch smashes our preconceptions

In Denmark, Western Australia, we’re heading out to vineyards thinking shiraz and riesling – the highlights of thirty years’ tasting from the vast Great Southern region. Chardonnay and pinot noir barely blip on our radar; and even cabernet sauvignon’s low on the list, though we’ve tried a few beauties from the area. But our first stop smashes those preconceptions.

Just five minutes drive north of town, Howard Park, founded 1986, lies a little short of the 35th parallel – several degrees north of Australia’s cool chardonnay and pinot noir hot spots like the Yarra Valley, Mornington Peninsula and Tasmania.

We ease in, tasting riesling with winemaker Andrew Milbourne – Canberra raised and, for a time, a colleague of Alex McKay at Kamberra Winery. The 2009 Great Southern pleases for its predictable lemony brightness and delicacy. Our preconceptions hold. But the soon-to-be released 2010s set a subtle new course – sub-regional styles.

The first, from Porongurup (a small range of hills between Denmark and Albany, about an hour’s drive north east of Howard Park) is floral and lime-like, with a taut, delicate-but-keen, lingering acidity. The subtly different 2010 Great Southern (mainly from the Mount Barker sub-region, 40 minutes north, north east of the winery) seems slightly fuller and rounder, but still delicate. All three are first-class rieslings.

We move on to Howard Park Western Australian Chardonnay 2007, a predominantly Great Southern wine with a component from Margaret River (a degree further north and a couple of hundred kilometres to the west). This is very well made barrel-fermented chardonnay, lively, fresh, varietal and richly textured, with noticeable oak flavour. We’re giving this a silver medal score – a way above average wine, but not in the top ranks.

Just before our prejudice sets, Milbourne comments that after 2007 Howard Park’s chardonnay winemaking style changed. “We moved to hand picking and sorting and whole-bunch pressing to barrels. We introduced a lot of wild ferment, and it’s now 100 per cent”. The changes extended to reds, too, with a basket press and open fermenters for pinot noir and hand sorting of bunches even for machine-harvested reds.

The changes, he says, flowed from a partnership between Jeff Burch, Howard Park owner, and Montreal born Pascal Marchand, a winemaker in France’s Burgundy region for almost thirty years.

We’d read about but hadn’t tasted, Marchand and Burch’s wines, made in Western Australia by Burch and in Burgundy by Marchand. How good could they really be?

Well, the 2009 chardonnay, sourced from a cool, south-facing slope in Porongurup, killed our preconceptions stone, cold dead. What a beautiful wine – so delicate but powerful and perfectly balanced.

The equally exciting Mount Barrow Pinot Noir 2009, comes from a ridge-top site at Mount Barker.

What makes the wines so good? Site selection and vineyard management seems to be a key, giving Burch very high quality grapes to work with. After that it’s attention to detail: picking at the right moment, handling and transporting the grapes protectively and hand sorting to remove damaged berries and leaves.

For delicacy and purity, the chardonnay relies on gentle, whole-bunch pressing and a short period of settling before being racked to oak barrels for a spontaneous primary fermentation. Half of the wine underwent a natural malolactic fermentation (this converts malic acid to lactic acid, softening the wine and adding complexity to texture and flavour).

The chardonnay matures on yeast lees in barrel for 11 months, with individual barrels selected for the final blend.

To build a fine, silky tannin structure, without over extraction, the pinot undergoes maceration on skins (source of all the colour and tannin) for five days before and for several weeks after fermentation in small open vats (one to four tonnes capacity). The makers hand plunge and pump juice over the skins from two to four times daily.

The wine matures in oak barrels (a mix of new and old) for about seven months before blending of selected barrels.

A brief, single tasting of these wines, though, isn’t enough to place them precisely in Australia’s pinot noir and chardonnay hierarchies. But we can say with certainty that they’re worthy of comparison with the best, and we intend to do so in the coming years. A good sign is that we’re busting to buy a few bottles and put them to the full-bottle test (will they hold our interest from first drop to last?).

Andrew Milbourne’s final nudge to our preconceptions is the flagship Howard Park Abercrombie Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 ($85). This is Howard Park’s top cabernet, blended from the best material from their extensive holdings in Margaret River and the Great Southern region.

It’s an outstanding, powerful but elegant wine sourced principally from an old vineyard at nearby Mount Barker – with only a small proportion from Margaret River, Western Australia’s premier cabernet region.

The dominance of Mount Barker material in the blend seems fitting, if challenging. We recall our first visit to Denmark many years ago with John Wade, a founder of Howard Park. Before moving to Denmark, John had made one of the greatest Australian cabernets of all on the other side of the continent – the still magnificent, Wynns Coonawarra Estate John Riddoch Cabernet Sauvignon 1982.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2010