Yearly Archives: 2010

A taste of Germany in Margaret River

I’ve not visited the original Duckstein Brewery in the Swan Valley. But the Margaret River operation, housed at Saracen Estates, produces beautiful German style beers in a magnificent setting – with live music on weekends and German-style food.

During a Sunday lunchtime visit, the places buzzed with families, streaming through the large function area to the lakeside garden setting.

Surprised to see beer outselling wine at cellar door, we joined the mob and tasted through the range of beautifully made, ultra fresh brews.

The Hefeweiss, delivers the lightness, freshness, high-toned fruitiness (banana like) and fresh acidity of the southern German wheat style.

Duckstein Pils reflected the best of the German style – crisp, pure and tasty with the stunning, clean bitterness of Tettnanger and Hallertau hops.

Dunkel delivered warm, chocolate and toffee richness, offset by delicious and bitter hops.
A beer labelled simply as Seasonal offered a rich, malty flavour with a dry, assertively bitter hops finish.

We finish on the opulent, copper coloured, powerfully, pungently hopped Altbier – and love the clean, lingering, refreshing bitterness.

If you’re touring Margaret River, Duckstein Brewery is a must-visit. It offers the beers in 5-litre party kegs at cellar door.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2010

Beer review — Gage Roads and Cascade

Gage Roads Atomic Pale Ale 330ml 6-pack $17.99
Gage Roads’ interpretation of the American Pale Ale style sits in about the middle of the spectrum – not as opulently malty and in-your-face hoppy as some. But it’s generously flavoured and the citrus-like aroma and tang associated with dry hopping separates it from other styles.

Cascade Stout 375ml 6-pack$14.99
It’s been a long time between drinks, but how wonderful to catch up again with this old friend. At 5.8 per cent alcohol, inky black and with warming, sweet rich chocolate-like flavour, it’s clearly brewed for a cold Tasmanian night. Just the right amount of hops freshens and dries out the finish.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2010

Canberra wines fare well at National Wine Show of Australia

Canberra and surrounding districts fared sensationally well in this year’s National Wine Show of Australia, judged between 15 and 18 November. By my count, local wines won 31 awards – one trophy, 13 gold medals, four silver medals and 13 bronze medals.

The tally includes wines from most of the regions covered by the Canberra Regional Wine Show – Canberra District, Hilltops, Tumbarumba, Southern Highlands and Shoalhaven Coast. And the results are generally consistent with previously perceived regional strengths.

Local entries were up on previous years, thanks to two changes to entry requirements –  a halving of the amount of stock producers are required to have on hand when entering some classes, and the inclusion of the Canberra Regional Show as a qualifying show. The show organisers made the changes to encourage more entries from high-quality, small regional makers. For Canberra, the benefits of the quantity change become apparent in the results from the very first class in this year’s judging.

Helm Canberra District Classic Dry Riesling 2010 received one of two gold medals awarded in the 2010 riesling class. Ken Helm says he’s delighted at the rule change, and the result. He recalled that last year he couldn’t enter because his riesling production fell short of the show’s quantity test – despite qualifying with a medal from the regional show.

The success of Helm’s rieslings (his Premium 2010 won gold in another section) points to a solid judging performance in these classes. Often, when young, the high-acid, comparatively austere Helm style lose out to softer, fruitier, more accessible wines in long line-ups.

And if we scroll through the 96-page catalogue of results, we find a feast of good drinking among the medal winners. We can always quibble with the results when the wrappers come up off. But, as a buying guide it’s reliable, revealing the current trend for judges to rate purity and fruitiness over winemaking inputs.

The judges spell this out in their comments on Class 17 2009 Dry Red Shiraz, “Young, fresh and vibrant wines seduced the judges where the oak handling was not excessive. This was not always the case. Heavy-handed winemakers clouded the expression of many wines that had delicate floral fruit to offer. Less oak please.”

The positive comments could’ve been penned especially for one of the class gold-medallists – the locally made Eden Road Wines The Long Road Shiraz 2009, a Hilltops-Canberra blend.

This is the follow up vintage to the highly successful 2008 vintage, both made by Nick Spencer. Spencer ages portions of wine in large old oak and adds another completely unoaked component to the final blend. Thus, the wine has some of the mellowness and complexity of barrel ageing, but little oak flavour, and a main emphasis on vibrant, fresh, juicy, fruity flavours.

A move to more sympathetic oak treatment has been underway in the industry for more than a decade. But, as the judges commented, we still see too many potentially exciting wines blemished by poor oak treatment. Comments like these in the show system (and awarding fruity rather than over-oaked reds) encourages winemakers to look again at what they’re doing.

Occasionally, though, the focus on purity and fruitiness in reds rewards simplicity over complexity, as we saw to some extent in this year’s regional show.

Eighteen of the 31 National Show gongs won by Canberra and surrounding districts went to shiraz and riesling, reflecting widespread strength in these varieties. Tyrrell’s won the highest of these awards with a gold medal and trophy for its one-off 2008 Canberra District Shiraz.

However, the strengths of our local districts extends beyond these varieties, with medals awarded to two Shoalhaven Coast semillons (made by Tyrrell’s for Coolangatta Estate), chardonnays from Canberra, Tumbarumba and the Southern Highlands, tempranillo from Hilltops and Canberra and Mount Majura’s lovely Canberra District tempranillo-shiraz-graciano blend.

I’ve listed details of the successful local wines, awards and districts in the table below.

But despite the overall credible results, the show, like all shows, presents several dramatic anomalies. And they’re hard to explain. How, for example do we reconcile a 41 point score (out of 60) for a wine that earned 55.5 and a gold medal two months earlier at the regional show.

In the regional show, the judges wrote of Coolangatta Estate Savagnin 2010, “the savagnin had lovely bright fruit with depth of flavour and should be received with some excitement in the region”. In the National, judges dismissed the same wine and its peers as “mostly non-descript”.

Similarly, the National Show judges bagged Eden Road Wines The Long Road RHE 2009 (a white blend) as “non-descript” and worth a paltry 41.5 points. Two months earlier, in the regional show, the wine earned 56 points, a gold medal and a trophy. The judges enthused, “The two top wines were benchmark examples of their varieties”.

While these two anomalies go far beyond normal variability in wine show performance and beg the question of why they’re not up there sharing the glory, the list of winners across Australia’s many regions and wine styles is truly impressive.

This is an independent and high-quality appraisal of wines coming through the show system. It can’t pretend to be a grand final, as the National’s often billed, for the simple reason that so many of Australia’s very best wines of all styles never see a judge’s tasting bench and never will.

However, the depth Australia has to offer is truly extraordinary and well represented in this show. So it’s worth logging on to and studying the catalogue of results class by class. The winners aren’t all expensive wines, as the gold-medal $21 Eden Road Long Road Shiraz 2009 demonstrates.


Murrumbateman’s Helm, Yarrh and Ravensworth wines all won gold medals in the National Show’s new classes for single vineyard wines. The classes are open to medal winning wines sourced entirely from a single vineyard named on the commercial label.
In the riesling class, Yarrh Wines won bronze for their 2010 and gold for their 2009 riesling. Helm Premium Riesling 2010 topped the class, qualifying for the taste trophy taste-off for best single vineyard wine of the show.

In the single vineyard shiraz class, Bryan Martin won gold medals for the 2008 and 2009 vintages of his Ravensworth Shiraz Viognier. The 2009 topped the class of 41 wines and joined Helm’s riesling in the trophy taste off.

The winner of the taste off was Oakridge Yarra Valley Van Der Meulen Vineyard Chardonnay 2009.


Gold medal and trophy

Tyrrell’s Canberra District Shiraz 2008

Gold medal

Helm Canberra District Classic Dry Riesling 2010
Helm Canberra District Premium Riesling 2010
Barwang Estate Chardonnay 2009 (region not stated, probably Tumbarumba)
Barwang 842 Tumbarumba Chardonnay 2008
Barwang Granite Track Riesling 2010 (region not stated, probably Hilltops)
Eden Road Wine The Long Road Hilltops-Canberra District Shiraz 2009
Coolangatta Estate Shoalhaven Coast Semillon 2006
Coolangatta Estate Shoalhaven Coast Semillon 2003
Yarrh Canberra District Riesling 2009
Mount Majura Canberra District Chardonnay 2009
Ravensworth Canberra District Shiraz Viognier 2009
Ravensworth Canberra District Shiraz Viognier 2008

Silver medal

Moppity Vineyards Hilltops Reserve Shiraz 2009
Moppity Vineyards Hilltops Lock and Key Shiraz 2009
Shaw Vineyard Estate Canberra District Winemakers Selection Shiraz 2008
Shaw Vineyard Estate Canberra District Premium Shiraz 2008

Bronze medal

Barwang Estate Tumbarumba Chardonnay 2008
Gundog Estate Canberra District Shiraz 2009
Barwang Hilltops Shiraz 2008
Westend Hilltops Tempranillo 2008
Yarrh Canberra District Riesling 2010
Moppity Vineyard Hilltops Lock and Key Riesling 2010
Moppity Vineyards Hilltops Estate Riesling 2010
Centennial Vineyards Southern Highlands Reserve Chardonnay 2008
Centennial Vineyard Southern Highlands Bong Bong Australian Dry Red 2009
Lerida Estate Lake George Chardonnay 2009
Mount Majura Canberra District Tempranillo 2009
Mount Majura Canberra District Tempranillo Shiraz Graciano
Pankhurst Canberra District Cabernet Sauvignon 2009

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2010

Wine review — Lindemans, Ducketts Mill, Capital Wines and Jim Barry

Lindemans Coonawarra — $55

  • Pyrus Cabernet Malbec Merlot 2008
  • St George Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2008
  • Limestone Ridge Vineyard Shiraz Cabernet 2008

It was telling at a recent lunch how few people recognised Lindeman’s pedigreed Coonawarra trio. From the heart of the original terra rossa soils along the Riddoch Highway, the three once excited drinkers of top-end wines. Sadly, however, they disappeared into the vast Foster’s machinery. But they remain beautifully polished wines, each with its own personality – the fragrant, elegant Pyrus with its malbec high notes; the pure, varietal, authoritatively structured cabernet, from the St George Vineyard; and the fuller, rounder (but still elegant) shiraz cabernet blend, from the Limestone Ridge Vineyard, with its distinctive vanilla-like, oak-derived undertones.

Ducketts Mill Denmark Riesling 2010 $16
If you’re visiting Denmark, in Western Australia’s Great Southern wine region, be sure to visit the Lewis family’s combined Ducketts Mill cellar door and Denmark Farmhouse shop. Collectively, Ross and Dallas Lewis, with sons Ben and Matt, tend the eight-hectare vineyard, and produce a range of excellent cheeses (made from fresh, local milk), fudge, preserves and ice cream. Their wines are made off site at nearby Harewood Estate by James Kellie. The standout is the pristine and delicious riesling 2010, priced at a bargain basement $16. The family offers its wine and farm products by mail order through and

Capital Wines The Whip Canberra District Riesling 2010 $18
Jim Barry The Lodge Hill Clare Valley Riesling 2010 $20

In a mini riesling shoot out, Jim Barry’s Clare Valley wine, from the Lodge Hill Vineyard (one of the highest in the Clare Valley), gained the upper hand over Capital Wine’s The Whip – sourced from Yass River Vineyard and Lambert’s Tallagandra Vineyard, Gundaroo, and made by Andrew McEwin. The Clare wine shone on all fronts – floral aroma, vibrant lemon-like varietal flavour, fine texture and zingy fresh finish; all the marks of a good riesling. The Whip couldn’t quite match it – pleasant enough and definitely riesling, but didn’t match the purity and vivacity of the Clare wine. It may be a vintage thing as the 2009 was impressive.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2010

Bootleg Brewery — a Margaret River original

Margaret River’s Bootleg Brewery (the oldest of six in the area) bills itself as “an oasis of beer in a desert of wine”. And like the local wineries, it’s set in the magnificent bush landscape, offering its products in a distinctly cellar-door setting.

Brewer Michael Brookes says the bit he loves about his job is introducing people to “different styles of beer in a beautiful environment” – in this case a tame patch in the scrub, complete with lake, offering a tasting tray ($12) or individual beers brewed on site, and food served inside or on the lawns sprawling between the brew house and lake.

Thomas Reynolds founded Bootleg in 1994 and Brookes took over brewing in 1998. The beers win medals consistently, and on the day we visit the entire range seems exciting – Sou ‘West Wheat, Hefe Wheat, Tom’s Amber Ale, Wils Pils, Settlers Pale Ale, Moses Extra Special Bitter and Raging Bull.

While they’ll never taste better than they do on site (Bootleg’s a must-visit if you’re in Margaret River), the packaged versions now make their way to the east coast, including Canberra, under a new distribution arrangement with Australian Boutique Beverages.

Bootleg Brewery Sou’West Wheat 6-pack $19.50

You might call this the spaetlese riesling of beers – a delicate, ultra-fresh ale featuring the subtlety and zesty acidity of wheat and herbal and floral high notes (but not the bitterness) of Hersbrucker and Willamette hops. A gentle kiss of residual sugar sits well with the beer’s acidity and herbal hops.

Bootleg Brewery Raging Bull 6-pack $22

It’s dark and alcoholic (7.1 per cent), but the alcohol doesn’t intrude on the luxuriously malty, coffee-like flavour and smooth, verging on syrup-rich, palate. Pride of Ringwood hops offset the great richness and sweetness of the palate to some extent – perhaps explaining why the finish is so sweet, but not at all cloying.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2010

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

Wine review — Alkoomi, Leeuwin Estate, Voyager Estate, Glenpara, Rochford and TarraWarra Estate

Alkoomi Frankland River Riesling 2009 $18
Frankland River, Great Southern, Western Australia

In three days based in Denmark, Western Australia, we covered all too little of the vast Great Southern region and none of Frankland River, one its five sub-regions. The Denmark Liquor store, however, helped fill the gaps with its wide range of local wines, including this lovely dry riesling from Sandy and Rob Hallett’s Alkoomi. It delivers crystal-clear citrus varietal aroma and flavour and fine, delicate, finish – the perfect after work (or travel) refresher.

Leeuwin Estate Art Series Chardonnay 2007 $82.50–$100
Margaret River, Western Australia

If $90–$100 retail, or even $82.50 a bottle cellar door seems out there for chardonnay, even a world-class drop like Leeuwin, how about $20 for a generous glass at Leeuwin’s restaurant? It’s worth it for a wine of this calibre – a luxurious drop, big on nectarine-like varietal flavour and backed by the complexity of high quality oak, and all the textural and flavour nuances it brings. Should’ve bought the bottle we decide after four glasses! (Erroneously rated four-stars in my Canberra Times review. This was a production error, the actual rating is five-stars).

Voyager Estate Girt by Sea Cabernet Merlot 2008 $24
Margaret River, Western Australia

Voyager Estate’s ‘Girt by Sea’ is to Margaret River what Majella’s ‘The Musician’ is to Coonawarra – a richly flavoured, finely structured, medium-bodied red built to drink now but without losing regional identity. ‘Girt by Sea’ reveals Margaret River’s greatest winemaking strength – blending cabernet sauvignon and merlot to produce a harmonious red, based on ripe berry aromas and flavours and backed by fine, savoury tannins – a delicious luncheon red. It’s sourced from Voyager’s ‘north block’ vineyard and the vines are up to 15 years old.

Glenpara Grenache Shiraz Mataro 2006 $25
Barossa and Clare Valleys, South Australi
In 2007 Foster’s sold its historic 185-hectare Seppeltsfield property to a group of investors led by Clare Valley based Kilikanoon Wines. Seppeltsfield now offers table wines under its Glenpara label – in this instance one of those rarest of all beasts, a red with bottle age. The blend of grenache, shiraz and mataro (aka mourvedre) provides juicy, earthy, spicy, soft and satisfying current drinking. The bottle age moves it out of the primary fruit spectrum square into satisfying real-red territory.

Rochford Pinot Gris 2009 $28–$33
Macedon, Victo
The hot, dry 2009 vintage kept pinot gris yields in Rochford’s Macedon vineyard to less than 2.5 tonnes per hectare. This partly explains the richness of fruit flavour that, in combination with great textural richness, gives an impression of sweetness. Yet the wine carries a barely-detectable five grams a litre of residual sugar. This is true, cool-grown pinot gris – with a light rinse of bronze-pink colour, clear varietal flavour, silky, slightly oily texture and very fresh, lively acidity.

TarraWarra Estate Pinot Noir 2009 $22
Yarra Valley, Victoria and Tumbarumba, New South Wales

Clare Halloran makes very fine, graceful Yarra Valley pinot noir. But faced with a shortage of good grapes in the severe heat and savage bush fires of 2009 she looked beyond TarraWarra for suitable fruit. The resulting one-off blend combines Yarra pinot (55 per cent) with material from a single vineyard in Tumbarumba (45 per cent). It’s in Clare’s pale-coloured but punchy style – delicately perfumed, with deep berry, savoury, gamey varietal flavours and fine but grippy structural tannins. It’s a joy to drink now and should hold for three or four years.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2010

Wine review — Cape Grace, Langmeil and Zema Estate

Cape Grace Margaret River

  • Chenin Blanc 2010 $20
  • Shiraz 2007 $34
  • Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 $48

We recently visited Cape Grace Wines, a 6.5-hectare estate established by Robert and Karen Karri-Davies at Wilyabrup, Margaret River, in 1996. Robert looks after the vineyard, Karen the marketing and contract winemaker Mark Messenger makes the wines on site. Their chenin blanc 2010 offers an attractive, chalk-dry alternative to mainstream varieties at a modest price. The 2007 Shiraz reveals yet another fine-boned face of the variety with its spiciness and fine tannins (the soon to be released, plush and supple 2008 shades it, though). And the graceful cabernet combines olive and blackcurrant varietal flavours with cedary oak. Available at

Langmeil Eden Valley Dry Riesling 2009 $19.50
Langmeil’s Paul Lindner sources the fruit for this beautiful wine from old, dry-grown vines high up in the Eden Valley, on the Barossa’s eastern flank. At a modest 11.5 per cent alcohol, with residual sugar of around seven grams per litre, it offers soft, fresh easy drinking. It’s the sort of wine that disappears quickly. But with every sip it grows in interest, revealing the pristine, delicate-but-intense flavours of this great variety. While the 2009 vintage is all but sold out the soon-to-be-released 2010 promises to be at least as good.

Zema Estate Coonawarra

  • Cluny Cabernet Merlot 2006
  • Shiraz 2007 $23–$25

Cluny – a blend of 60 per cent cabernet sauvignon, 25 per cent merlot, nine per cent cabernet franc and six per cent merlot – offers the bright, fresh aromas and flavours of ripe berries, in the unique Coonawarra mould. The palate’s medium bodied, elegantly structured and with four years’ bottle age, it’s ready to enjoy now and over the next four or five years. The shiraz, too, is medium bodied and built on bright berry flavours – but with varietal pepper and spice accent. These are beautifully made wines, allowing Coonawarra’s elegance and berry flavours to star.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2010

Exploring the great south west

From the comfort of Google maps, Western Australia’s southwest looks a doddle. A nice little green chunk in Australia’s bottom western corner, criss-crossed by decent roads, with wineries sprinkled, albeit sparsely, across almost the entire landscape.

Close up, though, it’s a large swathe of country – three hours drive from Perth to Margaret River, via Capel; more than an hour and half from Margaret River southeast to Pemberton; another half hour up to Manjimup; and from there two and a half hours southeast to Denmark on the coast.

And Denmark, a pretty seaside town, makes a beautiful base for exploring the vast Great Southern wine region. But visiting even a handful of its 60-odd wineries, widely dispersed across hundreds of kilometres, eats up large slabs of time. And then there’s the five-hour drive back to Perth airport when the tastings end.

Even for the traveller hell bent on wine tasting, the landscape throws up its own natural distractions – from the awe of so much bush, dotted here and there with farms and vines; to the towering Karri and Red Tingle forests, to the endless seascapes. This is the wild west – a unique, sparsely populated setting for so many fine wines and a growing local-food culture.

Margaret River wine region sprawls about 100 kilometres from north to south (almost two hours drive end-to-end), from Cape Naturaliste to Cape Leeuwin. It’s bounded by the Indian Ocean to the north, west and south, with a man-made eastern boundary stretching about 27 kilometres into the hinterland, parallel to the sea. The boundaries enclose around 270 thousand hectares, of which only about 5,360 hectares – perhaps two per cent of the land surface – were covered in vines by 2008.

Margaret River township sits roughly in the middle of the official wine region. But its reputation rests largely on the long-established strip of vineyards immediately to the north around Wilyabrup and Cowaramup (for example, Vasse Felix, Cullens and Moss Wood) and a few more, notably Leeuwin and Voyager Estates and Cape Mentelle, just to the south of town.

In 1967, Dr Tom Cullity planted Margaret River’s first vines, at Vasse Felix (now owned by the Holmes a Court family). In 1999 the area produced 13 thousand tonnes of wine grapes (equivalent to roughly 900 thousand dozen bottles), and output almost tripled to 36,600 tonnes (around 2.5 million dozen) by 2008.

The production peak coincided with the global financial crisis. At the same time Australian wine exports tanked and New Zealand’s sauvignon blanc surplus flooded the eastern states – sparking a price war that continues to affect Western Australian semillon sauvignon blanc blends.

Some producers left unwanted fruit on the vines. However, Nick Power, CEO of the Margaret River Wine Industry Association, says that only a few owners removed vineyards during the glut and the broad response to oversupply has been “to re-work vines and or graft over to more suitable varieties for the vineyard. For example cabernet sauvignon and shiraz south of Margaret River [town] is being grafted to sauvignon blanc or semillon”.

Proving the benefit of regional specialisation, though, Power reports, “some wineries are planting – as cabernet sauvignon is in heavy demand and forecast to be so for a few years to come”. In the wider market, cabernet continues to run a distant second to shiraz.

Certainly as we tasted around, cabernet blends proved to be the predictable highlights, if not the only bright spots on the scene. But with 140 wineries and six breweries now operating in Margaret River, a vignette is the best any casual visitor can hope.

Arriving too late in the day for cellar door visits, our tasting began at Must wine bar, in the main street. Offering dozens of Western Australian wines by the glass or half glass, it allowed us to sip a few old friends and discover, on the sommelier’s recommendation, a couple of nice new drops, including Bellarmine Pemberton Riesling 2010 and Thompson Estate Margaret River Andrea Reserve Cabernet Merlot 2005.

Must’s food focus, too, is on local produce, beautifully prepared – including succulent asparagus and delicious pork cutlets and chorizo.

The food theme continues among the wineries, too, with any number of eateries attached to cellar door. The offers range from the simple, largely outdoor, casual setting at McHenry Hohnen, to the luxury of big-money estates like Voyager, Leeuwin and Saracen.

The McHenry Hohnen Farm Shop serves as cellar door, restaurant and outlet for pork and lamb farmed by David Hohnen – founder of Cape Mentelle, Margaret River, and Cloudy Bay, Margaret River. Hohnen’s wife, Sandy, runs the shop and his daughter Freya and partner Ryan make the wines.

When Hohnen sold Cape Mentelle to Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton, he had the good sense to keep the vineyards he’d planted in the region from around 1970. These now provide fruit for the graceful McHenry Hohnen wines.

We tasted and loved the wines, but raided the meat fridge, packed with tasty bits and pieces of fresh Arkady Farm, grass-fed, Wiltshire lamb and Jarradine Farm free-range pigs (a composite herd of Tamworth, Berkshire and Duroc breeds).

It’s obligatory to lunch in the grandeur of Leeuwin Estate, sipping the opulent and legendary chardonnay (a match for the rich XO butter sauce that, alas, outweighs a delicate, fresh marron) and watching Kookaburras feed their young on fat worms from the vast green lawn.

And what an utter contrast it is motoring up the road to Rob and Karen Karri-Davies tiny (6.5 hectares of vines) Cape Grace Wines, in the Willyabrup Valley. Nothing posh here – just a humble winery and cellar door set among the bush and wildflowers. Rob Karri-Davies attends the counter serving the very good, estate-grown wines – notably a 2007 cabernet sauvignon and yet-t-be-released 2008 shiraz – made by Mark Messenger.

We see here that a chalk-dry chenin blanc offers an interesting alternative to mainstream varieties.

And at Vasse Felix we glimpse in three glasses the spectrum of Margaret River’s ubiquitous semillon-sauvignon-blanc-blend styles: The crisp, fruity, straightforward $20 Classic Dry White 2010; the similar but weightier, more complex, partially barrel-fermented Sauvignon Blanc Semillon 2010; and the delicate, texturally rich, delicious Semillon 2009 – about one third of it barrel fermented.

We taste, too, the highly-regarded Heytesbury Chardonnay 2008 and note how it’s going down the funky, “struck-match” style loved by some show judges (more on this in a later article). We also enjoy a taut, pure, dry, savoury Tempranillo 2009, one of the few non-estate-grown wines in the line up.

But the highlights are the big-value 2008 Cabernet Merlot, convincing 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon (with nine per cent malbec) and the stunning 2007 Heytesbury, a cabernet sauvignon, petit verdot, malbec blend. This style is Margaret River’s greatest wine achievement, and it’s true signature.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2010

Beer review — Holgate Brewhouse and Brasserie Caulier

Holgate Brewhouse Pilsner 330ml $4.05
Holgate Brewhouse, in Keatings Hotel, Woodend, Victoria, produces a range of beer styles, including this attractive pilsner. It’s pale coloured, medium bodied, smoothly malty and finishes with the distinctive flavour and clean bitterness of Saaz hops. It’s in the lighter, Euro style, not the robustly bitter Pilzen style.

Brasserie Caulier Bon Secours Myrtille 330ml $7.65
Bon Secours is a bottle fermented Belgian ale seasoned with blueberries. It’s in the traditional sweet and sour style and features high alcohol (seven per cent), the zest and lightness of wheat, and the sweetness of blueberries foiled by a pleasant tartness. Ingredients are barley malt, wheat, water, yeast, hops and blueberry juice.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2010