Majestic Leeuwin

One of the real puzzles of new world wine making is how  one estate or region can produce varietal wines which only flourish in completely different areas in Europe.  To take extreme examples, no one in the northern Rhône attempts to grow Chardonnay, far less Riesling; similarly the Bordelais are not ‘having a go’ with Syrah or Art Series ShirazRiesling.  But if you move to Margaret River, with a climate quite similar to Bordeaux, you can find the whole gamut of varieties: Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Sémillon (if without its accent) and Riesling; Pinot Noir for sparkling wines, Syrah, and Bordeaux blends.  Of course part of this is cultural – French tradition, embedded in wine law, means that such experiments would have to classified as lowly vin de France. But presumably if anybody did make such wines successfully out of region, they could live with the marketing challenge, just as the creators of the Super Tuscans did when they were vino da tavola.  But once the cultural shackles are removed, a region can experiment and succeed with a wide range of varieties.  Leeuwin Estate, one of the first five estates in the now very well established Margaret River region of western Australia is the perfect example of how to do this.  They produce one of the world’s great Chardonnays, alongside very good Sauvignon Blanc (not that surprising) but also Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz and even Riesling, plus Pinot Noir for sparkling wine.  How can this be? 

The major reason must be the climate.  We tend to think of Australia as simply a hot place but of course that is a big over-simplification. Most of the continent is indeed far too hot for viticulture but then there is real and subtle variation in its wine regions.  In general terms Margaret River’s climate is not greatly different to Bordeaux: a maritime, ocean influenced climate with 760mm of rain a year (944mm* in Bordeaux).  The average temperature in the growing season is 19?, again broadly similar if, importantly, one and one third degrees warmer on average than Bordeaux.  But vines are not grown ‘in general’; they respond to small degrees of difference which are amplified by the particularities of climate.  Two key factors stand out: 85% of Margaret River’s rainfall falls in the winter leaving a long, dry growing season. With irrigation, this makes for very healthy grapes. On average 84mm of rain falls in the harvest month of September in Bordeaux making every harvest something of a drama; by comparison only 21mm of rain falls on average in the harvest month of March in Margaret River.  And this is in line with the second  general difference: the season starts earlier and finishes later in the Australian wine region. An earlier spring, particularly with the frost protection offered by Margaret River being surrounded by the stabilising influence of the Indian Ocean, means that the early ripening varieties can get under way and the reliable late season means that Cabernet and Shiraz can ripen.  So, in summary, in Margaret River there is a slightly warmer but a much drier and longer season.  Fast draining gravels over ancient granite are also perfect for viticulture.

But just because you can grow a wide range of varieties, does not mean that you are going to make very good to great wine from them all.  So the question is, which varieties really shine here and which are less convincing.  Andover Wine Friends’ April 2014 fine wine supper gave the chance to taste a good selection of ChardonnayLeeuwin’s top wines, mainly from the Art series.  Not surprisingly, given their reputation, the two Chardonnays both shone. The lower level Prelude Vineyards, Chardonnay, 2010, 14%, £21 UK retail, is made to be drunk young.  Despite being the junior wine, it showed fine, ripe, apple and melon fruit perfectly integrated with vanilla and clove notes, a certain silkiness along with prominent refreshing acidity, excellent balance and some length. Its elder sibling, Art Series Chardonnay, 2009, 14.5%, £50+,  is at this stage of its life impressive rather than yet at its peak, though its freshness is very remarkable.  At the moment the oak is quite dominant but over powerful fruit, a rich, full, satiny texture and a long complex finish.    The Art Series Sauvignon Blanc 2011, 12%, £25, too is a triumph: rich peach fruit with the tiniest hint of greeness accompanied by warm vanilla with spice make for balance and subtlety. 

The two reds also met with acclaim.  Art Series Shiraz 2009, 13.5%, £21, is just lovely:  such attractive, ripe red and black fruit on nose and palate, supported by oak notes and fine ripe tannins. If you can combine a wine of some seriousness with easy drinking, this is it.  The Cabernet is more structured and obviously weighty.  Art Series Cabernet Sauvignon 2006, 13.3%, £30.50 is in fact a blend with the main player being supported by 11% Malbec and 2% Petit Verdot.  It leads with prominent blackcurrant fruit and menthol on the nose, while the palate is ripe with a touch of jamminess, very ripe fine tannins and an impressive length.  It is very convincing, if not quite in the class of the Chardonnay. 

And the one wine that did not really shine?  Art Series Riesling 2011, £25.  The invitation to drink is all there: apple and lemon fruit and a noticeable petrol hint. The pa late is steely but just a bit thin.  The ripe lemon-to-lime and peach fruit you might expect just did not quite materialise.  It would be good to taste this again to check that this is what wine is like consistently.  But it may just be that you can’t produce top Riesling in the same place as Cabernet and Shiraz, even in the seemingly perfect conditions of Margaret River.  However, that should not detract from Leeuwin’s ability to produce four out of five very good to excellent wines from markedly different varieties on the one estate.  Magnificent. 


AWF tasting

PS Since I wrote this piece last week I have gone on researching the subject and discovered that Riesling is a particularly versatile variety. According to Greg Jones’s classification, It can thrive both in a cool climate (average growing season temperature of 13-14º C) and in an intermediate one (15-16º C).  It has a greater range than any other variety that he lists.** Fascinating … so it is worth a try in Margaret River.  


* All the data about climate is taken from H Johnson and J Robinson, The World Atlas of Wine, 7th edition, 2013, which in turn draws on data supplied by US wine climatologist, Dr Gregory Jones (Atlas, p. 21). 

** Climate and Terroir: Impacts of Climate Variability and Change on Wine, 2005 available here


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