WineInk: January Dreams
Australian Wines Beckon
Perhaps it’s because we are in the abbreviated days of winter and I instinctively know that the sun is shining down-under. But every January I go through a nostalgic period where Australian wine dominates my mind.
So it was serendipitous that I recently found myself, socially distanced on either end of a chairlift with a young lady from Albany, a coastal town on the great Southern Ocean on the far southwestern corner of Australia. It is not that far, in Australian terms, from Margaret River, one of my favorite wine regions on the planet. My seatmate knew the area well, as her family collected wines from many of the vineyards.
“What’s your Top Drop?” she inquired using the phrase that is distinctly Australian for a favorite wine.
As we rode up the chair lift I thought back to the wineries I had visited nearly a decade ago on a fantasy fantastic wine trip that had left an indelible mark. A luncheon on the winery patio with Vanya Cullen was a highlight as we sipped her Bordeaux varietals with some grilled meats. The McHenry Hohnen chardonnay, bought at the Farmhouse, and shared at sunset on a seaside bench with winemaking legend David Hohnen (founder of Margaret River’s Cape Mentelle and New Zealand’s Cloudy Bay) while watching as the surfers tamed the jagged reefs in aqua blue/green water was another high point.
But I answered, “Leeuwin! A Leeuwin Estate Chardonnay.”
She laughed, “I thought you might say that.” Yes the Leeuwin Estate Art Series Chardonnay may well be the best-travelled and most- honored wine of the region and so it would only be right that that it was my answer “Top Drop.”
Margaret River is the farthest fine wine region from Aspen that I can conjure. Even further than the winelands of South Africa. To get there from here, the most direct path is a flight to Los Angeles or San Francisco, a jump across the Pacific pond to Sydney or Melbourne or maybe Auckland, and then a connection to Perth followed by a drive down the coast. It’s 10,000 miles, give or take, and likely a 30-hour-plus trip. Ah, but once you are there, the 80 degree summer days, the white sand beaches, the eucalyptus forests, the artisan bakeries and the ‘roos make it worth the ride.
The region is still in its infancy. In the late 1960s a Perth cardiologist read a paper by an agronomist named Dr. John Gladstones suggesting the soils and Mediterranean climate might make it a good place for vineyards. Tom Cullity, the heart specialist, planted grapes and launched Vasse Felix in 1967. He was followed over the next few years by Moss Wood (1969) and the aforementioned Cape Mentelle (1970), Cullen (1971), Leeuwin Estate (1973). These were the five families that half a century ago pioneered a region.
Today, Margaret River boasts 90 cellar doors, as the Aussies call their wineries. The vast majority are family-owned and -operated. The proximity to Perth, an energy hub for Australia and a well-moneyed one at that, is similar in dynamic to Napa and San Francisco. There are investors who live in the city but have vineyards in Margaret River.
One of the more interesting additions to the Margaret River wine scene is a New York transplant named Will Berliner, who makes three figures per bottle on wines under the Cloudburst moniker. His Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Malbec wines from Margaret River have become cult classics, much sought after in London and New York. Sourced from un-irrigated vines, tended by hand and grown in pesticide-free soils, Cloudburst may be the most talked about, and written about, wine from the region.
But back to that Leeuwin Estate Chardonnay. I was introduced to the wine – not in Margaret River but in Hawaii – years before at a Luau on the Big Island. There was a large suckling pig that had been cooked in palm fronds with a lacquered crispy skin. For what seemed like hours I stood near it, picking the pork and sipping an exquisite chardonnay while chatting with an Aussie. He regaled me with stories of his homeland, vines that stretched to the beach where he had a surf shack stacked with longboards.
As I listened, he gestured at my wine. “You like the wine?” he asked.
“I surely do,” I replied, a touch tipsy.
“That’s good,” he replied. “I made it.”
My pork-picking partner was none other than Denis Horgan, founder of Leeuwin Estate. It has been my Top Drop ever since.