Wednesday 17 September 2014

Cape Mentelle’s Aristocratic Cabernets


What do Cloudy Bay, Dom Pérignon and Belvedere vodka have in common? They’re all owned by French conglomerate LVMH, maker of monogrammed luxury goods and accessories. With a bank account rivalling the GDP of smaller countries, LVMH can afford to be picky with its investments. The company’s strategy for its Wines and Spirits business group is to focus on the high-end range, maintain a strict pricing policy and foster a strong dynamic of innovation. 

Fittingly then, that when it came to expanding their portfolio Down Under, LVMH acquired Cape Mentelle, one of Margaret River’s oldest wineries with a stellar reputation for its Cabernet Sauvignon.
It is often boasted that although Margaret River only contributes about 3.5% of Australia’s total wine by volume, nearly a quarter of the country’s premium wine comes from here. The acquisition was made through LVMH's champagne subsidiary Veuve Clicquot which included sister winery Cloudy Bay, both founded by David Hohnen. The benefit for Cape Mentelle is access to the LVMH distribution network, which accounts for its presence in many international markets and duty-free outlets.

Estate Director Cameron Murphy highlighted some recent changes at the winery during a lunch celebrating the launch of the 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon. The most significant investment was the introduction of an optical grape sorter, a AUD$400,000 machine that takes 200 photos per second of the fruit passing through on a conveyor belt and rejects any grapes that do not meet pre-programmed size and colour requirements. “In a nutshell, the machine allows the selection of the finest grapes from our oldest vineyards,” said Cameron. The winery has also implemented a number of sustainable practices, such as bringing in guinea fowl to get rid of snails and insects, and using sheep as organic lawnmowers. This move to becoming more environmentally friendly has been a learning process for the winery. For example, the guinea fowl had the unforeseen effect of attracting eagles so the winery had to build shelters in the vineyard, but the predators also kept away starlings which are a major pest as they damage the grapes during harvest. 

The improvements in winemaking at Cape Mentelle recently led to its Cabernet Sauvignon moving up from the “Excellent” to “Outstanding” category in Langton’s Classification of Australian Wine, now in its sixth edition. It is described as “a modern legend inspiring a whole generation of winemakers to succeed in their craft.” Cape Mentelle burnished its credentials early on by being the only Western Australia winery to win the Jimmy Watson trophy in consecutively in 1983 and 1984, both for its Cabernet. Fruit for this wine comes from the original Wallcliffe Vineyard, which has deep gravelly soils and ample water. A minor kerfuffle was caused recently when Cape Mentelle sought to trademark the use of name Wallcliffe, which was being used by other wineries as well. 

The wines we tasted were, as one might expect, incredibly polished and suave. After a period where high alcohol dominated many Australian wines, there has been a return to balanced (not low) alcohol levels that, combined with more precise winemaking, have resulted in bright, ripe fruit that enliven rather than dull the palate. Cape Mentelle has a rich history and an enviable track record, but its future speaks of even greater promise and excitement.

Tasting notes:

Cape Mentelle Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 – A scintillating ruby robe hinting at its youth. Pronounced aromas with warm, dark chocolate and loamy earth. The palate shows poise and vivacity with full, ripe tannins, notes of fruitcake and an amazing length that finishes with hints of spice and anise.

Cape Mentelle Cabernet Sauvignon 2011 – A warm and dry vintage that led to an earlier than normal harvest. Tasted after the 2012, this 2011 was comparatively more reserved, yet still showing a firm structure, sturdy tannins and expertly applied oak. Contains 6% Cabernet Franc.

Cape Mentelle Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 – A blend of 96% Cabernet and 4% Merlot. Intense dark berry aromatics with hints of spice and anise. Full bodied and opulent yet still fresh and structured with mouth-watering acidity. A slightly savoury note, backed with intense blackcurrant character. A worthy addition to any cellar.

Tuesday 9 September 2014

Pegasus Bay Thumbs its Nose at Sauvignon Blanc

Pegasus Bay is located an hour’s drive north from Christchurch in the South Island of New Zealand. It’s well-worth a visit, not only because it is Waipara’s star winery, but also because a trip here will end up changing many of your conceptions about wine. Firstly that winemakers are only about wine. Pegasus Bay is staunchly a family-owned winery, but there is a surfeit of talent in the Donaldson clan that manifests itself around the business. The well-manicured gardens are the result of careful tending by the matriarch of the family, Christine Donaldson. Her stamp can also be seen in the naming of Pegasus Bay’s Reserve wines, which bear names such as Aria, Bel Canto and Encore – operatic terms that reflect Christine’s love of the arts. As a passionate singer herself, Christine used to belt out tunes in the family car on drives to the winery with her children. “It used to drive us a little bit crazy,” laughs Edward Donaldson, Pegasus Bay’s Marketing Manager, “although we’re fans of opera ourselves now.” His eldest brother Matthew is the winemaker, while youngest brother Paul works as the General Manager. Matthew also designed the logo (shown left) for Pegasus Bay’s first vintage in 1991.

Waipara (not to be confused with Wairarapa in the North Island), is a cool-climate wine region with low rainfall. There are two main types of soil here, clay-limestone and free-draining river gravels, the latter of which Pegasus Bay is planted on. The Pegasus Bay vineyards also benefit from being sheltered from the Pacific Ocean’s cool easterly breezes by the Teviotdale hills. A lack of rainfall during harvest allows for longer hang time, meaning that even late-ripening varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon can be planted here. Sauvignon Blanc forms the majority of plantings in Waipara, mostly as contract fruit sold to Villa Maria and Nobilo, but it is Riesling and Pinot Noir which this region is famous for. Many of the wineries here are small-scale producers focused on quality, a better fit for Riesling and Pinot Noir rather than mass-market Sauvignon Blanc. Professor Ivan Donaldson, who established Pegasus Bay, was convinced that Riesling could succeed in Waipara after tasting the Robard & Butler Amberley Riesling produced by Corbans in the late 1970s, a legendary wine made from locally sourced fruit. Two thirds of Pegasus Bay is now planted with Riesling and Pinot Noir.

Edward attributes part of the success of Pegasus Bay to the fact that it is run by a single family. “You’re working for yourself and so you put in more commitment and effort into it,” he says. “It can be a recipe for disaster when it goes bad but thankfully that’s never happened for us. We get on really well and there’s no animosity between us.” Each family member’s role is clearly defined so there is no overlap of responsibilities. The winery is also part of a larger “family”, the Family of Twelve association which is a grouping of family-owned estates that aim to share information and best practices. 

Within the grounds can also be found an award-winning restaurant run by Edward’s wife Belinda, which serves up local delights such as a wild hare and shiitake terrine and Canterbury lamb cutlet with puy lentils, walnut and pecorino romano. The restaurant saw an uptick in business after the Christchurch earthquakes, as many of the city’s restaurants were closed and there was a lack of dining options. On the flip side, it became much harder for the restaurant to attract skilled hospitality workers because many young locals packed up and moved to Auckland or Australia in search of jobs.

The focus on quality at Pegasus Bay led to the decision around 10 years ago to start holding back wines to let them age in bottle for a longer period. All of the wines are aged for a minimum of 12 months in bottle, some for longer. Initially, this led to a situation where they were out of stock for a long while, but the benefit is that the wines are now allowed enough time to integrate and develop complexity.

Tasting notes:

Pegasus Bay Sauvignon Blanc Semillon 2012 – Based on this wine an argument could be made for more Bordeaux-style blends in New Zealand. The Sauvignon Blanc component dominates with crisp passionfruit aromatics, but the Semillon adds some textural weight and lemon notes.

Pegasus Bay Chardonnay 2011 – Made from the Mendoza clone planted on own roots. Indigenous yeast fermentation. Refined and fresh with citrus fruit character. The oak is well-handled, just a subtle hint of vanilla on the finish, and serves to highlight the quality of the fruit. Very good.

Pegasus Bay Bel Canto 2011 – The top dry Riesling of Pegasus Bay, this wine contains partially botrytised grapes to provide stone fruit flavours and add another dimension of complexity. There is certainly a lot of fruit extract here, with a nose of petrol reminiscent of some young Clare Valley Rieslings. Very slightly off dry, balanced by fresh acidity. 

Pegasus Bay Riesling 2011 – Picked slightly earlier than the Bel Canto with more residual sugar. Fruit forward and clean flavours with an attractive stone fruit and grapefruit profile.

Pegasus Bay Aria Late Harvest Riesling 2012 – I have always found the Aria Riesling to be outstanding, and this is no exception. Intense and concentrated with rich tropical fruit, orange marmalade, citrus peels and limey acidity with some botrytis weight, this wine delivers wave after wave of drinking pleasure.

Pegasus Bay Merlot Cabernet 2011 – Generous ripe fruit with Merlot dominating and lending flavours of black plum skin, spice and vanilla. Smooth tannins with a medium to full body, this wine is immediately approachable.

Pegasus Bay Pinot Noir 2011 – Destemmed grapes whole bunch fermented in small vats. Shows a forward and aromatic with a mix of juicy strawberries and black cherry. Fine concentration on the palate, with a finish that is long and intense.

Pegasus Bay Prima Donna 2011 – A different beast entirely from the estate Pinot Noir. This shows great depth and firmness, with the fruit profile leaning towards the darker spectrum of blackberries and black cherry. Fine, youthful tannins. Spice-filled finish with notes of chocolate malt. Outstanding. Give this prima donna the respect she deserves and let her sing only when ready.