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Far From the Growing Grape Glut

Three Producers:

Voyager Estate

The 2002 “Heytesbury” Chardonnay of Vasse Felix

Howard Park’s Leston Vineyard

 

By Jim Clarke

First California, then France, and now Australia; it seems like everyone wants to make too much wine these days. Fred Franzia and others did their part in saving the day in California, buying excess grapes and plowing them into super-budget brands like “Two-Buck Chuck.” France is handling the problem in their own manner, which involves a lot of blaming the government, protests, and distilling wine into industrial alcohol. Australia is only hitting this bump in the road now, with the 2006 harvest; how they cope remains to be seen.

The grape glut is mainly hurting growers in wine areas you probably haven’t heard of, where grapes are grown for bulk wines. Meanwhile, out in the far corner of the country, the wineries of Margaret River can more-or-less ignore it all, as they’ve carved out their own reputation that has little to do with the heavily marketed, budget-priced wines of South Australia, Queensland, and Victoria. That’s not to say that those areas don’t have sub-appellations and wines of great quality and individuality, but in Margaret River premium wines and boutique producers are the mainstay rather than the icing on the cake. According to Margaret River Online, it only grows 3% of the country’s grapes, but is responsible for more than 20% of the country’s premium wines.

The Margaret River wine region occupies the northern half of the broad, short peninsula sticking out into the Indian Ocean south of Perth. Its namesake river runs east-to-west through the area; together with a cooling maritime influence it creates a winegrowing climate that would be positively Bordeaux-like, if growers didn’t have the very un-Bordeaux problem of parrots eating their grapes. The winds can also be fierce, and most vineyards need windbreaks to protect the vines.

You won’t confuse the wines from Margaret River with their cousins across the continent in Barossa Valley or McLaren Vale; elegance and finesse are their calling cards, and they forego the over-the-top fruitiness and opulence of the Australian stereotype. The industry here built its reputation on Cabernet Sauvignon, but Chardonnay, other Bordeaux varietals, and of course Shiraz all make appearances in the vineyards. Today I find that Chardonnay is the star player, striking a good balance between a Burgundian and the often-voluptuous California/Australian model.

Three Producers

Voyager Estate is the first Margaret River winery I got excited about. Their vines date back to 1978, and today they are one of the larger producers in the area. Their red and white Bordeaux blends stand out; the former, a Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot blend, could pass as a Margaux of good pedigree with its cassis, cedar, and smoky aromas, while the Sauvignon Blanc-Semillon blend brightens its lime, mineral, and beeswax notes with a touch if spice. The Chardonnay is also a winner; full and round, but with surprising acidity which draws out its clove, cinnamon, and mineral aromas into a lingering finish.

Voyager Estate Cabernet/Merlot 1999
Voyager Estate Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon 2003
Voyager Estate Chardonnay 2002

The 2002 “Heytesbury” Chardonnay of Vasse Felix is world-class, and the best Chardonnay from Margaret River (from Australia, even?) I’ve tasted. It’s round, but well-structured, and wraps an impressive collection of flavors and aromas around a minerally, chalky center: melon, overripe pear, almond, and spice. They also have a way with Shiraz, the cheaper, “Adams Road” bottling is a good value and the higher-end wine offers all the rich, dark fruits you could hope for, especially boysenberry and blackberry, with good supporting acidity.

Vasse Felix “Heytesbury” Chardonnay 2002
Vasse Felix “Adams Road” Shiraz 2003
Vasse Felix Shiraz 2001

Howard Park’s Leston Vineyard yields top-notch Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz. The Cabernet seems to draw a graphite and bitter chocolate character out of the soil; in the 2002 this is complemented by touches of cassis, cedar, and smoke. It’s full and muscular, with impressive length. The Shiraz, on the other hand, tends toward juicy fruit aromas like blueberry and boysenberry, with an underlying core of Rhone-like meatiness. Howard Park’s lower-priced line is sold under the Mad Fish label, and are generally good values.

Howard Park “Leston” Cabernet Sauvignon 2002
Howard Park “Leston” Shiraz 2001

Others to watch out for:

Cape Mentelle
Brookland Valley
Amberley
Leeuwin Estate

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       Published: June 2006
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