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Take me to the River - part II

text and photographs © 2009 Tom Cannavan

This is part II of a three-part profile of Margaret River and Western Australia. Part I told the story or Margaret River's development and described the region's geography, grapes and wine styles, as well as profiling its founding estates including Cullen, Vasse Felix, Cape Mentelle and Leeuwin. Part III features reviews of restaurants and hotels for visitors to the region.

Part II profiles seven of the region's top wine estates and assesses over 80 of their wines.

Howard Park

Jeff and Amy Burch, owners of Howard Park winery had hosted me at a couple of fantastic events at their Margaret River Winery over the weekend (see International Riesling Tasting and Extraordinary dinner), so it was a pleasure to taste through their range with head winemaker Tony Davis, at the helm since January 2007 having completed 17 vintages at wineries including Yalumba and Brown Brothers, as well as three vintages in France and the USA.

Howard Park is an unusual operation in that it has two wineries and two sets of vineyards in Western Australia, one in Margaret River and one in Great Southern, a couple of hundred miles south and east, with much cooler conditions, and the source of Riesling, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir for their range. Second label Madfish is also well known in the UK. Run almost as a separate company, Madfish produces wines with "an emphasis on enjoyment and drinkability," from Margaret River and Great Southern fruit, sometimes blended and carrying the 'Western Australia' designation.

Howard Park's Margaret River cellar was completed in 2000, and was built according to feng shui principles, aligned 2.5 degrees off magnetic north. It is a cool, relaxing place, with a busy cellar door operation. Parts of the property have been deliberately left as nature reserves to provide habitat for birds and wildlife. The Burches say their long-term plan is to create a bird sanctuary to be enjoyed by visitors to the winery. The vineyards are not farmed organically, but vineyard manager in Margaret River, Jeff's brother David, says achieving harmony is his aim, keep the human impact on the environment to a minimum and targeting treatments on specific areas only if and when it is required.

In 2008 Jeff Burch and Burgundian winemaker Pascal Marchand launched a joint venture called Marchand & Burch, making wines in Western Australia with a French philosophy. Those wines are also made with Tony Davis in day-to-day charge, and all three labels - Marchand & Burch, Howard Park and Madfish are imported by Bibendum Wines.

for tasting notes on 14 wines from the Howard Park

Evans & Tate

It's fair to say that the recent history of Evans & Tate has been a turbulent one. With a history dating back to 1974 it was a shock when Evans & Tate went into receivership 18 months ago. To the rescue, in stepped the McWilliams company, who had shown interest in acquiring E&T before its financial problems came to a head. Export Manager Sue Croft told me that Evans & Tate still think of themselves as a family winery producing premium wines, even within the volume operation that is McWilliams (McWilliams is part-owned by Gallo).

Now part of Australia's fourth biggest wine group (behind Pernod Ricard, Constellation and Fosters) E&T will hopefully be on a firmer footing. Matt Byrne (right) remains at the wine-making helm as he has been since 2001. Let's hope the top wines of this estate retain their quality, as everything of Reserve level and above that I tasted was terrific, however the wines in the newly released 'Split Road' brand were rather overly sweet for my taste, in a too blatantly commercial style.

The company suffered a double whammy of bad luck recently when their UK distributor, HwGC collapsed, leaving them to find a new distribution, which they have done in the shape PLB Ltd. The company's wines are currently in with the Classic range, and in some Tesco branches and other retailers with others ranges.

for tasting notes on 16 wines from Evans & Tate


Clairault estate lies to the north of the town of Margaret River, on the way to the township of Yalingup. I met up with General Manager Connor Martin (left of picture), one of the three brothers who own and run the estate, and Chief Winemaker Will Shields, who hails from New South Wales but who has made wine in Western Australia since graduating from Roseworthy university in 1993.Will was formerly head winemaker with Vasse Felix.

Clairault was planted in 1976, putting it amongst the region's oldest estates. The Martins, originally from Ireland, have created an attractive cellar door operation complete with restaurant. Connor has just been to Hong Kong in a sales drive and will be returning there soon looking for investment into the property, with a plan to build housing, a spa and hotel within the grounds.

For the last six years the estate has been working almost chemically free and using biodynamic practices. Will tells me "We've no real wish to be certified, as we like to use a little more sulphur than some, and in this climate it would tie us down too much." Unlike much of the east and south, there are no real problem with drought in Western Australia, "especially closer to the coast," says Will, though he adds "Although rain doesn't seem to be getting as far into the country as it once did."

A double trophy winner for their Cabernet Sauvignon at the International Wine Challenge in London, Marks & Spencer stock Clairault's Sauvignon Blanc and both Cabernets (priced at £9.99/£16.99). The wines are also in the UK on-trade through Waverley.

for tasting notes on 8 wines from Clairault

Stella Bella

I visited Stella Bella at their home vineyard in Karradale, around 25 minutes driving south of the town of Margaret River and one of the coolest parts of the region. Not cool enough for business and winemaking partners Janice McDonald and Stuart Pym (right, with wolfhound pups), who also have eight hectares right on the southern tip of Margaret River at Augusta, at an elevation of just five metres.

Janice started her winemaking career at Vasse Felix, Stuart at Devil's Lair, so both have Margaret River wine coursing through their veins. The pair actually met whilst studying winemaking at Roseworthy and produced their first 200 cases of Stella Bella in 1999.

The names of their three brands - Stella Bella, Suckfizzle and Skuttlebutt - say something about the relaxed irreverence of the team here, though the wines are taken very seriously. Stuart once made wine at Domaine de Chevalier in Pessac-Leognan and their top white wine, the Suckfizzle Sauvignon/ Semillon is a determinedly "terroir" wine, in the style of a Graves Grand Vin.

Janice's career is no less interesting, including her stint as head brewer at Little Creatures brewery in Freemantle for its first year. The Suckfizzles top the range, coming from that southerly Augusta vineyard. Down here, wind and the extent of cloud cover during the ripening season are significant risks, but as Stuart says, "it's challenging, but it creates a unique wine and unique experience every vintage."

The Stella Bella range is the 'core', and is quirky and adventurous including not just Margaret River classics like Cabernet Sauvignon and Semillon/Sauvignon Blanc, but everything from Pink Muscat to Sangiovese to Tempranillo. Added later as an entry level, fruit for Skuttlebutt is sourced from across Western Australia. UK importer is Alliance Wines.

for tasting notes on 18 wines from the Stella Bella

Voyager Estate

Voyager Estate is one of the most striking, and most visited in Western Australia. The Cape Dutch architecture of the buildings may be a tad incongruous, but it is beautiful against the clear blue skies and green of the vineyards. But it is Voyager's stunning gardens that are the main tourist draw here - as well as the wines of course.

Of Scottish decent, Michael Wright is the third generation to run his family's mining and agricultural businesses, adding Voyager to the portfolio in 1991 when he also changed its name from Freycinet Estate. I met up with viticultural and winemaking manager Steve James (right of picture) whose experience includes stints at Stonier's Winery in the Mornington Peninsula and nearby Amberley Estate. Since joining Voyager Steve has worked hard on improving canopy management whilst at the same time reducing the use of pesticides and chemicals. He is moving Voyager towards a "more organic based vineyard," though like many in this region, I sense he is wary of going the full organic hog given the region's occasionally wet and humid climate.

A shake-up in 2009 saw former viticulturist Steve take over management of the operation when winemaker Cliff Royle resigned. Some rumours suggested he was unhappy with volume being increased at the expense of quality, but he has since been replaced by Travis Lemm (left of picture) and on my visit the new team seemed full of confidence and committed to making the highest quality wines. Sampling the most recent vintages seemed to bear this out. Wines in the Tom Price range are only made in exceptional years and are sourced from single vineyards on the Estate. UK importer is Justerini & Brooks.

for tasting notes on 11 wines from the Voyager Estate

Devil's Lair

Devil's Lair is located in the southern part of Margaret River, where their vineyards were planted in 1981. The softly-spoken and laid-back Oliver Crawford has been chief winemaker here for just over a year, arriving fresh from Penfold's in South Australia, where he made Yattarna amongst other white wines. Devil's Lair is part of the same Fosters group, so it's not so much an all-new experience, but is still a big change of style, philosophy and location. "It was time for a change," he tells me, "with two kids it's great to be living so close to the beach and it's great to be your own boss."

Oliver says his ambitions for Devil's Lair include "getting a better hierarchical structure within the brand," hence the new 'Dance with the Devil' entry level, but he is still focused on the top wines, especially since "The quality of those has a trickledown effect." He's certainly targeting the top, and he tells me "I'd love to knock Leeuwin off of its top Chardonnay pedestal some day." Coming from the man who is acknowledged as getting the best out of Penfold's Yattarna, that ambition could be more than winemaker's bluster.

Both of their existing ranges, Fifth Leg and Devil's Lair, have also been 'refreshed' in terms of winemaking and labelling. As the final part of Oliver's 'hierarchy project', there will be a new high-end white and red, but those are a work in progress. I ask how this high-end wine is shaping up, but Oliver doesn't give too much away. "Our industry has to be careful," he says. "In particular we shouldn't play the Bordeaux and Burgundy game of always saying this year is it the best year ever. We have to be honest. Eventually the market will decide if the quality of my wines is good enough."

for tasting notes on 6 wines from the Devil's Lair


A Kiwi by birth, winemaker Glenn Goodall first visited Australia on a surfing holiday in 1989. On that holiday he picked up vineyard work in New South Wales, which eventually led to a degree in winemaking from Roseworthy, via stints in Bordeaux, New Zealand and California. In 1996 he left for South Africa, spending two years making wine at Glen Carlou estate, before settling down in the Margaret River region. He joined Xanadu in 1999.

Xanadu is another of Margaret River's wineries that has been through many changes, some of them difficult. The owning Lagan family floated the company on the stock exchange in 2001.

The public listing led to a massive drive after volume, with output quadrupling in just a few years. Xanadu's reputation, and some say quality, suffered through this period, and in 2005 the business was purchased by the Rathbone family, to add to their impressive portfolio of wine estates that includes Yering Station and Mount Langhi Ghiran.

Though one of the earliest vineyards in the area, planted in 1977, Xanadu's 85 hectares today are still pretty much dedicated to Margaret River's key varieties Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, as well as Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon. Xanadu's UK agent is Enotria.

for tasting notes on 5 wines from the Xanadu

Part I - setting the scene and Margaret River's founding estates.
Part III - visitor food and hotel guide to Western Australia