Leeuwin Estate wines come in three different ranges, starting with the "Siblings" Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon, made for drinking upon release. Then comes the "Prelude" range, consisting of a Chardonnay and a Cabernet/Merlot, wines designed to be expressive of their fruit and drunk soon after release. At the very top comes the "Art Series" comprising a Riesling, a Sauvignon Blanc, a Chardonnay, a Pinot Noir and a Cabernet Sauvignon whose labels depict a different work of contemporary Australian art each vintage. These wines are made from a selection of the best fruit, and in the case of the Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, have a reputation for being extremely long-lived.
Leeuwin's "Art Series" Chardonnay is acclaimed as perhaps the finest Australia has to offer. I would have to agree, although the likes of Pierro, Petaluma (with their "Tiers"), Giaconda and Penfolds (with there sought-after "Yattarna") may disagree. Leeuwin has a long history of world class Chardonnay that demonstrates their sheer quality over a sustained period of time. The Art Series is always a very complex wine, with the ability to age for 20 years or more in good vintages. Though this sounds like extraordinary longevity for an Australian Chardonnay, it is a unique terroir that makes this wine and offers some explanation. 50% of the grapes comes from the Block 20 vineyard, which is established on old, leached soils offering excellent drainage and deep root penetration. The vines are now 25-years old and are cooled in the summer by the sea breeze from the Indian Ocean, which surrounds them on three sides. I am convinced this is a vital component ( whilst working the '94 harvest in Margaret River we had to finish at midday as the sun was simply too hot to continue). The yields are low - virtually always under 40 hectolitres per hectare - and the grapes achieve high sugar ripeness whilst delivering some 8-9grammes per litre of natural acidity. Not only does this provide the backbone to the wine; but it ensures a long life.
The skills demonstrated in vineyard management are extensive too. Leeuwin believes that the quality of a wine comes first and foremost from the vineyard. Careful thought and planning has resulted in some very clever practices. For example, to prevent damage to the buds as they develop, cereal rye has been planted between every third row to act as a wind break. To further demonstrate a desire to produce wines of a world class level, sunflowers have been planted around the perimeter of the vineyard for parrots to feed on instead of their precious grapes! This level of viticultural detail undoubtedly aids the such success of the finished wine.
Once the grapes are picked, each block is kept separate. Most are whole-bunch pressed with additional skin contact. Fermentation takes place in French barrels (from Troncais and Allier oak), and malolactic fermentation is carried out selectively as appropriate; normally on around 20% of the wine. The wine stays in barrel for up to 17 months depending on the block. Regular stirring of the wine on its original lees takes place, and the wine is only pumped at the bottling stage so there is minimal disturbance.
Although I have tasted the wines of Leeuwin Estate many times, in several vintages, I had never before had the opportunity for a vertical tasting comprising nine years. The sheer quality and consistency was testament to the skills of Bob Cartwright and John Brocksopp. Writing tasting notes became very difficult as the wines all possessed the same characteristics, albeit it in a complex manner. This is Australian wine-making far removed from the big label brands, who's main aim is often to achieve year-on-year uniformity. The thing that struck me most was the freshness of the wines even after 15 years in bottle, and some obvious signs of development.
Art Series Chardonnay 1999
Light straw in colour, clean and oaky nose that is well integrated already with the fruit comprising mostly pear and a hint of cinnamon. The wine had a lovely weight and texture with great depth, complexity and length (way over 50 seconds). The pear and toastiness followed thorough on to the palate, which had gripping acidity so rarely found in Australian Chardonnays. It reminded me of a 1999 Chassagne Montrachet 1er Cru by Jean Noel Gagnard I had earlier in the week.
Yield = 45 Hl/Ha / Average Brix 23.6 / Time in barrel = 12 months /
Alc = 14.7% / Final acid = 6.5
Art Series Chardonnay 1998
Deeper in colour than the 1999 with less predominate oak on the nose, although it smelt sweeter. The nose was made up of oven-fresh apple pie, poached pears and a medley of cinnamon and clove. It didn't quite have the depth of the 99 and felt more restrained at first, but when I came back, it had opened up and was really quite powerful. The length was again very good as was the acidity.
Yield = 42.1 Hl/Ha / Average Brix 24.0 / Time in barrel = 11 months /
Alc = 14.3% / Final acid = 7.0
Art Series Chardonnay 1997
Pale straw colour, bright with a nose similar to the 99 but with less predominate oak. Sweet apple pie with currants dominated the nose which was showing good development with incredible length and acidity in the mouth. Again the palate was dominated by pears, which seem to be a trademark of this wine.
Yield = 31.5 Hl/Ha / Average Brix 24.0 / Time in barrel = 12 months /
Alc = 14.4% / Final acid = 6.7
Art Series Chardonnay 1996
Golden straw and very bright with a nose of lemon and boiled pear drops. Very complex as with all the wines so far, but with softer and sweeter oak. The palate was less sweet though, but displayed well-integrated oak and a strong acidic backbone. Well balanced with good length
Yield = 31.5 Hl/Ha / Average Brix 23.5 / Time in barrel = 16 months /
Alc = 14.5% / Final acid = 8.5
Art Series Chardonnay 1995
Golden straw in colour with a very developed nose that opened out after a couple of minutes to reveal ripe melon along with (guess what!) pears and a hint of lemon. The acidity is well contained by the sheer weight of the wine, but it didn't seem to quite hit the mid-palate. As in the previous vintages the length was very impressive and the wine very complex.
Average Brix 24 / Time in barrel = 9.5 months / Alc = 14% / Final acid = 7.0
Art Series Chardonnay 1994
Golden straw colour and quite closed at first on the nose but opening up to lemon and pears with cooked apples. On the palate it was fresh, well-structured and developed although subtle. Surprising this vintage did not have the weight of the previous one but was still a very good wine.
Yield = 27.8Hl/Ha / Average Brix 23.1 / Time in barrel = 11 months /
Alc = 13.9% / Final acid = 7.4
Art Series Chardonnay 1993
Golden colour with a wonderfully perfumed nose of minerals, pears and stewed apples. A full palate with well-integrated oak and vanilla with secondary flavours starting to show through. The acidity is refreshing and the length impressive.
Yield = 26.8 Hl/Ha / Average Brix 23.9 / Time in barrel = 12.5 months /
Alc = 13.1% / Final acid = 7.0
Art Series Chardonnay 1989
The darkest colour of them all being a strong gold. A beautifully developed nose showing fruit salad with spice coming from the integrated oak. A beautiful palate that is well-structured and tasting of pear drops. As usual the acidity is well-balanced within the wine. Now the wine is mature, the use of French barrels becomes far more noticeable as the secondary flavours have developed.
Art Series Chardonnay 1987
Medium gold in colour and totally different on the nose from the other wines shown. It is far more minerally and stony, with condensed fruits just showing through. Great depth of flavour and acidity and amazingly complex. I would say that of all the wines this was at the peak of its maturity.
The tasting was a fascinating insight in to the development of the very best Australian Chardonnay. I tasted various young Puligny and Chassagne-Montrachets directly afterwards from the 1999 and 2000 vintages, and I can honestly say that Leeuwin's Art Series were for me superior wines. Each possesses the same attributes of complexity and structure, whilst having balanced acidity. It will be very interesting to see how the wines develop even further as the vines reach old age.
For several years David Pearce ran a wine merchant business focusing on quality Australian wines including a unique "import to order" service. Having been the sommelier for a Michelin-starred restaurant for many years, David has seen all aspects of the wine trade, but remains a tremendous enthusiast, particulalry for Australian reds.