Guy Woodward's blog: the last instalments
- Friday 6 November 2009
On the eve of my trip over to Margaret River, dining with Coonawarra winemakers, I asked Brian Lynn, the long time (moustached) face of Majella, how he defined the difference between the two regions. ‘Most producers over there don’t need to turn a profit,’ he said.
His point was that several of the most prominent producers in the region were founded by people who had made their fortune in other fields, and were able to fund their pursuit to a certain extent, rather than it being their livelihood. It’s certainly true that the likes of Cullen, Howard Park, Vasse Felix, Cape Mentelle and Voyager wouldn’t exist today were it not for the deep pockets of their founders. But back in the 1960s, Margaret River had the highest rate of unemployment in Australia. The success of these producers since then means that today, many people here do earn their livelihood from wine.
Margaret River doesn’t have the grape-growing heritage of South Australia, that’s true. But this is not some Australian Napa Valley, where dotcom millionaires have set up wineries as playthings, selling bottles for hundreds of dollars to trophy hunters on the back of favourable Parker scores. (In fact Jeff Burch of Howard Park bemoaned to me the influence of Parker, claiming that his fondness for a certain type of wine – generally big Barossa Shiraz – had ultimately ‘done a huge amount of damage’ to the perception of Australian wine in the US, where Burch feels consumers view all high-end Aussie wines in this vein. Doubly frustrating for Margaret River, of course, which likes to portray its signature style as at the more elegant end of the Aussie spectrum, with some justification.)
McHenry Hohnen, where I spent today, is an interesting case in point. The Hohnen is David Hohnen, previously involved in the formation of Cape Mentelle before selling up to LVMH and then shipping out when he found corporate ownership not to his taste. The McHenry is Murray McHenry, of fine wine importer Steves, and whose sister Sandy is married to Hohnen.
I met Ryan Walsh, the winemaker here who, for good measure, is the partner of Hohnen’s daughter Freya, with whom he shares his duties.
I’ve always wondered about family set ups such as this – there must be fraught moments working with one’s partner and for one’s father-in-law – especially one with such an august CV. With Hohnen away, I felt sure Ryan would be keen to put on a good show.
I was somewhat surprised, then, by our first port of call – a pig sty (pictured). The vines here share space with pig and sheep farming, with the animals even sent out into the vineyards, where they are ‘good on weeds’ according to Walsh. They made a horrible din as we approach, no doubt in the hope of food. They were to be disappointed.
It’s all part of an approach best summed up by Walsh’s claim that ‘monoculture doesn’t work’. The winery plays host to a farm shop, and there is a sense that the project is more about community than commodity, with agro-tourism high on the agenda. Of course Hohnen can probably afford to take a less rabidly commercial approach now that he no longer has shareholders to constantly satisfy. But the wines here are certainly not made in a populist style: Walsh says they’re ‘looking for textured wines that aren’t squeaky clean’. The Three Amigos white blend (Chardonnay-Marsanne-Rousanne) fits the bill, with real individuality and character. It was made by Walsh and Freya Hohnen, who gave birth to the couple’s second child midway through the vintage.
The whole feel to the place couldn’t be further removed from the clinical, industrial image of Australian wine. The estate’s top wine is a Tempranillo-Petit Verdot-Cabernet Sauvignon blend. Walsh shows me the latest vintage which he says has ‘hopefully’ finished primary fermentation and ‘might have’ gone through malolactic.
As we drive to the estate’s sheep pastures, we are almost run off the road. The offender, Walsh tells me, is ‘spud’ a farmhand.
As I set out on my journey back to Perth, I ponder how Margaret River, as with the other regions I’ve visited, is a small, insular place. It produces only 4% of Australia’s wine, yet sells around 30% of its premium range. It has come a long way in its short history, to the extent that it is now talking about sub-regionality (in my view, way too early to have consumer resonance). All in all, it is doing everything that Australia as a whole should be – and largely is – aiming at.
I must have been pondering too intently though. You’re not going to believe this, after all my observations about Australia’s conscientious drivers. I got pulled over by the police on the new freeway. I was ‘nudging’ over the speed limit, they said. All very friendly, just a quiet warning. The funny thing was, though, it was a quiet road, with noone else around, in the middle of a long stretch of nothing. Nothing, that is, apart from a police patrol car. No wonder everyone sticks to the limit.