Australia's Leeuwin Estate weaves together fine wine with art

  • Tuesday 2 November 2010

When it comes to Aussie Chardonnay, there are few bigger names than Leeuwin Estate. Huon Hooke visits the
Margaret River winery behind Australia’s first vineyard concert, now celebrating 30 vintages of its pioneering Art Series

Leeuwin Estate Concert
Leeuwin Estate Concert Leeuwin Estate Bottle

Denis Horgan of Leeuwin Estate wasn’t the first to plant vines in Margaret River, but he was certainly among those who surfed in on the first wave. A pioneer, no less, Horgan was the first Australian to put art on wine labels, and the first to stage a vineyard concert. Both are now commonplace. By staging the first vineyard concert, he brought people to Margaret River, which indirectly benefitted other wineries in the region.

There were other bold moves. He was a trailblazer in pricing: 30 years ago, he calmly priced his first Chardonnay, the 1980 Art Series (also the first Leeuwin wine to have a painting on its label), at double the cost of its nearest competitor. It was a breathtakingly bold move. He was making a statement – and everyone noticed. Setting high prices also had the side effect of allowing other West Australia producers to ask higher prices than wineries in most other Australian wine areas.

In 1969, when he and his wife Trish bought the Margaret River land that became Leeuwin Estate, there were only dirt roads and, as far as gastronomy went, you’d be lucky to get a meat pie in the township. Horgan was a self-confessed beer-drinking surfie, and a businessman who trained as a chartered accountant. In 1969 he bought a plumbing business, almost by accident – a business that specialised in plumbing high-rise buildings. But he had no mind to fix drains. He wanted the 485 hectares of Margaret River land that was part of the deal, even if beef, rather than wine, was his focus. Margaret River had just a handful of hidden-away vineyards and no one had yet heard of its wines.

Within four years, canny businessman that he is, Horgan had offloaded the plumbing company at a price that gave im the land for virtually nothing. It was around then that he met an American who was also interested in buying land in the area, ‘to produce high quality varietal wine’. The name meant nothing to Horgan at the time, but he was Robert Mondavi, the late Grand Old Man of American wine. They met in 1973 and Mondavi visited the property a number of times. Mondavi had recently split with his brother and left the family winery in Napa Valley, and was ‘between wineries’. He became Horgan’s mentor, consulting to Leeuwin for its first few years. The arrangement ended in 1983.
Horgan’s instinct about his land proved correct: the first vines he planted included the Chardonnay patch known as Block 20 – his ‘golden acre’ (rather, 1.8 hectares) – which still produces the grapes that form the backbone of the Art Series Chardonnay. Since its first release, this wine has been feted by many as Australia’s greatest Chardonnay. Even now, when Australia has a bevy of great Chardonnays – many considerably dearer than Leeuwin’s – it is consistently rated at or near the top (see p70 for more top Australian Chardonnays).

The early days

So what led Horgan, who was never a great music aficionado, to stage concerts? ‘Margaret River then was very backward,’ he says. ‘It had a very small population. We had paid for the roads to be sealed, but how were we going to attract people down there? I approached the Western Australian Symphony Orchestra and the opera, but they couldn’t, or wouldn’t, come down.’ They thought he must have been joking asking them to play ‘serious’ music in a vineyard.

‘This was 1984. Then the director of the Festival of Perth asked me if I’d sponsor the London Philharmonic Orchestra to tour Australia in 1985. I said I’d only do it if I could have them play at my vineyard. He didn’t even know I had a vineyard but he said he was going down to Margaret River that weekend to surf, and he’d have a look. He said okay. We sponsored them in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane, and it was good timing as we were just launching wines in the eastern states: we got free seats to invite some guests and it was all good exposure.’

Leeuwin Estate has staged a vineyard concert every year since, sometimes two a year. The list of acts it has attracted is impressive: four international orchestras, Ray Charles, Dionne Warwick, Shirley Bassey, Tom Jones, Sting, Julio Iglesias, George Benson, and many more. There are two concerts on a weekend, with an audience of 6,500 at a time. The concerts are always sold out, and have never been advertised. ‘The only ad we ever put in the paper was for the first concert – to say we’d sold out,’ says Horgan. ‘We had to give 500 people their money back.’ This helped create an aura of exclusivity, which did nothing to harm demand. The tickets are all sold via Leeuwin Estate’s databaseand only

Leeuwin wine can be drunk (‘not our decision, it’s a condition of the licence’). The winery restaurant sells hampers, or you can bring your own, and 300 can dine in the restaurant beforehand. The concert has spawned a hundred imitators but still sets the standard.

Leeuwin’s restaurant and cellar door sales area is like an art gallery – specialising in contemporary Australian art. If the list of concert acts is eye-widening, the list of paintings in the Horgan collection is a Who’s Who of Australian art. There’s Sidney Nolan, John Olsen, Arthur Boyd, Albert Tucker, Fred Williams, and on it goes – indigenous artists included. ‘We buy five or six new paintings a year; it’s a significant private collection. We have more than 140 now and rotate them through the gallery,’ says Horgan.

The first wine to feature some of this art was the 1980 Art Series Chardonnay, which featured a painting by West Australian artist Robert Juniper. From the start, the packaging looked special – in keeping with the wine in the bottle.

‘As far as I’m aware, it was the first time original artwork was used on an Australian wine,’ says Horgan. He admits he got the idea from Château Mouton-Rothschild. ‘I visited Mouton and said to Philippine de Rothschild that I was interested in using art on my label. I asked if she minded, and she said not at all.’

Now, Leeuwin often takes pictures to feature at dinners around Australia. Sometimes it invites an art expert to talk ‘so that it’s not all about wine’. Leeuwin doesn’t have a curator but both Horgan and his wife have been involved in choosing pictures, though Trish Horgan is mostly in charge of selecting the art now. ‘People submit art to us on a regular basis. They want to be on the label, because of the prestige,’ says Denis Horgan.

No concessions

Wine, food, art, music. The finer things in life appeal to the same people. ‘My philosophy has always been fine wine, food and art,’ says Horgan. ‘The wine had to rank with the best in the world. We’ve always tried to make an international style of wine. We never entered wine shows, and that goes back to Mondavi. He advised me not to enter shows nor try to make our name through them, as most producers were at the time. If you try to make a different, international style of wine, you have to release it when it’s ready, not when it suits the wine shows.’

To that end, the Art Series Cabernet Sauvignon is released after five or six years – at late as Penfolds Grange and Henschke Hill of Grace. In the past, it’s been notable for not being in the top echelon of Margaret River Cabernets, and it’s odd that, for a long time in a great Cabernet region, it lagged behind some of its peers, and well behind the Art Series Chardonnay. But the last release, 2004, is Leeuwin’s best Cabernet yet.

‘It’s the change of winemaker,’ Horgan says, without pulling any punches. He concedes former chief winemaker Bob Cartwright’s great strength was Chardonnay, whereas the new chief winemaker, Paul Atwood, ‘has paid particular attention to Cabernet. It’s taken a while for the results of his efforts to come through, but the 2004 [see right] was good and the ’05 is even better,’ says Horgan. Key to those efforts was the simple but effective strategy of lowering yields.

Indeed, there’s been a gentle upward shift in most of the wines in recent years, with the second-string Prelude Vineyards Chardonnay now only a few steps behind the Art Series (though it’s well under half the price). The Sauvignon Blanc is also excellent and even Shiraz is now good, some technical problems with red wines during the 1990s having been solved.

Leeuwin Estate is a family business. Trish has always been deeply involved; she is managing director and Denis (who turned 70 this year) is chairman and as busy as ever globe-trotting to promote his wines. Their daughter Simone is marketing manager and son Justin is general manager. ‘It’s a bit incestuous,’ says Horgan, ‘but we get on.’

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