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Margaret River, Western Australia
Part 6: Cape Mentelle 

David Hohnen is the man behind Cape Mentelle. He planted the first vineyards in 1970, which makes him one of the Margaret River pioneers. The success of this venture led him to found Cloudy Bay in New Zealand’s Marlborough region in 1985. In 1990 Veuve Clicquot acquired 50% of the business, and then in 2000 they took 100% ownership. In 2002 the present owners, LVMH, bought Veuve Cliquot, and with it Cape Mentelle.

The spot, just 5 km from the ocean, was chosen by Hohnen because of its gravelly soils, which are good for viticulture. They are free draining and have a high mineral content. Winemaker Rob Mann, who was hosting my visit, pointed out that you can spot good potential vineyard land by the type of eucalyptus that grows there. If you see redgums, also known as the Western Australian Marri, then its a good sign, because the Marri likes free-draining soils. If you see Karri and blackbud eucalypts, then beware, because these are an indicator of bad soils. There’s a lot of winter rain here and grapevines don’t like wet feet.

We had a look at the 1970 Cabernet block, the first and probably the best of Cape Mentelle’s vineyards. Here the vines are planted east–west, mainly because of the sea breeze that blows in after 11 am most days.

When I visited, the 2007 vintage had recently been harvested, and the wines were already taking shape, having completed their primary fermentation. Rob explained that the difficult 2006 vintage, which was unseasonally cool, had a knock-on effect for 2007: if the previous spring is cool there is poor initiation of bunches in the buds (each bud contains next year’s potential flowers and thus grape bunches), which then affects the following season’s fruit set. Combined with the dry spring and summer in 2007, this meant that there wasn’t a lot of weight in the bunches so yields were down. ‘We’re happy with quality in 2007’, says Rob, ‘we just don’t have enough wine.’ As an example, in the 1970 Cabernet block the yield for 2007 was 3 tons/acre as opposed to the normal 5 tons/acre.

As well as the 1970 Cabernet vineyard, Cape Mentelle has three other vineyards, including 50 acres over the road planted in 1988, and sources fruit from a dozen growers.

Winemaking is pretty conventional here. All the reds are basket pressed, and the pressings are aerated. With whites, winemaking is not overly anaerobic: they just try to minimize phenolic pick up.

‘The best wine is the easiest to make’, says Rob. I notice a pole of staves in the winery that is used for bottom end stuff: these are sent to the bakers for toasting and put into tanks for cheap wine. ‘For first crop Shiraz we might have to fiddle around in the vineyard, and in the winery use a bit of tannin, oak chips and microoxygenation’, he explains.

Trends? Cape Mentelle are using lower percentage new oak, with more French and less American. They are also trying to reduce alcohol in both red and white wines, looking for something more ‘fruit bright’ and elegant, with better ability to age. As an example, the Cabernet used to be 15% alcohol and 75% new oak; now it is 14% alcohol and 15% new oak.

Rob shared his views on co-fermentation. ‘You need to get good Viognier harvested at the same time as Shiraz. In Australia the trend is to make green wines that smell of apricot.’ His best success was with old vine Grenache in McLaren Vale fermented with 100 year old Sauvignon Blanc, which made an interesting wine. He’s also had success with Shiraz and Riesling – in McLaren Vale the Riesling is very tannic.  

Rob enthuses about Margaret River cabernet. ‘It’s hard to overcrop Cabernet in Margaret River. 8 tons/hectare is about as high as you can get’. By way of comparison, he’s seen 20 tons hectare in Coonawarra. ‘The best of Coonawarra Cabernet is hard to beat, but that’s just 5% of production’.

What else are Cape Mentelle up to? They’re playing with Marsanne, Rousanne and Viognier. They are also doing a little bit of Sangiovese through the cellar door. 

We tried some samples of 2007 wines from barrel:

2007 Sauvignon Blanc
From 30 year old vines. Lovely fresh wine: the barrel adds texture. It’s a Graves Blanc rather than New Zealand style.

2007 Semillon
Whole bunches are pressed, then it goes to oak with solids for a wild ferment. Interesting stuff: fresh, complex and minerally. The lees are stirred which resuspends them: this is a reductive treatment. If you just leave the wine on the lees without stirring, the bottom half of the barrel is reductive and the top oxidises a bit.

2007 Chardonnay
From 25 year old vines. ‘We’re looking for grapefruit pith and fresh cut pear characters: not too fat and broad’. Margaret River mostly has Mendoza clone, which has big berries . The small berry clone used here has so much flavour that it can get too big and rich. This Chardonnay shows rich fruit but still has nice elegance and some toasty oak.

2007 Rousanne: nice texture.

2007 Viognier: fat and peachy. Both these Rhône varieties are maintained with higher pH and more phenolics, which give mouthfeel and texture.

2007 Merlot: Dense and spicy, with lots of fruit and structure.

2007 Cabernet Franc: 35 year old vines. Dense, spicy, chocolatey with some nice tannic structure. Lovely.

2007 Shiraz: 34 year old estate vineyard (Wallcliffe). Savoury and tannic with good structure.

2007 Cabernet: old vine, been in oak for a few days. Lovely bright, green Cabernet nose with lovely rich structure and real typicity. 13.8% alcohol.

Then we moved on to bottled wines

Cape Mentelle Sauvignon Blanc Semillon 2006 Margaret River
Mostly tank fermented, with about 10% in barrels (new oak for 10 weeks, which rinses some of the barrels out for reds). This has a lovely bright aromatic nose of bright lemon and lime fruit and some richer fruitiness. On the palate there’s some complexity and richness. It’s a lovely fresh white wine of real interest. 90/100

Cape Mentelle Wallcliffe Sauvignon Blanc Semillon 2004 Margaret River
(500 cases made; this is not exported.) A good yellow colour. Lovely complex, toasty nutty nose with fresh herby character. Very sophisticated, complex and minerally. Lovely savoury palate with good texture and weight, and nice fresh minerality. Broad and complex. 92/100

Cape Mentelle Chardonnay 2005 Margaret River
Fresh nose is full and rich with some toastiness and also some restraint. The palate is broad and full with lovely nutty texture. Quite tight and focused with nice subtle toastiness. Stylish. 91/100

Cape Mentelle Cabernet Merlot 2005 Margaret River
There’s also a dribble of Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot in here. Very deep coloured with sweet pure blackcurrant fruit on the nose, together with a bit of spiciness. Lovely purity. The palate is fresh and juicy with berries and summer fruits, backed up with some nice spicy tannins. A fresh, lively style. 89/100

Cape Mentelle Shiraz 2005 Margaret River
Sweet, bold liqueur-like nose is very smooth and ripe. The palate is rich and full with some dense, sweet fruit and a bit of spiciness on the finish. Nice spicy structure hides under the fruit and alcohol. A nice wine, but might be even better with less alcohol. 90/100

Cape Mentelle Wallcliffe Shiraz 2004 Margaret River
Dense, ripe, sweet dark fruits nose. Palate is dense, concentrated and sweetly fruited with some spicy structure under the fruit. A very rich, bold wine. Attractive stuff in this forward, rich style. 91/100

Cape Mentelle Cabernet Sauvignon 2001 Margaret River
2001 and 2004 were both warm dry years here, making bold Cabernets. This is a classic. It has a rich, bold blackcurrant fruit nose with a lovely, spicy, minerally cedary complexity, and showing a bit of evolution. The palate is dense, rich and bold with lovely stern, tannic structure under the full-on blackcurrant fruit. 94/100

Cape Mentelle Zinfandel 2005 Margaret River
Here’s a paradox. This is plainly Cape Mentelle’s worst wine (in my humble opinion), yet the 1500 bottles or so produced annually, priced at A$55, sell out quickly. It’s 15.5% dealcoholized from 16.7%, with a sweet, bold, jammy nose, and a raisiny edge to the ripe red fruits on the palate. Some spiciness and a bit of herbiness. Not a bad wine, but I don’t care for the style. ‘Zinfandel has big bunches of berries’, says Rob. ‘The outside of the bunch shrivels while it can be green on the inside. It can be tough to ferment, too.’ 88/100

Wines tasted 04/07
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