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Margaret River, Western Australia
Part 8: Leeuwin Estate 

While Margaret River has carved out its reputation on the back of its Cabernet Sauvignon and Semillon/Sauvignon blends, Leeuwin Estate is famous for its Art Series Chardonnay, which is widely regarded to be one of the top two or three in Australia—if not the best.

It is also famous for its concerts: once a year, a stage (above) is erected in the beautiful natural amphitheatre between the winery and the bush, and a world famous artist is brought in to perform to a sell-out crowd. 

Denis Horgan

I met with the owners, Denis and Trish Horgan, for some lunch in the beautifully situated restaurant on the side of the winery, where I learned the Leeuwin story.

Leeuwin is actually a bit of an accident. Denis bought the property in 1969, but only because it was attached to a plumbing business that he wanted to acquire. At the time, he was working for a merchant bank in Perth. ‘I liked surfing, so I went down to Margaret River and fell in love with it,’ he recalls. ‘I then sold off the plumbing business for what it had cost for the lot’.

A pivotal phase in the history of Leeuwin was a phone call. In 1973 Denis got a call from a Seattle attorney asking whether he was interested in selling. Who was the potential buyer? Denis found out that it was, in his words, the most innovative man in the world of wine: Robert Mondavi. The fact that Mondavi was interested in buying Leeuwin alerted Denis to the potential of his playground property for making world class wine, so, under the guidance of Mondavi—who became somewhat of a mentor—Denis planted a nursery in 1974 and in 1975 started planting a vineyard. Over the next five years 200 acres of vines were established.

‘We planted some things in the wrong spot’, he recalls. Gewurztraminer was later grafted to Chardonnay, and Shiraz was planted on white quartz, later to be grafted to Sauvignon Blanc. There are currently some 360 acres planted here, with low average yields of 2.5 tons/acre (Riesling is the exception, which yields at 4 tons/acre). Overall, 1200 tons are produced each year, with 10% of grapes brought in.

The first of the famous Leeuwin concerts was held in 1985, and now 180–200 000 people visit each year. The acclaimed restaurant at the winery opened just after the first crush.  

Chardonnay was first planted as a result of the Mondavi influence, and was actually quite rare at the time in Australia. In 1980 the first Leeuwin Chardonnay was made, and it received high praise from Decanter in 1982.

I had a chance to look round the winery with winemaker Paul Atwood (above), where we did the geeky stuff of tasting from barrels/tanks and talking about winemaking techniques. The breakdown in the vineyards is 60% whites, 40% reds, with most vines around 35 years old. All are dry grown, and in the winery everything is done in batches before blending at the end. We looked at some tanks of 07 – a grassy, fresh Semillon and a tight lemony Riesling (this has been made from the start and is a best seller). Then, a look at the art series Chardonnay. The 06 was a year in oak and is now in tank. It’s a lovely broad, complex nutty wine that’s very full and complex. The 07 block 20 is rich, spicy and nutty with real depth to it. 07 Block 22 is fuller, richer and spicier. The Chardonnay is picked at 23.5 brix once it has its flavour. ‘We get a lot of ripe peach character. We’re not using lots of solids to try to thicken it up and there’s no oxidative juice handling,’ says Paul, ‘we just want pure fruit.’ He adds that most places in Margaret River have the Chardonnay clone known as Gingin, which is thought to be the same as Mendoza. This gives lots of hens and chickens (different sized berries in the same bunch) with high phenolics. It’s a low cropping, high intensity clone. The newer clones have less fruit intensity but are more uniform.

Then we looked at the 2007 Shiraz. ‘We don’t want a Barossa style, but we don’t want a cool-climate style either’. This is an intense black colour with lovely black fruits. Rich, soft and a bit meaty. 25% whole bunches gives this wine a bit of a lift.

‘Barrels are so important to us’, says Paul. We have 20 different coopers, and use oak from six different forests. We assess barrels blind to see which are working.’ They don’t want the charry, rich character that comes from some Burgundian coopers, but prefer the length and structure typical of Bordeaux coopers.

The 2007 Cabernet is a fantastic purple/black colour and has a lovely rich, intense Cabernet nose. Lovely purity of fruit here. Bold and intense with good tannins, this is excellent. ‘We got all the reds off in seven days in 2007: some people got caught out.’

2007 Malbec: ‘The consistency and depth of Malbec is amazing every year’, claims Paul. ‘Margaret River is perfectly suited to Malbec. Malbec absolutely slaughters Merlot’. Incredible depth of colour. Spicy, intense nose. Vivid, savoury, spicy and intense with dark fruits palate. Lovely spice and tannins.

Then we looked at some bottled wines. I can’t recall many wineries with such a consistently strong line-up as this.  

Notes from April 2007 (more recent notes from January 2012 are below)

Leeuwin Estate Art Series Riesling 2006 Margaret River
Bright, fresh, zippy and intense with nice savoury density and good acidity. Quite minerally on the finish. A bold style. 89/100

Leeuwin Estate Art Series Chardonnay 2004 Margaret River
Rich, complex, toasty and full but with nice acidity and a bit of mineralic grip. It’s rich but beautifully focused. A fantastic, balanced Chardonnay. 94/100

Leeuwin Estate Art Series Chardonnay 2005 Margaret River
Richly textured, complex Chardonnay with bready, spicy, toasty notes and a bit of minerality, too. Long, rich and full, this has real depth and layer after layer of interest. 96/100

Leeuwin Estate Art Series Cabernet Sauvignon 2004 Margaret River
Dense, firm, spicy tannins dominate this beautifully fruited, spicy Cabernet Sauvignon. It’s quite aromatic with blackcurranty fruit. Good tannins and some elegance, too. 93/100

Leeuwin Estate Art Series Shiraz 2005 Margaret River
Dark, perfumed spicy nose is very expressive with a peppery elegance to it. The palate is firm and quite dense, with lovely spicy structure underpinning the sweet fruit. A deliciously savoury style. 94/100

Leeuwin Estate Art Series Chardonnay 2004 Margaret River
Lovely savoury, meaty, spicy, chocolatey nose with forward dark fruits. The palate is quite restrained with a smooth, elegant character. Nicely savoury, showing dark fruits, some earthy structure and good acidity. A bit old world in style. 93/100  

More recent notes (January 2012):

I recently got a chance to re-visit the Leeuwin wines, and these are my notes. A really consistent line up. UK agent is Domaine Direct (www.domainedirect.co.uk); UK retail prices in brackets

Leeuwin Estate Art Series Riesling 2010 Margaret River, Western Australia
Very fresh grapefruit and citrus nose. The palate is fresh, bright and dry with high acidity and lovely delicate citrus fruit. Very fine. 92/100 (£17.99)

Leeuwin Estate Art Series Sauvingnon Blanc 2010 Margaret River, Western Australia
Slightly eggy reductive nose. The palate has a green herbal/green pepper edge as well as some rich fruit. Reductive. 82/100. Second bottle, also under screwcap is much better with bold ripe grapefuit freshness. 90/100 (£22)

Leeuwin Estate Prelude Vineyards Chardonnay 2009 Margaret River, Western Australia
Lively, rich and powerful with peach and apricot fruit as well as toasty richness. Interesting wine with lovely fruit intensity. 93/100 (£24.99)

Leeuwin Estate Art Series Chardonnay 2008 Margaret River, Western Australia
Beautiful stuff: concentrated and rich yet fine and powerful with some apricot richness and lovely texture and finesse. Fine toastiness and a rounded mouthfeel, leading to a long finish. Fabulous. 95/100 (£55.99)

Leeuwin Estate Prelude Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot 2010 Margaret River, Western Australia
Ripe and elegant with fresh blackberry fruit, as well as some leafy notes and a bit of gravelly savouriness. Grippy tannic edge. Fine and expressive. 92/100 (£23.99)

Leeuwin Estate Art Series Shiraz 2009 Margaret River, Western Australia
Fresh, vivid and quite powerful with a spicy finish. Vivid blackberry fruit is backed up by some spiciness and a hint of mint. 90/100

Leeuwin Estate Art Series Cabernet Sauvignon 2006 Margaret River, Western Australia
Concentrated, fine and gravelly. Fresh and savoury with notes of tar, spice and chalk as well as sweet fruit. Good concentration. Very fine. 94/100 (£36.99)

Wines tasted 04/07
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