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David Hohnen presents the wines of Cape Mentelle and Cloudy Bay
Wednesday 21st June 2000, Nobu, London W1

see also: a more recent report on Cape Mentelle, based on a visit to the winery in April 2007

David Hohnen began his wine education back in the 1960s when he attended the Fresno State University department of oenology and viticulture. Returning to Australia, he co-founded Cape Mentelle winery in 1970, in the very early days of the emergence of Margaret River as a wine region in Western Australia. With over 80 hectares of vineyard, and with an additional half-dozen contracted growers, Cape Mentelle now crushes some 700 tonnes of grapes annually. It was in 1983 when Hohnen first tasted a New Zealand Sauvignon blanc -- and he was astonished. In 1984 he went over to New Zealand and attended a wine show, at which he identified the region responsible for producing Sauvignon blanc of such character: Marlborough. The following year he talked his financial backers into buying some land in Marlborough, even though the economic was rather shaky -- at this was time in Australia he was paying 23.5% interest on his loan. Thus Cloudy bay was born. The first release was 1985, but at this time there was no winery, so the 40 tonnes of grapes harvested had to be trucked 400 m North to Gisborne, and winemaker Kevin Judd effectively made the wine by phone. The second release, 1986, found its way to the UK, and was rapturously received by the media. The legend of Cloudy Bay was established! (See my article on the Cloudy Bay phenomenon.) The winery now crushes about 800 tonnes of grapes annually, some of which are produced by six long-term contract growers. Both Cape Mentelle and Cloudy Bay are now a partnership between Hohnen and the French firm Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin, Hohnen still has a very hands on role and sees himself as one of the winemaking team, as well as the MD.

As you might expect for someone at the helm of two such successful wineries, David Hohnen has a professional attitude and comes across as a thoughtful winemaker with a no compromise, quality-minded approach. Most of the vineyards at Cape Mentelle have a low chemical input -- many are organic -- and the grapes are harvested by machine. The machines shake the vines violently, the grapes (just the berries) falls off onto a catcher plate and the fans suck off the leaves. Although this is commonly held to be inferior to hand harvesting, it does have its advantages. First, the whole vineyard can be harvested very quickly, when the grapes are at optimum ripeness. Second, it allows harvesting to be done at night, thus preserving the fruit quality: a necessity in the warm Autumns of Western Australia. Thirdly, machines don't get bitten by spiders and don’t take 'sickies' just when you need them! In New Zealand, the grapes are also machine harvested, but because of the very low temperatures at harvest (an average of 14 C) this can be done during the day. Hohnen also spoke about barrels. He soon discovered that the only way to get decent barrels was to buy them ready made from France, at the cost of A$1000 each: his belief is that if you buy the oak from France and make them yourself, you get sold inferior quality wood. Certainly, the oaking on these wines seemed well judged and of a high quality. When I pressed him about the allegations that Aussie and New Zealand wines were driven by technology rather than 'terroir', Hohnen disagreed strongly. The wines taste the way they do because of the character of the grapes grown in these two regions. He also made the point that you'll find more sophisticated technology in the cellars of the Bordeaux classed growths than in many Aussie and Kiwi wineries.

Overall, I was hugely impressed by the quality of wines on show from these two wineries. As well as being stunningly individual expressions of the grapes used, they also represent tremendous value for money. If I had to pick favourites, they would probably be the Cape Mentelle Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, the Pelorus vintage fizz, and the Ironstone Shiraz Grenache (for its exceptional value-for-money).

Cloudy Bay Pelorus NV, Marlborough
Predominantly Chardonnay, with a bit of Pinot Noir, produced since 1987. David Hohnen was keen to emphasize that partners Veuve Clicquot have not influenced the style of this wine at all; it is produced very much in the Cloudy Bay house style that has developed separately. It is an impressive fizz, with a full, yeasty and bready nose, a soft mousse and full flavours. Very good+ (Unwins, Thresher, Wine Rack, Selfidges 11)

Ironstone Semillon Chardonnay 1999, Western Australia
Sweet, attractive grapefruit and citrus nose, with grassy notes. Ripe, technology-edged wine with a touch of bitterness on the palate that spoils it a little. Good. (Majestic, Unwins 6.49)

Cape Mentelle Semillon Sauvignon 1999, Margaret River, Western Australia
A favourite of mine, this is a lively, citrus-laced white of great depth. A proportion is fermented in new French oak, which adds depth and balance to the palate. Nicely made; crisp and complex: these two Bordeaux varieties seem to excel in the Margaret River region. Very good+ (Oddbins, Majestic, Waitrose 9.99)

Cloudy Bay Sauvignon blanc 1999, Marlborough
A small proportion is barrel fermented and in some years a dollop of Semillon is added, but the goal here is to use vinification methods that preserve the fresh fruit characters. Big ripe nose of gooseberries, grapefruit and green peppers. Nicely balanced on the palate with clean fruit and some fatness. A bold, upfront wine that is probably worthy of its elevated position. (New vintage released October 2000, 11)

Cape Mentelle Chardonnay 1998, Margaret River, Western Australia
Traditional vinification with partial malolactic and French oak. Beautiful rich, toasty nose with exotic fruit characters and some spiciness. On the palate it is long, rich and toasty, with great complexity and concentration. A lovely wine in a full flavoured style. Excellent. (Majestic, Bacchus 12)

Cloudy Bay Chardonnay 1998, Marlborough
Winemaker James Healey has been given free rein to do his best with this wine. He uses wild yeast fermentation and allows a natural malolactic, and rather than blast it with new oak, a high proportion of the barrels are older. As a result, it is quite muted on the nose, with yeasty, bready character. There is good concentration and it is quite complex in a low key, restrained sort of way. Very good. (Harrods, Corney & Barrow, Lea & Sandeman, Philglass & Swiggot 13)

Cloudy Bay Pinot Noir 1998, Marlborough
The fort vintage of this wine to reach the UK, Hohnen thinks that it is only in recent years that New Zealand has begun to make good examples of this variety. He has focused on getting the right clones of Pinot Noir, a prerequisite, and the vines were planted from 1990 onwards. The wine undergoes a malolactic fermentation in the barrel and spends six months in oak. It exhibits a full, ripe nose of cherries and vegetation. Full bodied for a Pinot Noir, it has ripe cherry fruit and firm tannins, with some complexity. May age nicely; certainly a new world style Pinot. Good to very good. (Harvey Nichols 16.50)

Ironstone Shiraz Grenache 1998, Western Australia
Lovely sweet nose of ripe blackcurrant fruit. This is a wine of immediate appeal, with attractive primary fruit on the palate with a pleasant pastille-like edge. The fruit masks the tannins, and overall this is an attractive concentrated wine in a modern style. Very good/excellent. (Majestic, Unwins 6.99)

Ironstone Zinfandel 1998, Western Australia
Cape Mentelle's most famous wine is probably their Zinfandel. The Cape Mentelle Zinfandel was planted from cuttings imported from the USA, and reflects the fact that David Hohnen studied oenology in California. Subsequently, more plantings of this variety were made in Donnybrook, North East of the Margaret River region in the Preston River Valley, and it is these grapes that go into the Ironstone bottling. Although this is the 'second label' of Cape Mentelle, Hohnen thinks that this has the potential to be a better Zinfandel than the Cape Mentelle version. It has a rich porty nose (15.5% alcohol), and underneath the rich, red berry fruit it is quite tannic. Wild stuff. Very good. (Philglass & Swiggot, Swig 7.49)

Cape Mentelle Cabernet Merlot 1998, Margaret River, Western Australia
Sees one-third new oak, which is a mixture of French and American. A lovely soft nose of herbs and menthol; fruity and with some leafy notes. Lovely and open. Good concentration and ripe fruit on the palate. Sweet and more-ish. Very good. (Oddbins, Majestic 9.99)

Cape Mentelle Shiraz 1998, Margaret River, Western Australia
Again, one-third new oak, a mix of French and American. A well structured wine with firm tannins and moderate acidity. Good concentration of spicy, ripe fruit with noticeable oak. Good ageing potential? Good to very good. (Swig, 11)

Cape Mentelle Cabernet Sauvignon 1996, Margaret River, Western Australia
This is the flagship red, which comes from a single vineyard planted between 1970 and 1973. 70% new barrels are used and some 2000 cases are made from the low yielding vines. The nose is dominated by blackcurrant fruit, with mineralic and smoky complexity. Rich and ripe on the palate, there are firm, smooth tannins underlying the fruit. Very good to excellent. (Oddbins Fine Wine, Selfridges 16)

Pelorus Vintage 1995, Marlborough
Aged three years on yeast lees. Deep, complex nose; toasty and rich. Ripe, full and complex on the palate. A very lovely fizz in a full flavoured style. Excellent. (Unwins, Majestic, Wine Rack 15.99)

See also: Tasting notes of Australian wines; Tasting notes of New Zealand wines

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