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The David Hohnen interview
The man behind Cloudy Bay and Cape
Mentelle makes a fresh start...


David Hohnen isn’t a terribly extrovert person. He comes across as quiet, and quite guarded: he’s not the sort to dominate an interview, nor to seek to direct its course. This is quite surprising, considering what he has achieved in his career to date. Not only was he one of the pioneers in Western Australia’s Margaret River region, but he also had a big hand in promoting New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc to the world by founding the iconic Cloudy Bay winery in the mid-1980s. Now he’s spending his time farming (sheep and a few pigs), as well as helping his daughter Freya with the new family winery, McHenry Hohnen. I caught up with him in Margaret River, and then a couple of months later in London, to get a better picture of this significant player in the antipodean wine scene.

We began by discussing the current state of the Australian wine industry. David is proud of what Australia has done, but thinks that the industry must now go through a further stage of evolution. ‘Australian wines have been in the UK for 20 years, and we’ve done a great job demystifying things. We took wine out of the clubs of St James’ and stuck them on English working men’s tables, without the erratic quality of wines from Europe and at prices they could afford', explains Hohnen. 'What we are doing now is showing that we have the equivalent of the Bordeaux and Burgundy experience with small, regionally based estates.’

By planting its first vines in 1969, Cape Mentelle was one of the pioneers in the Margaret River region of Western Australia, although the first wines weren’t marketed until 1976. It was a collaborative effort between three families in Margaret River, including the Hohnens, who put land together to form a farm, and the vineyard was a small part of this. After doing a course in Fresno, California, David returned to plant another 12 acres in addition to the three acres of vines that were already there. But financial difficulties meant that he had to go off to Victoria to work at Taltarni. His brother returned from Vietnam to look after the vineyard in his absence, and then David returned to do the 1976 vintage, the first commercial release.

David describes the Cape Mentelle launch as being like ‘crawling along on elbows on broken glass’. ‘It was tougher than most people can imagine’, he recalls. ‘We were perceived as being too expensive by the local market. We couldn’t sell the wine. It wasn’t until we got recognition from the eastern states that people would buy it locally.’

Some history is in order here. The first to plant in Margaret River was Dr Tom Cullity at Vasse Felix, in 1967. He was ahead by two years of the next group: Kevin Cullen and Bill Pannell (both doctors from Busselton), and then came Cape Mentelle.

There was an awakening of interest in table wines in Australia, and Harold Olmo from University of California Davis came out to try to identify cool climate regions. He spotted Mount Barker, and Forest Hill was the first winery there in 1966. As a hobby, lupin breeder John Gladstones had been studying climate and wine, and he picked Margaret River. On the back of Gladstone’s report, Cullity, who lived over the road from David’s parents in Perth, decided to plant a vineyard. David’s dad was one of the first on Cullity’s mailing list, and brought home some extremely acidic Rieslings: the grapes had to be picked early before the birds got them.

Birds were a major issue in the early days of Margaret River. ‘There have been two main developments in viticulture in Margaret River’, says Hohnen. ‘The availability of bird netting, and cheap wire and posts for trellising’. He describes some of his experiences with losing crop to birds as ‘distressing’, and recalls that, ‘You couldn’t hear for the screaming little silver eyes [the birds who did the damage]: it was just awful. Three years out of five we lost a lot of crop.’ These silver eyes are small birds that cause damage by pecking a hole on every berry in a bunch. Then an Aussie entrepreneur went to China and visited some fishnet factories and sourced affordable netting that could be used in the vineyards. ‘Now Margaret River is an ocean of netting at harvest time’.

Before netting was widely available, growers were forced to pick early. Hohnen speculates that netting may have been one of the factors behind the brettanomyces outbreak that hit the region, beginning in 1988. As growers were able to leave grapes to hang for longer, they’d be working with musts richer in phenolics and with lower pH, both of which can increase the risk. He also speculates that brett may have come down from the Swan River region on some grapes. Another contributory factor was the widespread ignorance of the issue. Most textbooks had very little on brett, and analytical tools were limited to plating and culturing, which is time consuming. The common wisdom, he recalls, is that as long as you had adequate sulphur at bottling, any brett present wouldn’t bloom in bottle, which he now describes as ‘bullshit’. ‘That’s why we all got whacked,’ maintains Hohnen. Cape Mentelle had to pour away their 1997 Cabernet, and the two subsequent vintages were also affected. ‘On the basis of the initial 1988 experience, we contacted Mondavi and looked at their protocol’, he recalls. ‘It was basically about hygiene. We were waiting for brett, but it still got us.’ He thinks that the barrels are all important. ‘We import one, twice or three times used white Burgundy barrels, and we sterile filter at bottling. This was controversial at the time because the anecdotal evidence was that it knocked the wine around, but we know that the wine comes back. We love our high pH and low acidity, and we don’t want to lose that.’   

The next big thing for Hohnen was Cloudy Bay, the iconic Marlborough winery he started that, to this day, is still producing the definitive example of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. In 1983 there was a technical conference in Perth. Some Kiwi winemakers came down to Margaret River to taste a bit from barrel, and left some bottles of Sauvignon Blanc: Hohnen was amazed by the wine. ‘It was a bit sugary sweet, but the aromatics were amazing’. In 1984 he visited New Zealand to see for himself where these remarkable wines had come from, attending the Auckland wine show. There he met Kevin Judd, who was then working for Selaks. Determined to go ahead with his own Marlborough winery venture, Hohnen raised Aus$1million in finance, at a crazy interest rate of 23%. Within a year, the bank he had borrowed from was broke, so he refinanced. 1985 was the first Cloudy Bay: 40 tons of grapes were purchased and the wine was made up in Gisborne. In 1986 Judd constructed a winery and they signed up for 120 tons a year from Corbans. The ball was rolling.

But despite the evident success of Cape Mentelle and Cloudy Bay, Hohnen found himself a bit dissatisfied. ‘The company had become huge’, he says, ‘and I’d given away all the jobs I liked doing’. He found the role of CEO somewhat stressful, and made a plan for exit in 2000 when Veuve Clicqout bought the venture. He stayed around for three more years then left. ‘I never regretted it for one minute’, says Hohnen, who officially quit Cape Mentelle in 2003.

With vineyards already in the family, offering a wonderful resource in terms of sites and varieties, it seemed daft not to start his own venture. In addition, Hohnen’s daughter Freya had completed her winemaking studies, and he ideally wanted to do something with her. He describes her as a ‘good down to earth girl, and a good taster’, and points out that she came top of the class in her oenology course. However, it took a few years for Freya to decide whether or not to work with her father: she had spells working at Vasse Felix and then Voyager Estate before deciding to commit herself to the family business.

This brings us to the present. McHenry Hohnen is a joint venture, split 50/50 between David and Murray McHenry, Hohnen’s brother in law. McHenry made his money from a pub in Perth, and the winery that is still in construction phase, although ready enough for the 2007 vintage to be done there, is on the Rocky Road Vineyard site that McHenry owns. Between the two of them, they have four vineyards, three south of Margaret River (including Rocky Road), and one near to Cape Mentelle. In 2007 140 tons were processed at the winery. It’s officially licenced to crush 500, but Hohnen says he won’t grow faster than the market will permit.

You’d have thought that at this stage in his career, Hohnen would have been tempted to take things easy, and live a quiet life on his farm, without the distraction of launching a new medium-sized winery. But he’s clearly not finished yet, and after tasting through the McHenry Hohnen range, I’d say that these wines have something fresh to say; they’re rather unlike the wines being made in the rest of the region, with a distinctly European elegance to them. I don’t predict that they’ll have quite the impact that Cloudy Bay had—after all, success stories like this usually only come around once in every generation—but if there are enough drinkers who admire expressivity, food compatibility and understatement over raw power, the McHenry Hohnen wines should have a very bright future.   

Interview: April and September 2007, published December 2007

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