Recently I have been trying quite a few Western Australian Cabernets and Chardonnays. I have to report that (as a person who basically loves old world Pinot Noir and Riesling – ideally German) most of them have been arse-spankingly brilliant. I’m a bit surprised by that. Specifically I am talking about Western Australian wines here but they belong to a coterie of improved New World wines – the New New World wines.
Australian wines, in some places, have moved so far from the get the bleeders as ripe as possible and ferment them until all yeasts die of crapulence-ideology that seemed almost a law winemakers were forced to obey for many years. Over-ripe fruit is a very big part of the problem with old New World wines.
Old New World wines had all the acidity baked out of them by growers who seemed crazed in their desire for booze-monsters. Some of this foulness can be corrected with the aid of a bag of acid and a shovel, but high alcohol and no acidity are not the only problem for old New Wold wines.
When grapes get to the super-ripe state demanded by old New World winemakers, the tannin in the skins breaks down so there is none to be extracted in winemaking. Old New World wines, lacking both acidity and tannin, have little in the way of a refined structure. indeed, they seem like sweet, hot, soupy, thick blobs that ooze around your palate.
Just like one can add a bit of acid, one can shovel in powdered tannins to beef up the structure. This is done in Penfold’s Grange – the archetype old New World wine. Whilst it is possible to adjust acidity levels with success, it seems to me that adding extra tannin to a wine does it no favours at all. Wines with added tannin always taste disjointed, lacking harmony and with a structure that seems totally alien to the flavour profile. That is just one of the reasons I have never enjoyed Penfold’s Grange, which is over-rated, over-priced and only good for selling to the Chinese.
So we get the idea that old New World wines are just sickly sweet, massive, soupy, alcohol-bombs. New New World winemakers make one big change (and, of course, lots of smaller ones) in the way they grow and make their wines.
Harvesting grapes when they are simply ripe, rather than overripe, massively improves on old New World wines, allowing more complex, beautiful and charming wine to be made. All those attributes we seek are not baked away. Take acidity: The Nocturne Chardonnay I very highly recommend has ripe Chardonnay fruit characteristics – it is 13% so fully ripe – but the Nocturne has acid levels any Chablis producer would be proud to have in their winea. Good acidity mixed with fresh Chardonnay fruit is a delicious, moreish combination and the Nocturne Chardonnay is a particularly scintillating example of a delightfully harmonious combination.
Sticking with Nocturne the tannin/acid combination in the Cabernet creates a firm structure that will see it through a long life. Yet there is fresh ripe fruit in abundance! Julian Langworthy, the maker, picked his Cabernet early enough so that the tannin and acidity in the grapes makes the Nocturne Cabernet a really vivacious, utterly delicious wine that is a hoot to drink now (I will try to age my couple of bottles; so should you).
Another advantage of picking earlier is that perfectly ripe fruit has more complex flavours, rather than the simple sweet jam ones produced by overripe grapes. The character of the place the grapes were grown is not baked out of the grapes and you can easily smell and taste the terroir in the new New World wines. Turns out the sense of place in Margaret River wines is very strong; it is particularly strong in the single vineyard wines like Flowstone and Nocturne.
Julian Langworthy’s day job Cabernet, Deep Woods Reserve, has a profound depth to its tannin/acid structure which is enhanced by the subtle use of oak. Old New World wines were often aged in American oak or, worse, they had a teabag filled with oak chips suspended in them. American oak smells like sweet vomit on most old New World wines. A more careful control of barrel ages when maturing the wine and only using French oak improves new New World wines no end.
The Chardonnays I am going to recommend sing of their birthplace with as loud a voice as the very best Cote de Beaune white Burgundies. The songs they sing are, in wines like the Flowstone, more beautiful, more complex and more arresting than almost any white Burgundy.
The Flowstone Queen of the Earth Chardonnay has the finesse and depth of flavour of the smart Puligny Premier Cru wines from Domaine des Lambrays or de Montille, yet are a small a fraction of the price, even though the production is minuscule and, carried out by a tiny team (a husband and wife). The Nocturne wines are also made by a husband and wife team, who make single vineyard wines of hoopy brilliance, yet only cost around a few notes under thirty quid a bottle. This is a bargain!
Ignoring a few over-achievers, some of which are astoundingly good, Bordeaux is awash with ordinary wine. Though the wines are oft dismal, prices are eye-wateringly expensive. Downright awful Claret producers have the temerity to charge almost as much as the quality producers, largely for having a name that generations of idiots have purchased, even though their wines have always been thin, acrid piss.
Western Australian Cabernets are generally perky, vivacious and full of energy. The good acid levels have a synergistic interaction with the elegant but firm tannins to produce a structure than communicates how freaking marvellous the best of the Western Australian wines are. Moreover, it tells you they have what they need where they need it in order to age and mature with majesty and nigh unlimited style. These wines are not shamed in any company.
The best Western Australian Cabernets are usually better than many Clarets double the price (or more). You can go to a shop and/or go to a website and buy a single bottle of a Margaret River Cabernet of real quality; they do not demand you hand over a kidney two years in advance in order to secure six bottles!
If you love Cabernet and Chardonnay you can safely buy from Western Australia at an array of reasonable price points and, unless you are a Bordeaux or white Burgundy buyer with more money than brain cells, you will generally be taking upward steps in quality and fun-value, losing nothing in terms of cellaring capability, and saving enough money to give copious amounts of wine to your friends. If you try any of my recommended wines, they are some of the absolute best Cabernet and Chardonnay wines in the world, you will see that I am every reader’s friend! (Email me if you need my address in order to spread the fun!)
One last thing before I get onto the Western Australian Cabernet and Chardonnay buying top tips. If you buy one of these wines to age and put it in a dark place with a constant temperature, you will never, assuming you do not think all Chardonnay needs to be aged for one hundred years, have a knackered bottle. You will never have a corked bottle. You will never have a bottle that has oxidised due to air getting in. You will never have a bottle rendered unpalatable because a mouldy cork has disintegrated into the wine. Why? Because almost all producers in Western Australia, and makers of New New World wines in general, do the sensible thing with their wines and bottle them with screwcaps. Is that not marvellous? No problems with sticking a rancid bit of tree bark into the top of your bottle, rather a clean, hygienic, easy to open closure that does not require a special tool and is completely air and watertight.
Your cellar can get flooded, you can age your wines standing up, you do not need a perfectly humid cellar (but still a dark one with a cool, constant temperature), what genius to bottle wines with something that guarantees they will be in top condition when you have aged them unless you have gone out of your way to mistreat the bottles! Vive le screwcap!
My Western Australian recommendations
Each category in descending order of brilliance. All of my recommendations are some of the best wines in the world.
- Flowstone Queen of the Earth – A wine with the class and style of the star Puligny 1er Crus made by de Montille and Domaine des Lambrays. Extraordinary character and energy, even with 7 years age (the oldest I have tried, but I imagine it will last and improve for a lot longer). Amazing value for its nigh peerless quality.
- Nocturne – Made by the winemaker of Deep Woods from a single vineyard planted with Chardonnay, if you want to learn Margaret River terroir just sniff this wine. Supreme refinement and harmony, and charged with incredible beauty. There is no Chardonnay at this retail pice that is better. Approachable young but clearly will age in the medium term, at least.
- Deep Woods Reserve – Rounder and more voluptuous than the Nocturne, the Chardonnay that is Julian Langworthy’s day job has a fine mineral streak and plenty of energy from the fruit and acidity. Best drank at 5-8 years age – there is a shade of voluptuousness to this wine and a little bottle age will let this character blossom. Easily deserves its place at the Chardonnay High table
Chardonnay to avoid
- Moss Wood – A boring internationally styled wine with little sense of place. Only for people who wish to have their palates go unchallenged at a premium price.
- Leeuwin Estate Art Series – Overly boozy, overly oaked. The makers have taken some care with this wine – but they have taken care to make an overblown, blowsy wine.
Good god, I am recommending Cabernet Sauvignon on Elitistreview… *Cripes!*… Starting with the best:
- Deep Woods Reserve – An intense, structured wine with layer after layer of deep, profound fruit wrapped in svelte tannin, and infused with subtle wood and mineral flavours. Beyond stunning. Age it.
- Cullen Diana Madeline – Pricier than the other wines selected here this has a fine, elegant character and dizzying complexity. Not being a pure Cabernet pushed the class of this wine up a notch. Brilliant.
- Nocturne – Another single vineyard wine that dazzles you with a kaleidoscope of terroir character, delicious crème de cassis fruit and a real purity of expression. It is being given away a the retail price.
- Moss Wood – A ripe, plump lovely that really has the rich mineral character of Margaret River. I had this at up to 7 years of age and I have no doubt it will improve and gain complexity with even longer cellar time.
- Flowstone Queen of the Earth – When young there is a slight hint of volatility due the the extended elevage in oak, but time seems to resolve this into a terrific wine of complexity and restrained mellowness.
- Moss Wood Ribbon Vineyard – Not quite as explosively brilliant as the Nocturne, which is only a little more expensive, but packed with delicious fruit held together by a firm tannic structure. One for ageing.
Cabernet worth loathing
- Leeuwin Estate Art Series – Too alcoholic, too oaky, too hot, too stewed, Too jammy. You really think I am paying that much for this?!?
Other New New World wines in Australia
There are so many people producing balanced, elegant, refined, high quality (from Giaconda to Mac Forbes, from Gary Farr to Grosset) wines it seems easier if I named the regions still stuck in the viticultural seventies. If I may be so bold to suggest the the Barossa Valley and the McLaren Vale vineyards should be made phylloxera resistant by a crack team of sommeliers armed with flamethrowers. I am only doing so because I share The Hosemaster’s view about the value of Sommeliers’ lives. I almost universally detest the wines from these areas.