Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Margarita River Road Trip

With the Carlton Blues winning the footy game last night, everyone was in fine spirits this morning - and we hadn't even had a drink yet.

We were hoping to remedy that situation sooner than later but first we needed to hit the road again. Visiting the Margaret River wine region has been on my Bucket List for some time now. With Merlot Boy and Margarita in tow, hopes were high for a bang-up weekend.

Indeed, as soon as we knew that Margarita would be joining us, Margaret River morphed into Margarita River and I may never think of the region by its original name again. It might be best, however, even if for blog purposes only, I still refer to Margaret River by its actual name. Can't be confusing the readers now, can I?

For me, Margaret River has just been a name that conjures romance and fine wine - two things that I'm rather fond of. Funny thing is that I've never really known a whole lot about the region. I think my fascination with it all stems from one bottle that I tried on my first visit to Australia in 1996. I've no memory of what the wine was or where I had it but, boy, did the name "Margaret River" ever stick in my mind. We don't see many wines from the region in our market, but I've generally found that the wines I do find generally hit the mark - and that certainly helps to keep the infatuation going.

Margaret River is about a three hour drive south of Perth and it's likely the best known - and likely the best regarded - wine region in Western Australia. It only accounts for 3% of Australia's total wine production but it certainly accounts for more than its share of highly sought wines. Although the region right around Perth has produced wine since 1829, that wasn't the case in M.R. - and, previously, Western Australia had never really been a powerhouse in Aussie wine as the Swan River region is noted as being one of the hottest viticultural regions in the world and, accordingly, not the best for growing premium wine grapes.

Margaret River, on the other hand, has been doing its best to make a mark in the wine world. It is able to rely on the cooling influence of breezes coming off the Indian Ocean and its prominence on the wine scene has continued to increase ever since the first significant vine plantings in 1967. Whereas the Swan Valley region around Perth accounted for 90% of all production in the state in the 1970's, it only accounts for 10% of it now. Margaret River has definitely taken the lead with over 120 producers now located in the region.

We'd teed up another intriguing spot to stay. Like Wroxton Grange, Boo's and my fuel stop in the Barossa Valley, we opted to stay at a working farm and winery in Margaret River. Lara and Jamie McCall have been operating Burnside Organic Farm since 1997 and it didn't take much of a perusal of their website to decide that the Burnside Bungalows looked very inviting. They lived up to all expectations - no, actually, they exceeded them. Our bungalow was marvellous; the grounds were exciting and the ability to wander freely and enjoy fresh produce from the garden made it all that more special.

After a quick check-in with Lara to take in the lay of the land, we jumped at the opportunity to hit a winery or two before all the cellar doors shut down for the day.

Lara pointed us in the direction of McHenry Hohnen - a boutique, family owned winery within hailing distance of Burnside Farm. Like most M.R. producers, I'd never heard of the winery. Once there, however, it was quickly apparent that there was a strong pedigree behind the wine. McHenry Hohnen was only established in 2004 but David Hohnen, Murray McHenry and their respective families had long histories in grape growing, winemaking and the selling of the finished product. Hohnen played an instrumental role in establishing Cape Mentelle (one of the few Margaret River wineries that I did know about in advance) and Cloudy Bay in New Zealand - and who hasn't heard of them?

The winery generally produces between 7000 and 9000 cases; however, they do have a fairly large option in deciding what to make. The extended family's three vineyards grow twelve different varietals, allowing plenty of choice - from Bordeaux, to Chardy, to Rhône varietals through others like Graciano and Tempranillo.

1122. 2011 HcHenry Hohnen Semillon Sauvignon Blanc (Margaret River - Australia)

We hadn't had anything to eat since breakfast - if you don't count the footy-themed jujubes that Margarita served up in the car - and the winery had a small kitchen and patio. They were just closing up, but they graciously agreed to put something together for some hungry Canucks. Naturally, we needed a bottle of wine to go with.

The wine was a great little, easy sipper for the patio and our grilled cheese - I can't recall what Aussie name they gave the sandwich but it was basically a case of a grilled cheese by any other name will taste as good. One of our favourite Aussie foods is passionfruit and there was a good little dose of it in our glass - on the nose and palate. There was a nice little bit of body on it as well that may have been "tweaked" by ageing a small portion of the wine in new oak and leaving it on its lees (spent yeast) for five months. The blend was almost equal - 56% Sem, 44% Sauv - and the bottle went down quickly.

It was a grand start to the weekend. I could easily see myself heading back to the winery if I were a local - particularly after seeing the incredible looking meat and olive oils that they grow and produce on top of the wines.

We stayed a tad longer than expected at McHenry Hohnen; so, we only had time to make one more winery visit. When I asked our hostess, Freya, for a suggestion out on the patio, she said that she probably had no choice but to recommend Cape Mentelle since one of their winemakers was sitting at the table next to us and could hear every word that was being said. As mentioned, Cape Mentelle was one of the wineries that I'd tried previously and had actually played a part in perpetuating my love-on for the region. Indeed, I've added two of their wines to The List since starting the blog. So, I guess they deserved a visit.

Cape Mentelle has been around since 1970 and, as such, is one of the pioneering wineries in Margaret River. The winery, while still under the direction of David Hohnen, played a major role in bringing attention to the quality of wine that Margaret River was capable of producing. The winery won the Jimmy Watson Trophy - the most prestigious wine award in Oz - for its 1982 Cab Sauv and then repeated the task in 1984 for the '83 vintage. If the wine world knew little of the region before, it was certainly taking notice now. Cape Mentelle was purchased by the Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy conglomerate in in 2000 and it is still noted as one of the premium producers around.

We had a thorough tasting in the snazzy tasting room but I think poor Merlot Boy and Margarita were wondering what they'd gotten themselves into. Both are excellent drinkers - among the best we know - but any talk of phylloxera, battonage or limited drip irrigation and their eyes glaze over. Actually, Boo's probably did as well.

And as resident wine nerd, I had to accede to a sense that it was time to move on. I'm just going to have to keep an eye open for some of their wines when I get home - especially that Cab.

We had reservations for dinner that night at one of the premium winery restaurants anywhere - Leeuwin Estates - but that wasn't until 8.00. So, how do we pass the time? Duh. We go back to Burnside and break open a bottle of wine to enjoy on our patio overlooking the vineyard. Nothing rough about it IMHO.

1123. 2009 Release Non-Vintage Balnaves of Coonawarra Sparkling Cabernet Sauvignon (Coonawarra - Australia)

With only a couple of days left to our sojourn Down Under, Boo and I had to put some serious thought to lightening our stash of bottles that we'd picked up along the way. The Balnaves was first to go. The Aussies have had great success with Sparkling Shiraz, but this bottle we nabbed in Coonawarra was the first I can recall seeing where the bubbles were added to Cab Sauv.

Although the bottle is labelled as 2009, it is not a vintage wine. Rather, the Sparkling Cab is a blend of reserve wines from nine different vintages that are matured in a solera system. When the aged bottles are prepped for their final corking, they are topped up with a little something extra - in this case, the dosage was a vintage port with a touch of Shiraz juice concentrate to supplement the flavours.

Dark and concentrated are not descriptors I generally use with sparkling wines, but you surely can with this bubble. Granted, there might not have been tons of actual bubbles noticeable in the glass of the mouth but we all thought it was a nice wine to sit back and relax on the deck with.

That is, until it was time to start moving on to the much anticipated visit to Leeuwin Estate.

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