Cape Mentelle was one of the first vineyards established in the Margaret River region of Western Australia, in the south-west corner of the country. As well as being one of the most beautiful regions in the world, it is one of the most remote.
The drive from Perth, the state capital, south to Margaret River takes several hours even with a new highway, so visitors should allow at least a week to see the region properly.
Spectacular coastlines are a feature of Margaret River. The maritime climate provides consistent temperatures which influences grape development. Vintage conditions are good to great every year, though drought is always a problem in Australia.
Cape Mentelle was established in 1970, which makes it one of the pioneers of the Margaret River. It grows nine grape varieties, but its greatness lies with its chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon. Both are formidable wines. The latter won the Jimmy Watson trophy for best one-year-old red in both 1983 and 1984. It is rare for any vineyard to win the trophy, and consecutive years is almost unheard of.
A chance to taste the 1983 occurred in Hong Kong along with the 2007 and 2001 vintages for comparison. The 1983 still retained some fruit acid and tannin, which suggests it could be still be consumed another decade from now. It offered complex aromas of tobacco and leather and some still had juicy black currant fruit flavours.
This was an elegant and concentrated wine, which showed that the judges sensed something special when they gave it the trophy.
As senior winemaker Rob Mann told me: “Everything in winemaking is about balance. If a wine is not balanced as a youngster, it will not evolve into a balanced older wine.” With great wine, balance of fruit, tannin and acidity are the keys to greatness.
The 2007 cabernet sauvignon comes from mature vines that are 40 years old and these contribute balance and finesse. About 3 per cent of merlot was added. This wine tasted of ripe blackberries. The 13.8 per cent alcohol tells us the fruit was ripe when picked.
This cabernet spent 18 months in French oak, half of it new. The tannin and fruit have integrated well. This is another excellent wine that could be enjoyed in two decades, though it is drinking well now.
Cape Mentelle has more than 200 hectares of vines across four regions of Margaret River. The region is only about 100 km long. The best reds tend to come from the northern half, and the best whites from the south.
Mann said the winemaking team take their responsibilities for the environment seriously and aim for a sustainable approach in the vineyard, which is “as close to organic as possible”.
Only three or four tonnes of fruit per hectare come from the red vineyards. By way of comparison, this is less fruit per hectare than the first growth vineyards of Bordeaux. The less fruit, the more concentrated the flavours in the grapes.
The 2001 cabernet was more vibrant in colour than the 2007. Both came from hot vintages. The key in hot vintages is keeping the vines healthy, Mann said. He took over as senior winemaker after John Durham retired in 2005, after 23 years making wine at Cape Mentelle.
Mann’s cousin Kate Lamont, a former winemaker, prepared a meal to complement the wines. She said the aim of a good chef was to keep the food simple and let the ingredients speak. “It’s the same with winemaking. Like quality design in a building; sometimes you just know instinctively it’s great.”
One pays for quality. The 2007 retails for about $A90, and the 2001 about $A100. If the 1983 is still available it sells for about $A 150.
The 2010 and 2005 chardonnays were also available for tasting and both were lovely wines, but insufficient space to talk about them.
* Story appeared in China Post on 21 June 2012, page 10, under the headline “Getting the balance right in Western Australia”. Find a link here.