Three decades to take on the world

Celebrating 30 years … the vines at Cape Mentelle.
Celebrating 30 years … the vines at Cape Mentelle.

The 30th annual Cape Mentelle Cabernet Tasting highlights how good Australian cabernet is today, how far it has come in that period, and what good value for money it affords.

The annual cabernet tasting was started by Cape Mentelle founder David Hohnen 30 years ago, and the present chief winemaker, Rob Mann, invited him to take part and speak at this landmark event.

Hohnen was so emotional about being back in his old winery for the first time in nearly a decade that he lost his composure several times. He entered the barrel hall where the tasting was held unaware that hugely enlarged photographs of the early days of Cape Mentelle, depicting him and his brothers, would be staring him in the face. The Hohnen family completed a stepped sale of Cape Mentelle to Champagne Veuve Clicquot in the early 2000s, and Hohnen left in 2003.

Hohnen said the tasting was never meant to be a competition but a celebration of cabernet, arguably the world's greatest wine grape. The concept is that a selection of the best cabernet-based wines from Margaret River, the rest of Australia and the world, with a particular focus on Margaret River and Bordeaux, are tasted blind in three flights and discussed before their identities are revealed. All are from the same vintage, which moves every year so the wines are all 3½ years old (three years for the northern-hemisphere wines).

This year it was 2009, which happened to be a top year in every region. It is a brave and bold exercise, as the Cape Mentelle wine is always in there somewhere. Occasionally, the home wine has come in for criticism, but not so much this year: the 2009 Mentelle was one of the greatest wines in the group, by my reckoning. When the wraps came off, it was revealed Cape Mentelle, Woodlands Alma May, Chateau Palmer and Chateau Leoville Las Cases were the star wines. In quality and character, they were hard to separate. All scored trophy points from me.

In his speech, Hohnen mentioned that the first Cape Mentelle cabernet sauvignon to be widely available, the 1978 vintage, sold for $4.50, which was a premium price at the time, in 1981. Thirty-one years later, the 2009 is $89, a twentyfold increase (small when compared with first-growth bordeaux). But the quality is better than ever. Great strides have been made in viticulture and winemaking since the 1970s, the original vines that produce the estate cabernet sauvignon are fully mature and producing better fruit than ever. One of the biggest contributors to improved quality is an optical grape-sorting machine that was installed in the 2008 vintage. This uses sieved shaking tables and air jets to remove leaves, sticks and other unwanted material other than grapes (MOG), before the grape are passed under a camera that recognises overripe (raisined), underripe and rotten berries, and ejects them. The upshot is better fruit purity: the wine is no longer being diluted or polluted by MOG, and only grapes with perfect ripeness gain entry to the fermenters. The result is more polished wine with purer cabernet fruit aroma and flavour, no herbaceousness, but ideal fruit ripeness. It is expensive - the machinery cost $400,000 - but the stature of the wine is such that its price now fully justifies the expense.

The other local wine that gobsmacked me was the Woodlands. This is also made from grapes from original plantings, about the same age or even older than Mentelle's, and it is also an expensive wine ($130) produced without compromise. This is a sumptuous, profound wine. perhaps showing a little more toasty oak than the Mentelle, but similarly exquisite in its array of aromas as the Palmer and Las Cases. All three showed astonishing complexity despite their tender age. The Mentelle was faintly, almost imperceptibly, foresty and minty, with a subtle lick of the classic iodine character of the region. It had tremendous tensile strength and marvellous elegance matched with profound depth.

Bordeaux 2009

The 2009 vintage for red bordeaux was hailed by wine producers and the media as one of the best ever. Even the usually reserved British writer Steven Spurrier declared it the best vintage of his lifetime. Robert Parker said it was the best since 1982, and others have rated it the best since 1961 or 1959. The reservation is that it's not a typical vintage because the wines are ultra-ripe - sometimes overripe, opulent in sweet fruit and high in alcohol - sometimes to excess. The wines have recently begun arriving in Australia, starting with the earlier-bottled lesser wines and more recently the top wines, the first and second growths. I've attended tastings recently that included some high-ranked wines, including second growths and second wines of first growths, but no firsts, on account of their prices. They all cost about $2000 a bottle, a completely irrational sum that is due to increased demand, largely from Asia. Even the second wine of Chateau Haut Brion, Le Clarence du Haut Brion, is retailing for $400; the fashionable St Emilion Chateau Pavie is $700, third-growth Chateau Palmer is $690 and second-growth Chateau Leoville Poyferre looks relatively good value at $400. These prices are from Sydney's Ultimo Wine Centre.


Voice from the vault

The doyen of American wine writers, Frank Prial, died three weeks ago after a long and distinguished career at The New York Times. Prial wrote the wine column for 25 years, and died on November 6, aged 82. It seems appropriate to review a new book that contains a lot of his work. The New York Times Book of Wine (Sterling Epicure hardback, $29.99) also has a large number of articles by that other outstanding American wine connoisseur, Eric Asimov, among a bevy of other writers. Asimov followed Prial as chief wine scribe at the NYT after Prial retired in 2005. The book opens with an Asimov piece about the new Australian-designed luxury corkscrew, the Code 38. There's also a Prial piece on Len Evans written soon after his death in 2006, which reflects on Evans's famous ''Theory of Capacity'', something we should all do from time to time. There are about 160 stories and articles, and all I've read just made me want to read more.

Leaving the list behind

Sebastian Crowther, the sommelier behind the Royal Mail Hotel in Dunkeld, Victoria, and winner of Australia's Wine List of the Year Award 2012, started work last week at the Sixpenny restaurant in Stanmore, in Sydney's inner west. Crowther did not create the wine list at the Royal Mail - it had been outstanding for some years - but as custodian at the time it won the national title, he took the Judy Hirst Award as the sommelier in charge of the list. He left the hotel soon afterwards, however. Now, Crowther has popped up in Sydney at the diminutive suburban restaurant of Dan Puskas and James Parry. Why he would trade one of the grandest wine cellars in Australia for a place with a small and mostly NSW wine list is a mystery, but we welcome him to his new post anyway.

Wine worthy of celebration

The founder, owner and chief winemaker at Paringa Estate, Lindsay McCall, has been hosting a series of events to mark the 25th Paringa Estate vintage. The last was a slap-up dinner at Bennelong last week. Seventeen Paringa wines were matched with Guillaume Brahimi's superb food; none was better than the 2004 Estate pinot noir, which was matched with duck rillettes. This was arguably the greatest vintage of the 25 years, although 2010 will give it a run for its money. McCall let slip that his son, Jamie, who was sitting his final wine science exams at the University of Adelaide as we spoke, would soon return to Paringa Estate to help his dad. Great to see these dynasties starting around the country.

This story Three decades to take on the world first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.