Getting the Green Out in Margaret River

Oct 18, 2007

Robert Manne, now the winemaker at Australia's Cape Mentelle in Margaret River, grew up in Swan Valley, just outside Perth in Western Australia. It's a warm region where his family has been making wine for more than 100 years. Margaret River is something else, a moderate climate where Chardonnay has been more successful than the reds.

Margaret River Cabernet Sauvignon's reputation in Australia far exceeds its success in the U.S., especially with me. I often find too much green, vegetal character in them. So does Manne, who joined Cape Mentelle after the 2005 vintage.

"Growing up in the Swan Valley, we used to joke that those green, thin reds from Margaret River were no match for our soft, warm, generous wines," he allowed over a morning tasting in San Francisco of some Cape Mentelle Cabernets. Manne is serving as interim winemaker at Newton in Napa Valley for the 2007 vintage. LVMH Moët-Hennessy, which has owned Newton since 2000, drafted him from Australia when Newton's winemaker left just before the California vintage.

Manne wanted to show me some recent vintages to explain what Cape Mentelle is doing to tweak the red wines' style. As he puts it, "The strong herbal, capsicum (bell pepper), bordering on eucalyptus and menthol flavors, is accepted in Australia as a regional trait. I want minimize that and go for ripe, more classical berry flavors."

I heartily second that notion. Although I actually like herbal aromas and flavors as grace notes, I don't like them singing the main tune. And too many Aussie Cabernets smell more like menthol than fruit.

Manne's first priority when he started at Cape Mentelle was to change the vineyard management to produce fewer bunches and riper fruit, but also larger grape berries, in hopes that the grapes wouldn't develop too much sugar and therefore too much alcohol in the wine.

Give him a mulligan on the first try. 2006 was the coldest vintage in years for Margaret River. Getting the grapes ripe was a struggle, and the harvest stretched into May (the equivalent of November in the Northern Hemisphere). He only plans to bottle 800 cases of Cabernet, well short of the 2,000 cases that's normal, because that's all the got ripe enough. Although 2007 was nice and warm, with the harvest a week earlier than usual, volume was only 1,500 cases because of drought.

He tinkered with the 2004 and 2005 vintages, already in the cellar when he arrived. Severe barrel selections used only those lots that didn't have the green flavors. Volume is lower, accordingly, but the preview bottles I tasted showed more black fruit integrated with the red raspberry and cherry flavors typical of Cape Mentelle Cabernets. The wines have open textures and feel like classic clarets, not a typical New World Cabernet. The '04 lacks the density of the '05, which has more complex flavors. (The current vintage in the U.S. market is the 2001.)

Margaret River Cabernet, Manne believes, needs to modify its vineyards. "We basically have only two clones," he notes. "The sooner we can get some of the new clones through quarantine to get a broader spectrum of flavor into the wines, the better."

The vines currently grow on their own roots. Phylloxera is not a problem (so far) in remote Western Australia, but resistant root stocks could devigorate the vines and fine-tune the balance of leaves to fruit, Manne believes.

But that's in the future. Looking back, Manne brought along a bottle of Cape Mentelle Cabernet Sauvignon 1983. "This wine had a reputation for being undrinkable, muscular and tannic, and it was really green in its youth," he says. I found it rather nice today, with some pretty raspberry fruit evidence among the gritty textures. It's a nice luncheon claret, Manne agrees. It proves that Margaret River Cabernets can age, but is it worth cellaring the wine for 24 years to get something that's nice, not wonderful? I don't think so.

"Smells like claret and tastes like Australia," he laughs. I concur. The alcohol level is only 12.8 percent (compared with 14 or higher today), and it feels commensurately light on the palate. But it still has a green streak that goes well beyond adding an herbal touch.

The 2001 and 2003, from warm vintages, show more fruit than than the 2002, which was a cool vintage. But I like the '02 better because of its complexity. Cape Mentelle already was on its way to solving the herbaceousness riddle before Manne arrived. The '04 and '05, which Manne finished, continue the upward climb.

With Manne's dedication to ripe fruit with alcohol balance, Cape Mentelle seems on the right track. Already, he got LVMH to replant 25 acres of Merlot, in the ground only since 1988, to a new clone of Cabernet Sauvignon. The results will be worth watching.

Australia Red Wines Cabernet Sauvignon

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