The Cape Mentelle Crusader

The Mann family are winemaking royalty in Western Australia, so we might expect them to have a conservative, steady-as-she-goes philosophy.

Rob Mann, chief winemaker at Cape Mentelle (tastings), is a grandson of Jack Mann, a legendary winemaker who did 51 vintages at Houghton in the Swan Valley, creating the famous Houghton White Burgundy in 1937. It became one of Australia’s biggest selling wines.

Rob Mann sees his challenge as not to chase fads and fashions, but to focus on the strengths of his region. “Margaret River excels at the Bordeaux varieties – cabernet sauvignon and merlot in reds, semillon and sauvignon blanc in whites. And chardonnay,” he says. “My job is to find ways to improve what is already good and further refine it.” One senses he’s frustrated by the faddism in the wine business, especially the present trend for winegrowers to experiment with new grape varieties. Planting new varieties has an air of desperation in it, but fashions change quickly and winegrowers will quickly find themselves chasing their tails if they try to keep up, or second-guess the market. “You don’t see Bordeaux ripping out its cabernet and planting pinot gris,” he says.

Bordeaux producers have found what their region does best, and they have a great product, so why abandon it?

Mann concedes that Margaret River cabernet is no longer new or especially exciting, but says Cape Mentelle (tastings) is still selling well. Mentelle’s is one of the region’s icon cabernets, and the ’08 is a strongly built, powerful, statuesque wine for the long haul, and needs a couple more years before broaching. Mentelle has launched a new sub-regional red, the $47 Wilyabrup cabernet sauvignon merlot cabernet franc (tastings), which plugs the price-gap below the flagship estate cabernet sauvignon ($89 for the new-release 2008 vintage tastings) and Trinders Cabernet Merlot (tastings $33 for the current 2009). The Wilyabrup has stacks of lovely ripe flavour and is a little more approachable now than the estate wine.

Mann, incidentally, prefers the ’08 vintage to ’07 – although he acknowledges the region’s winemakers don’t all agree on this. “The tannins are finer and the wines more elegant and balanced, while ’07 is very good but the tannins are more robust.”

How does he plan to refine the already fine cabernets of Cape Mentelle? “We have planted a selection of old-vine material on new rootstocks selected to improve quality. And we are importing some new clones.”

While everyone talks about clones with pinot noir, cabernet has been a bit neglected in this regard. “The attitude was ‘We make pretty good cabernet with the clones we’ve got, so don’t worry about it’, while in California’s Napa Valley (where he worked at Newton for vintage 2007) the experimentation with new clones has led to improvements.”

Mann thinks the Californians harvest their grapes too ripe and their wines lack elegance – but the quality of their fruit is spectacular. “I was blown away tasting the fruit off the vines.”

Experimentation with new planting material has always been slow in Western Australia, partly because of the quarantine laws. Because WA has never had phylloxera, it’s very protective. If you want to take vine material from eastern states to the west, it must be quarantined for three years. This partly explains why we are yet to see the first pinot gris/grigios from WA, while the rest of the country is now so used to PG, it’s no longer considered an ‘alternative’ variety.

There are a couple of major improvements at Cape Mentelle that are already paying dividends. The winery, owned by multi-national drinks and luxury goods company Moet Hennessy, has invested $400,000 in an automated grape-sorting table. Sorting tables where the sticks and leaves and lizards are picked out by hand are a recent innovation in the Australian wineries which have them, but an automated table like Mentelle’s – made by French company Vaslin Bucher – is unique in this country, Mann believes. It works at high speed and uses optical sensors to detect matter other than grapes (MOG). Sieves and high-pressure air-jets remove them from the conveyor. It can also be programmed to reject grapes that are mouldy, or under- or over-ripe. Mann says the result is an improvement in fruit quality, riper tannins and more-polished red wines (it’s only used for reds).

Another measure aimed at improving wine quality is sterile filtration. This will read like heresy to pinot noir specialists, many of whom think any filtration lessens their wine, but with cabernet it’s easier to justify. Margaret River went through a dark period in the mid to late ’90s with Brettanomyces, a spoilage yeast which is present in all wineries and all red wines, and if left uncontrolled can ruin a wine with its horsey, barnyard or cheesy smells, and its propensity to strip flavour and freshness from wines, replacing it with a drying astringency. Several Margaret River wineries withdrew cabernets from the market in the ’90s because they developed unacceptable levels of ‘Brett’ as they aged. Better hygiene in wineries, especially in barrels, is one answer; rejecting affected batches is another. Sterile filtration (through a membrane fine enough to remove micro-organisms) is another. This is now routine at Mentelle, and its wines are the better for it.

Mann points out that his grandfather pioneered sterile filtration in white wine, and would never have been able to create Houghton White Burgundy without it. “Sterile filtration of white wines led to greater consistency and longevity, and less risk of spoilage,” he says.

As one who occasionally pulls old bottles of red out of the cellar and finds them fit only for the sink because of massive Brett levels, I’m on Rob Mann’s side.

First published in Sydney Morning Herald, Good Living – 5 July 2011.

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