Take a leaf out of a Kiwi book

After a week attending the triennial Pinot Noir New Zealand 2013, many Australian attendees were asking why Australia has no event of similar calibre. With 500 delegates including the cream of wine writers from the UK as well as other countries, the four-day event showcased the pinot noir grape, with exhibitions and educational activities at which up to 400 wines were sampled. Australia could and should do something similar, and the obvious grape to feature is chardonnay. Experts around the world are now agreeing with we locals that Australia’s chardonnay is second only to Burgundy. Leading English writer Tim Atkin said last week he believes Australia is making the best chardonnay in the world – after Burgundy, of course. We should strike while the iron is hot.

These thoughts recurred while tasting the latest crop of chardonnays from Margaret River winery McHenry Hohnen Vintners with its co-founder, David Hohnen. Hohnen is a lean and fit-looking, square-jawed, serious man who doesn’t laugh or smile easily, although he has a wicked sense of humour. He prefers to play the straight man. He has more runs on the board than most: he founded both Cape Mentelle and Cloudy Bay before starting McHenry Hohnen with his brother in law, Murray McHenry. It’s very much a family affair with Hohnen’s daughter Freya involved, and her partner Ryan Walsh was chief winemaker until very recently. McHenry is managing director and Hohnen is brand manager.

Hohnen has been somewhat re-born: he is less visible in the trade than he used to be, preferring to stay home and tend his garden and his animals – sheep and pigs for the gourmet meat market. He and his team are very aware of sustainability these days, and vineyard manager Mike Sleegers is in charge of a thoughtful vineyard program which Hohnen says is neither biodynamic nor organic, but similar to both. “We call ourselves biological farmers. We don’t use pesticides or herbicides and we apply biodynamic sprays such as Preparation 501. It’s about having rich soils that are alive, alive with creatures – worms, fungi and bacteria. It’s about delivering the organic form of the elements to the vine, which will then express the minerality.”

Hohnen has always been interested in vineyards, first and foremost. This stems from his education in California in the 1960s – not at the famous Davis campus of the University of California, but at the state’s other wine college, Fresno. “Fresno was different,” he says. “Davis was for academics; Fresno was for viticulturalists. At Davis you had (Professor Roger) Boulton and other scientists who produced the guru (Brian) Croser, who came back to Australia and preached the gospel of low pH. Our wine science lecturer at Fresno was off with the fairies. But we had a great viticulture guy, Vince Petrucci, and we had a winery and we taught ourselves to make wine by doing it. I paid for most of my education with two crops of carignan.”

All of which is quoted here only to make the point that Hohnen is a man of the earth, a son of the soil, who understands that it’s the grapes that determine the qualities and attributes of the wine.

Back to the chardonnays. They were made by Ryan Walsh, who was trained at Curtin University in Perth. “He has his own way,” Hohnen says. Walsh semi-retired at the end of last year and his deputy Trent Carroll has taken over as chief. There’s no doubt Hohnen approves of the wines he’s hawking around the trade.

There are three McHenry Hohnen 2011 chardonnays, from three vineyards. The wines were made the same way, by ambient yeast fermentation in barrels, most of which aren’t new, and given the same time in oak, on their yeast lees. The clones are all the same – Gingin or Mendoza, which is the traditional Margaret River clone. So the only variable that explains the differences in the wines – and they are all quite different – is the vineyard sites, and specifically, the soils. They’re all 13.5 per cent alcohol, all $35 retail and all screwcapped.

McHenry Hohnen Calgardup Brook Chardonnay, $35

Calgardup Brook Vineyard is on deep loam flats by a creek, and because it’s low-lying it misses the first and last sun of the day. Its grapes have the highest acidity. The wine is the most typical Margaret River regional style, with powerful Gingin-clone grapefruit flavour underlined by toasted hazelnut oak-derived characters. Full-bodied, powerful, lingering and totally satisfying. I scored it 95/100 (tasting).

McHenry Hohnen Burnside Chardonnay, $35

Burnside is next: it’s on black micaceous soil, on a hillside, north-facing and has never been irrigated. The vines are the oldest, planted in 1982. Hohnen used to take its grapes for Cape Mentelle chardonnay. The wine has a rich nose of vanilla and malt, and is a weighty wine with a touch of broadness: not as powerful and balanced as Calgardup nor as fine and penetrating as Rocky Road, but very good. 91/100 (tasting).

McHenry Hohnen Rocky Road Vineyard Chardonnay, $35

Finally, Rocky Road Vineyard, which is in front of the McHenry Hohnen winery. The soil is classic Margaret River ironstone gravel over granite, north-facing. This is a puzzling wine, which at first shows oxidative nuances in its malt and marzipan aromas. Its colour is the most developed. There are some roast-hazelnut aromas amidst a very complex bouquet, and the palate is linear and penetrating, lean and non-fruity, with a definite savouriness. It seems to lack fruit, but when I try the wines again with food, it’s transformed and is the best of the three. I tried it with mixed unsalted nuts, then salmon gravlax with sour cream and chives on biscuits, then grilled chicken that had been marinated in lemon and garlic. The wine suddenly came into its own, its piercing intensity and leanness penetrating, lifting and carrying the flavours of the food. I end up enthusiastically scoring it 94/100 (tasting). Yet another example of how food in the mouth alters the flavour of wine, and how difficult it is to make definitive judgements about wine on a clinical judging bench.

Wine can be unpredictable, and knowing David Hohnen, I suspect this might bring a grin to his poker-faced countenance.

First published in Sydney Morning Herald, Good Food – 19 February 2013.

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