How do they Xana-do it?
Xanadu chief winemaker Glenn Goodall is celebrating six consecutive ‘best cabernet sauvignon’ trophies at the National Wine Show in Canberra, as I wrote last week. His cabernets, across several different price levels, regularly bring home the silverware from the shows.“Our cabernets are made without added tannin and without fining. We aim to get it right in the vineyard. It’s been that way since I became chief winemaker in 2006.” – Glenn Goodall
We all know Margaret River is a great region for cabernet, but Xanadu seems to have a special formula.
You’ve got to be in it to win it, of course, and many famous Margaret River cabernet wineries don’t enter shows, or at least enter selectively. Moss Wood, Cullen, Woodlands, Leeuwin Estate, Cape Mentelle and Vasse Felix are seldom if ever seen in wine shows. But Xanadu pattern-bombs the shows.
“We are using the show system as a legitimate way of building the brand,” says Goodall. “Because judging is blind, there is no pre-judging wines by their track record.”
Goodall gives most of the credit to the viticulture and vineyard manager Suzie Muntz.
“She has put a lot of work into the vineyards, especially the single-vineyard wines like Stevens Road. (The 2016 Stevens Road Cabernet Sauvignon won three trophies at 2018 Canberra, including best cabernet.)
“Our cabernets are made without added tannin and without fining. We aim to get it right in the vineyard. It’s been that way since I became chief winemaker in 2006.”
Tannin is an important part of cabernet, but what does he mean by ‘tannin management in the vineyard’?
“We did lots of randomised trials on vine canopy management, and found that traditional Australian ‘sprawl’ gives us a better result than VSP (vertical shoot positioning) and is less expensive because there’s less manual labour. It works especially well in east-west rows, where you can get green tannins in the fruit on the south-facing side of the vine, and cooked flavours on the north side. We want dappled light instead of either too much shading or too much sun exposure.”
The vines have what he describes as an ‘afro’ appearance, like an ‘afro’ hairstyle.
“A nice, even, all-round sprawl, trimmed, so that the weight of extra-long shoots doesn’t turn the foliage into a skirt which shades, and, conversely not trimming too close (so as to short-shoot any vines). It’s harder to get it right than it sounds! But Suzie has got it waxed.
“We have a single cordon and two foliage wines, which are always in the up position so the shoots can hold onto them. We do trim the canopy, but we leave it nice and open, with lots of dappled light. There is very good airflow and no bunch-on-bunch.”
Good airflow and lack of bunch crowding reduces the risk of fungal disease.
The next and most controversial thing is that Xanadu eschews hand-picking of cabernet. It’s all machine-harvested, and there is no sorting. Other wineries are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on the latest grape-sorting machinery, and expending untold energy herding hand-pickers, but not Xanadu.
“Our mechanical harvester picks cabernet really cleanly.
“The most important winemaking decision to be made with cabernet, if you ask me, is actually deciding when to harvest. I reckon it’s way more important than almost every other decision in the winemaking process.
“Having our own harvester is nice. It gives us plenty of flexibility with picking dates, which is a huge advantage for our estate grown fruit.”
“In the winery, we keep it really simple. We use lots of air during ferment. Predominantly in static fermenters with regular pump-overs, although we often also ferment cabernet in Omni Bins, using manual punch-downs.”
Lots of air in the fermentation gives clean ferments and softer tannins.
“It’s difficult to put a finger on our success, other than recognising really good vineyards and having some really good people involved – which of course includes our growers.”
He makes it sound so simple.
“We want ripe fruit but not so ripe that it loses its varietal integrity.”
The vineyards are evidently managed superbly and Goodall is recognised as being at the top of his game. And show judges love the Xanadu style, which is highly aromatic and varietal, but at the same time fully ripe and fruit-dominant. Oak and tannin are never overstated. The wines are elegant, balanced, never astringent or heavy-handed. They tread the fine line between approachability and age-worthiness. The epitome of modern Australian cabernet.