Wine notes

Wednesday, 17 December 2008


Margaret River’s Fraser Gallop Estate challenges the region’s producers to define what their terroir is about

The last Saturdayof November saw a most unusual encounter between the so called Old and New Worlds in the company of Domaine de Chevalier’s Olivier Bernard (on the right of the picture) and Nigel Gallop of the Fraser Gallop Estate in Western Australia’s Margaret River. All things being relative, Australia’s soils, probably the oldest in the world, can look back on 500 million years of history, but this particular patch has been planted with vines only since the early 1960s. With its Cabernet based blends it shot to fame indecently quickly, begging immediate comparison with Bordeaux not only on the basis of grape varieties used, but also because of its gravely soils producing powerful, yet refined reds. With a bit of Burgundy in the form of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir thrown in, and joined by Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Riesling, Malbec, and Tempranillo to name only a few, the region seems capable of producing premium wine from whatever grape variety winemakers take a fancy to, unhindered as they are by any regulation.

This ‘grape opportunism’ became a thorn in the eye of Gallop, a former software entrepreneur, whose boundless energy is matched only by seemlingly endless investments and time he puts into his estate. During the 1990s he had cast his eye on Margaret River after an interest in wine had budded during his working years in San Francisco with countless visits to Napa Valley. Gallop decided that the only place good enough for him was on the gravely red loam in the sub region of Wilyabrup where most of the top producers are concentrated. His 20 odd hectares of vineyards look decisively Garagiste compared with the average size of Australia’s winemaking operations. Here Bordeaux varieties, white and red, feature predominantly, with only Chardonnay as the exotic one out.

For Gallop, who is fanatical about Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon, the analogy with Bordeaux should certainly be taken further than red wine only. Something of a hardliner, he has little tolerance for any other grape varieties, Chardonnay excepted, which according to him only dilute the Margaret River reputation and delay the much needed investigation into its terroir.

Many Margaret River producers grow Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon Margaret River Wine Industry Association figures show that, while total plantings of Chardonnay have remained static during the last three years, plantings of both Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc are on the increase. The wines they produce are mostly of the fresh and fruity category, but for Gallop they are nothing more than ‘cash cow blends’. He wants to challenge Margaret River to come up with a more serious barrel fermented style analogous to Bordeaux’s white Graves.

To make his point, Gallop and his Australian distributor Gary Steel (a major importer of fine French wine into Australia), came up with the idea of a blind tasting comparing Margaret River’s more serious Sauvignon-Semillon wines, called ‘S-SB’ or ‘SB-S’ depending on the proportions in the blend, with Bordeaux’s finest dry whites. Steel sourced the likes of Chx Carbonnieux, Smith Haut Lafitte and Haut Brion, while Gallop made his acquaintance of the affable Olivier Bernard of Graves’ Domaine de Chevalier while travelling in Europe last June. You would think that the Bordelais would be wary of another excercise à la Judgment of Paris Tasting, but almost all Chateaux, with the exception of Haut Brion, willingly submitted samples. Not only that: Bernard travelled all the way to Margaret River with six vintages of his famous white. He must have felt immediately at home at the stately Fraser Gallop house, which grandeur would put many a Bordeaux Chateau to shame.

As Gallop and Steel were aware of the potentially historical significance of the event for the region - Bernard pouring 2006, 2004, 2001, 1989, 1981 and 1975 white Domaine Chevalier from magnum followed by the ‘MR v Bordeaux’ tasting the following day - they invited James Halliday as well as the Who is Who of Margaret River. Halliday, after having tasted the flight of the Chevalier wines, remarked that Margaret River is still to come up with a similar, minerally style of wine. But it is early days, as many of the plantings are still quite recent. Bernard spoke of the age of the vines at his home, which are well over 25 years of age, and the almost matter-of-factly way of winemaking. The secret probably lies as much in the sorting table and selecting anything but topnotch fruit, as the terroir and its indigenous yeast. And it must have been an eye opener for most of the wine makers to see their humble SSB in its 1975 Bordeaux counterpart well alive and kicking.

The next day, while spring rains were compromising what until then had looked like a quick flowering of the vines, the congregation of the previous night returned to the Fraser Gallop winery for the ‘International Sauvignon Blanc Semillon Tasting’. A flight of 16 wines consisting of 2005 dry white bordeaux and some of the most highly regarded Western Australian and Victorian 2005 and 2006 blends of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon were served blind, to be scored out of 20 by the attendees. Below the results of what could have been a slap in the face of either region. Bernard showed a particularly able taster, recognising most of the Margaret River whites as not originating from Bordeaux. When asked how he had identified them, he explained they showed much greener and leaner than their European counterpart. A tendency to pick early in an effort to retain freshness as well as obtaining what is considered the typical ‘grassiness’ of Sauvignon is presumably the main reason for this.

The Fraser Gallop Estate itself hadn’t contribute any wine to the blind tasting because Gallop, together with his chief wine maker, ex Vasse Felix’s Clive Otto, are waiting for their Semillon vineyards to mature. Nevertheless, Gallop seemed pleased with the outcome. According to him, if the event has resulted in animating the Australian attendees to reconsider the potential of SBS/SSB it was a success. Not leaving anything to chance, he is already planning to turn the tasting in an annual event and other Chateaux in Graves can expect Gallop to be knocking on their door soon.

The results of the blind tasting below - with attendees divided into those who had judged on the Australian show circuit, other wine professionals and wine amateurs - make for interesting reading, although the differences between the highest score and the lowest is not so large as to be truly significant. On interesting remark after the tasting came from Jane Skilton, New Zealand’s only female MW, wondering aloud if this is a style of wine consumers would enjoy drinking at an elevated price point.

2005 Chateau Laville Haut Brion 18.62
2005 Domaine de Chevalier 18.47
2005 Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte 18.47
2005 Arlewood 18.37
2006 Mount Mary 18.37
2005 Chateau Haut Brion 18.17
2005 Chateau Carbonnieux 18.12
2005 Suckfizzle 18.02
2005 Chateau Malartic Lagraviere 18.02
2005 Yarra Yarra 17.78
2005 Chateau Pape Clement 17.77
2006 Cape Mentelle Wallcliffe 17.57
2006 Cullen 17.18
2005 Voyager Estate 17.17

Wine professionals
Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte 18.75
Chateau Laville Haut Brion 18.47
Domaine de Chevalier 18.13
Chateau Haut Brion 18.10
Suckfizzle 17.95
Yarra Yarra 17.90
Mount Mary 17.77
Cullen 17.72
Chateau Malartic Lagraviere 17.69
Arlewood 17.68
Cape Mentelle Wallcliffe 17.63
Chateau Carbonnieux 17.53
Chateau Pape Clement 17.42
Voyager Estate 17.40

Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte 18.55
Chateau Laville Haut Brion 18.15
Chateau Haut Brion 17.92
Yarra Yarra 17.80
Chateau Malartic Lagraviere 17.77
Arlewood 17.72
Cape Mentelle Wallcliffe 17.70
Suckfizzle 17.67
Chateau Pape Clement 17.67
Domaine de Chevalier 17.65
Voyager Estate 17.55
Chateau Carbonnieux 17.47
Cullen 17.45
Mount Mary 17.40