Raw truth is that West is best for budget beauties
BRENDEN and Kylie Smith founded West Cape Howe in 1997 but after seven years decided to move on. Enter Gavin Berry, with a successful 15-year career as senior winemaker at Plantagenet. It is the dream of many talented winemakers to establish their own business, even though they may have observed the pitfalls, financial and otherwise, that can bring such dreams to a painful finish.
Berry quickly formed a partnership, which included viticulturist Rob Quenby, and in 2004 left the security of the much larger and longer-established Plantagenet to head the team at West Cape Howe. It was felicitous timing: the industry had emerged from a painful recession and domestic and export sales were growing strongly.
A bonus was the 80ha Lansdale vineyard, planted in 1989. The brand already had recognition but Berry and his winemaking team (these days including Dave Cleary and Coby Ladwig) soon took it to another level.
In the early years they undertook substantial contract winemaking. Here Berry’s experience at Plantagenet was invaluable, for Plantagenet also had a substantial contract income. But serving many masters at the same time is an emotionally and physically draining business, and West Cape Howe has progressively weaned itself as its annual production has increased to a healthy 55,000 cases.
But it is the quality of the wines, as well as the consistency, that is so impressive. When you drill down to the retail prices, the quality may seem too good to be true. During the past 12 months, West Cape Howe has released seven wines scoring the five-glass rating of 94 or more points, and another four only an eyelash behind on 93 points.
It is true that most of the red wines come from the potentially excellent though difficult 2005 vintage, the white wines from ’ 06 and the warm, dry ’ 07, but you still have to maximise the potential in vineyard and winery if you are to succeed in the volatile wine market. Thus all the cabernet sauvignon and merlot was picked before the 250mm of rain that fell from the end of March through to early April in 2005.
The first cab off the rank in this tasting is the riesling, which is predominantly grown in the Mount Barker region, both the ’ 06 and ’ 07 scoring 94 points. Because I ama Luddite when it comes to portable computer technology, I had no idea what I wrote about the preceding vintage when tasting the latest release. In this instance the notes were nearly interchangeable, my unedited comments on the ’ 07 being: ‘‘ Fine, taut, lemon-lime and mineral; long, lingering, zesty finish; great potential. To 2020.’’
All the tasting notes on the previous vintage are in my recently released 2008WineCompanion , in which West Cape Howe receives the highest winery rating of five stars. The following are from a subsequent tasting of new releases.
The ’ 07 sauvignon blanc (91 points, $19) has none of the slightly sweaty characters of the ’ 06 and is in a more austere mode: ‘‘ Firm, bright herb-grassgooseberry; squeaky, lively acidity.’’ (Squeaky describes the mouth-feel of acid, which is the opposite of chalky or crunchy, where it seems to coat my teeth as my tongue moves around in my mouth.)
By contrast, the ’ 07 semillon sauvignon blanc (92 points, $16) ‘‘ enters the mouth quietly but progressively builds up flavour around the structural core of semillon, then moving to gooseberry and citrus’’. (For the record, it is 52 per cent semillon and 48 per cent sauvignon blanc.)
Unwooded chardonnay seldom excites — normally bores — but the ’ 07 (90 points, $16) is ‘‘ an excellent example of what cool-climate chardonnay can achieve; grapefruit and mandarin flavours, generous and satisfying, but neatly trimmed by acidity’’.
A small percentage of viognier (disclosed on the back label) lifts the 2005 shiraz (94 points, $16) into five-star territory: ‘‘ Delicious plum, blackberry and spice fruit; perfect balance with tannins and oak; medium-bodied, elegant and sensational value.’’
Finally, there is the 2005 cabernet merlot (93 points, $16): ‘‘ Clear purple-red; abundant cassis and blackcurrant fruit, with a touch of spice and of quality oak; fine, ripe tannins.’’
I have regurgitated the tasting notes in their raw, unedited form, as I wrote them, simply to underline the consistency of the wines. There’s no need to apply any gloss to West Cape Howe.