White bordeaux reveal more than a dash of French flair in competition
MORE than a quarter of a century ago, in 1982 to be precise, Cape Mentelle held its first international cabernet tasting, pitting the best of Australia against the best of Bordeaux, Tuscany, California, Spain and others. It was a great success and continues to this day, staged alternately in Western Australia’s Margaret River and the eastern states (for this year’s location, see www.capementelle.com.au). Others followed suit, Peel Estate (Peel, WA) with shiraz, and Cullen (like Cape Mentelle, from Margaret River) with Australia’s best chardonnay, against the best of Burgundy.
The common format is for the tasting to be blind, the points collected from each taster before there is any discussion, and for the points to be averaged for each wine. Over the years, Australia has done particularly well in these events. It is a moot point, perhaps, whether it would have out-pointed the overseas wines if the identity of all the wines had been known from the outset.
Late last year, Fraser Gallop, a relatively new but substantial Margaret River winery, initiated an international sauvignon blanc-semillon tasting, bringing together Australia’s best and the most esteemed white bordeaux.
Owner Nigel Gallop does not do things by halves. Not only did he bring Olivier Bernard of Domaine de Chevalier to Australia for the event (and for a small dinner the previous night with a range of Domaine de Chevalier’s older vintages in magnum) but made sure the very best Bordeaux chateaux were involved.
The list of honour comprised Chateau Haut Brion, Chateau Laville Haut Brion, Chateau Pape Clement, Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte, Chateau Malartic Lagraviere, Chateau Carbonnieux (the reputation of the latter two much enhanced in recent years) and, of course, Domaine de Chevalier. (All except Laville Haut Brion also produce red wines for which they are, if anything, even better known.) All these wines were from the outstanding 2005 vintage.
Australia was represented by, in alphabetical order, 2005 Arlewood Estate Semillon Sauvignon Blanc, 2006 Cape Mentelle Wallcliffe Sauvignon Blanc Semillon, 2006 Cullen Sauvignon Blanc Semillon, 2006 Mount Mary Triolet, 2005 Suckfizzle Sauvignon Blanc Semillon, 2005 Voyager Estate Tom Price Sauvignon Blanc Semillon and 2005 Yarra Yarra Sauvignon Blanc Semillon.
Why, you might wonder, was Fraser Gallop not represented? Simple. Although the 20ha estate vineyard dates back to 1999, and although the first vintage was 2002, it was not until 2008 that the lavishly equipped winery was finished, with Margaret River veteran winemaker Clive Otto presiding. A 2008 semillon sauvignon blanc was made, but the semillon was not estate-grown, thus the first estate wine will be made in 2009.
So the event was akin to a high-level focus group discussion, with the attendees divided into three groups: consumers, industry (winemakers, retailers) and judges (journalists and others).
There was considerable consensus: Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte and Chateau Laville Haut Brion came equal first (28 points each), then Chateau Haut Brion and Domaine de Chevalier equal third (18 points each), followed by (in order) Yarra Yarra, Arlewood, Suckfizzle and Mount Mary (with only two points separating them). (I used descending order of points, with 10 points for the top wine in each judging group, nine for second, eight for third and so on.)
The two white bordeaux to end up at the tail of the field were Chateau Carbonnieux and Chateau Pape Clement, a rating I agreed with. Likewise, I gave the four top wines high scores. The wheels came off with the Cullen and Voyager Tom Price, which were my two highest scores (a short half head in front of Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte) yet came near the tail of the ratings overall.
As always, it was as much a question of style as of quality. Either way, the four wines at the top were undeniably great, yet the Australian wines were far from disgraced. The consensus was that the white bordeaux handled the oak component better and were more savoury-minerally than fruity. Certainly Bernard had no difficulty in separating the bordeaux from the impostors (so to speak), and went a long way to identifying each of his neighbours.
If you were to compare the cost of the wines in each group, you might hesitate before buying the bordeaux, at least five times more expensive than the Australians. Allotting points may be an imprecise art, but so is deciding value.