Leeuwin Estate Chardonnay: Walking the Tightrope between Elegance and Sheer Power
by Ken Gargett
Dr Max Lake – surgeon, author and founder of Australia’s first boutique winery, Lake’s Folly in the Hunter Valley – was one of Australia’s wine experts back in the 1960s and 1970s. He certainly practiced what he preached, as he and friends like Len Evans, James Halliday and a handful of others probably drank more of Europe’s great wines than the rest of the nation combined. And that most certainly included the great White Burgundies (which were, of course, all Chardonnay).
Yet, when we look for a mention of Chardonnay in Lake’s excellent ‘Classic Wines of Australia’ (1966), there is only a single mention of that great grape – as a synonym for Aucerot (as they say in the classics, that is probably something he’d like to take back). It wasn’t that many years later that Lake himself was making one of Australia’s most desirable and cult Chardonnays.
While Chardonnay may be the world’s favorite white, making a wide range of styles and qualities (at its very best, it is a truly sublime wine), the first commercial Chardonnay did not appear in Australia until the 1971 vintage. Tyrrells, in the Hunter Valley, were first to make one (there is debate that Craigmoor in Mudgee also released one from that year, but wine historians have varying views and it is likely that at best, that was a blend).
Tyrrells dubbed theirs ‘Pinot Chardonnay’, which later morphed into Vat 47 Chardonnay (the story, apocryphal or not, of Murray Tyrrell hopping the fence into Penfolds’ HVD vineyard with a pair of secateurs in the middle of the night to steal a few cuttings because Penfolds would not part with any, has become very much part of the Australian wine lore).
Even though the Hunter is looked upon by many as unsuitable for Chardonnay these days, the Vat 47 is always a superb wine and it remains the longest continually produced Chardonnay in the country.
It took a while for Chardonnay to catch on. In the early days, many were horribly over-oaked. Indeed, many consumers mistook that oakiness, not seen in any other local wines, as the taste of Chardonnay. Even the very top wines of the day have reduced their oak influence considerably. We have come a long way.
It was not until 1992 that Chardonnay finally overtook Riesling as our most planted white variety, though today, they are miles apart. In 2022, Australia crushed 20,822 tonnes of Riesling, compared to 358,007 tonnes of Chardonnay.
Today, it is simply impossible to think of a single wine region in Australia that does not make Chardonnay, although of course, some do it far better than others. Tasmania has established itself as a first-class region for Chardonnay for sparklers, while back on the Mainland, we have the Mornington Peninsula, Yarra Valley, Beechworth and Macedon, along with Gippsland and Geelong, are the leading Victorian regions.
Adelaide Hills shines in South Australia while the extraordinary Margaret River rules supreme in Western Australia, and for many, Australia. I say extraordinary as not only do they produce many of our greatest Chardonnays, but also many of our greatest Cabernets. In addition, it is the best part of twenty years since they have had a vintage that would not be described as at least, very good. It just does not seem fair.
We have previously looked at wines from superstar producers like Cullen and Cloudburst. Today, the wine which kicked off the reputation of the region for whites and for many, is still seen as our greatest Chardonnay – the Leeuwin Estate Art Series Chardonnay.
For the record, the wine which kicked off the region’s red reputation was Cape Mentelle’s Cabernet Sauvignon, which did so by winning the famous Jimmy Watson trophy in consecutive vintages. Suddenly, people wanted to know about this far-distant region, three to four hours drive south of Perth, previously only known to a handful of dairy farmers and surfers.
As Andrew Caillard says in his excellent piece on Leeuwin Estate in the Vintage Journal, “the expressive Leeuwin Estate Art Series Chardonnay is the jewel in the crown and all around it are reflected in its glory”. He also notes how the 1987 vintage of this wine was the first Australian white wine to break the AUD $100 mark at auction.
The history of Margaret River has been detailed in the superb ‘The Way it Was’ by Peter Forrestal and Ray Jordan (2017) and is a must for anyone interested in wine, history or this region. Suffice to say, that Leeuwin Estate was established in 1973 by the Horgan family, although the property was purchased back in 1969, when it was just an old farm.
Denis Horgan, a well-known merchant banker, had no intention of entering the wine industry. Rather, the property was simply attached to a plumbing business he wanted (some say that Horgan was simply a beer drinking surfer in those days, although clearly a very astute businessman as well, and that he only chased the plumbing business because it came with land in Margaret River which is one of the world’s great surfing destinations). The property remained vacant for a few years until Horgan was contacted by an attorney from Seattle, enquiring about the place.
Horgan was no fool and immediately twigged there was something going on here. It was highly unlikely that someone from Washington State was interested in a Margaret River plumbing business. A little work revealed that the person behind it was none other than the legendary Robert Mondavi.It turned out that apparently Mondavi had already made three trips from California to Margaret River to inspect the land, all without Horgan having any clue. Denis and wife, Trish, decided that perhaps they would be better looking at vines, rather than valves.
Mondavi, however, did have an involvement with the vineyards and wine styles – it was his recommendation that they plant Chardonnay, a move I have no doubt that they have never regretted, although as there was almost none on the market at that stage, one suspects there might have been some nerves. At the time, there was far more Riesling planted in Margaret River than Chardonnay.
Their first commercial vintage was 1979 with the first of the Art Series Chardonnays coming from the 1980 vintage. International attention did not take long. Their 1981 Art Series Chardonnay garnered the English wine magazine, Decanter’s, highest recommendation. In an older piece I came across, Jancis Robinson talks of the 1980 winning Decanter’s Best Chardonnay in the World. No matter which, it was an extraordinary beginning to what has become a long line of world-class Chardonnays.
So where does the Leeuwin Estate Art Series Chardonnay sit in the pantheon of the greatest Aussie Chardonnays?
In the early days, it quickly took pole position and did so with daylight second. Its fiercest competition, still today, came from a small winery in Beechworth in Victoria, which also produced some superb wines, but none better than their magnificent Chardonnay. Cullen’s Chardonnays, the Kevin John and some of Vanya’s extraordinary tiny production efforts, have joined them.
Penfolds set out to make the great Aussie white and came up with the Yattarna Chardonnay. Many others sit with them in some vintages, but for me, Leeuwin Estate and Giaconda are consistently the two greatest Chardonnays made in this country. Preference simply comes down to personal taste and I will happily drink either every day of the week. Giaconda will prove far harder to source, although its recent inclusion with the La Place de Bordeaux, where it will be marketed by Établissements Jean-Pierre Moueix (JP Moueix), everywhere except Australia and New Zealand, may improve that.
One clever move that the family made was to replicate the Mouton concept of art on labels for their top wines – they now have a superb gallery of Australian art that has adorned the labels of all the Art Series wines over the years.
Another extraordinary concept was the Leeuwin concert series. These are open air concerts in the grounds of the Estate, featuring some of the world’s great performers, but one wonders what on earth the London Philharmonic Orchestra was thinking when they found themselves at the very far end of the earth for the inaugural concert in 1985. It was, however, typical of Denis Horgan to go big from the very first, despite the efforts of friends to talk him out of such a crazy idea.
Since that first concert, they have hosted orchestras from Berlin and Denmark, as well as acts such as Ray Charles, Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, Diana Ross, Tom Jones, Bryn Terfel, Shirley Bassey, Julio Iglesias, Michael Crawford, Roberta Flack, James Taylor, Sting, Carole King, Jackson Browne, k.d. Lang, Roxy Music, Diana Krall and many others.
My repeated pleas to somehow drag Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band across have, to date, fallen on deaf ears but if anyone could manage it, it is the Horgan family. I live in hope.
The Art Series Chardonnay is based on the unirrigated Block 20 vineyard, planted in the mid-70s, which, as they suggest these days, needs little attention as “it does its own thing”. 100% Gin Gin clone, giving the wines a fabulous opulence, the grapes are hand-harvested early morning and chilled to 2°C under a gas cover for 6-8 hours.
Since 2013, they have been experimenting with different contributions by natural fermentation. These has been no malolactic fermentation for many years. 100% French oak for the best part of a year.
Horgan was most fortunate in the early days to have John Brocksopp as his viticulturist and Bob Cartwright as his winemaker, two of the very best at their respective jobs. They have been followed by some of the top exponents of their crafts to be found anywhere. Tim Lovett is the chief winemaker today.
Over the years, I have been fortunate to have tried almost all of the Art Series Chardonnays, usually on several occasions. Of course, notes from many years ago are hardly relevant today, but it is worth mentioning that the wine has never been anything less than enthralling at whatever stage one has encountered them.
At this stage, a word on the Art Series Cabernet. In the early days, I think it would be fair to say, and I doubt that the team at Leeuwin would contest this, that it was a good wine but not one which sat amongst the very best Cabernets from the country, or even the region. They have done an enormous amount of work on this wine and for many years now, it has reached the very highest standards. If you are looking for great Margaret River Cabernet, the Leeuwin must be in the conversation.
Looking at my recent notes on the Leeuwin Estate Art Series Chardonnay, it always sits at the pinnacle of any local or varietally-focused tasting. Among recently tasted (the last year or thereabouts) older examples, 2005 had a wonderful lemon butter, walnut character, the extensive complexity that these wines achieve with age (that they age superbly has never been in question) and extraordinary length.
2006 was just as good, more caramel and nuts, but still the wonderfully supple texture. 2010, all melons and lemon notes, a complete wine. From 2013, there was that wonderful opulent stonefruit and the promise of glories to follow. 2014 was a delightful combination of power and delicacy, complexity and elegance. 2015 had ginger, florals and stonefruit, backed by lacey acidity, but was not quite up with the very best.
2016 may outshine them all in the coming years. This is stunning stuff, full of guava, lime and lemony notes, white peaches and cashews, there is oak evident, but it is melding well. Bright acidity, impeccable balance, and such length. I couldn’t possibly justify giving it any less than 99.
For reasons I cannot explain, my notes for 2017 are currently AWOL, but the 2018, I tasted the wine on several occasions and scored it 98 every time, though I did make a note to myself that I had only done so as I was certain it would improve over time and get better, and I did not want to paint myself into a corner. Fermentation in French oak and then a further 11 months in barrel.
The wine explodes with stonefruit, nectarines, grilled nuts, peaches and a hint of vanillin oak, but it is well integrated and quite transparent. A note of honey emerges on the finish. The creamy, supple, seamless texture is a highlight and promises to become ever more thrilling in the coming years. It is already showing complexity and the flick of acidity carries it through to the extremely long finish, a finish which never drops in intensity.
This is wine which confidently walks the tightrope between elegance and sheer power, but at all times, as with everything to do with this wine, it is impeccably balanced.
2018 seems yet another truly brilliant vintage in the region – but it seems that it almost always is. This scintillating Chardonnay will improve in the coming years.
2019 was yet another stunning effort, maintaining the incredible standards it has set over decades. Just a brilliant wine. World-class. An extraordinary blend of opulence, fresh energy, purity of flavor, intensity and length. Stonefruit notes, lemon zest, oystershell and almond notes. Hints of mandarin and peach and even a touch of ripe mango.
The oak is integrating well and will become even more so in the coming years. Focus is laser-like. Glorious now, but there is so much more ahead, with more complexity and tertiary flavors to emerge as it ages. Expect this to be thrilling wine lovers in a decade. This release, as they all are, will inevitably be compared with the finest from both Australia and Burgundy. It sits very comfortably among the best. Wonderful now, but it has so much more to reveal. 98.
The latest release, the 2020 (A$160), is considered by many to be as good as any ever made, and it is hard to disagree. 100% new French oak used in maturation here. The wine is the palest yellow, with a nose immediately screaming complexity. Hazelnuts, stonefruits, florals, pears, matchsticks and spices, there is a fine minerally backing here, supporting the wine and maintaining intensity for the full, very long, journey.
Touches of the lime notes, typical in this wine, are evident, as is that more-ish salinity on the conclusion. Great intensity, and yet such is the balance that it seems almost imperceptible. Power, layering, elegance and extraordinary length. I gave it 98, but that seems a little cruel. It will drink beautifully for a decade or two and will no doubt reach even higher levels.
For more information, please visit https://leeuwinestate.com.au/wine/art-series-chardonnay/41726/
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