Outdoor concerts and a vast art gallery don’t overshadow the quality of Leeuwin Estate’s wine, as Peter Ranscombe reports.
MAKING wine is a blend of art and of science.
There are the facts and the figures – measuring the ripeness of grapes in Brix or Baumé, controlling the temperature of the fermentation in Celsius or Fahrenheit, selecting the exposure to oak’s surface area with a tiny barrel or a giant foudre.
Then there’s the intuition and the nuance – the tasting of the grapes, the blending of the barrels, the experienced eye on the clouds on the horizon.
Leeuwin Estate, a winery in Western Australia’s upmarket Margaret River region, has been combining winemaking with a more literally interpretation of “art” for more than 40 years.
California winemaker Robert Mondavi selected the site for the estate’s vineyards in 1972 and was a mentor to owners Denis and Tricia Horgan.
In 1980, a year after its maiden commercial vintage, the estate commissioned its first work of art, Caves Road by Robert Juniper, for the label of its “Art Series” chardonnay.
That tradition has continued and now more than 150 paintings and other artworks are on display in the winery’s extensive art gallery.
Leeuwin’s links with the arts extended into music in 1985 when the London Philharmonic Orchestra performed in its vineyards.
That inaugural concert has led to a series of outdoor performances that have starred Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, Ray Charles, Tom Jones, James Taylor, Carole King, and Sting.
Senior winemaker Tim Lovett is the man charged with making sure the liquid in the “Art Series” bottles continues to live up to the high standard set over the years – both in terms of wine and in terms of art.
Turning new oak into an art form
Luckily, a recent online tasting demonstrated that Lovett is more than up to the task.
The chardonnay is usually my favourite among the “Art Series” wines and the 2018 Leeuwin Estate Art Series Chardonnay (£70, Stannary Wine, from May/June) didn’t disappoint.
Considering the wine has been aged entirely in new oak casks, the wood smoke and toast flavours and aromas are already really well integrated, allowing the red apple, pear, and fresh lemon notes to shine.
The acidity is still mouth-watering at the moment, but it’s easily balanced by the fruit and oak components.
In contrast the 2016 Leeuwin Estate Art Series Cabernet Sauvignon (£44.69, Stannary Wine) still needs more time for its grainy, high tannins to become properly integrated.
Yet its promise is already there to see, with the concentrated blackberry, blackcurrant, dark chocolate, prune, and sweet vanilla flavours standing by to balance those tannins.
Margaret River is famous for its chardonnays and cabernet sauvignons, so shiraz isn’t a variety I’d normally associate with the area.
As Lovett put it during the virtual tasting: “With cabernet being the benchmark for the region, shiraz has been left in the shadows.”
His 2017 Leeuwin Estate Art Series Shiraz (£26.95, The Vinorium) brings out many of the Rhone-like savoury elements of grape – in contrast to much of Australia’s output, it could be labeled as “syrah” instead of “shiraz”.
Black fruit and spicy black pepper join the wood smoke and roast meat notes on the nose, before sweeter blackberry, black cherry, and dark chocolate take over on the palate; like the cabernet, the tannins still need time to settle – or a steak to provide balance.
A ‘prelude’ to the art
While the “Art Series” wines are designed to age – and judging the latest releases has to take place in that context – Leeuwin also produces its fruit-driven “Prelude” range and its “Siblings” selection, which is designed to be drunk when it’s young.
The 2019 Leeuwin Estate Siblings Sauvignon Blanc (£18.50, Stannary Wine, from May/June) is the perfect example.
Stylistically, it’s closer to the Loire than New Zealand, with green pepper, asparagus, and nettle on the nose.
Its high acidity is balanced by juicy lemon rind, green pepper, and asparagus, plus a slice of guava on the finish.
The sweet vanilla in the 2019 Leeuwin Estate Prelude Vineyards Chardonnay (£31, Stannary Wine, from April/May) is more apparent than in its “Art Series” equivalent, but it doesn’t mask the bright and inviting aromas of green apple, pear, and lemon curd.
More pear and green apple come through on the palate, along with a swoosh of cream, but that acidity perhaps needs another year or so to settle and knit together.
The 2017 Leeuwin Estate Prelude Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon, on the other hand, is ready to go.
Its nose is really inviting – ripe blackcurrant, sweet yet not dominant vanilla, wood smoke, and green pepper, without straying into unripe green territory.
The tannins are grainy yet already well integrated, with blackcurrant, dark chocolate, and a bloodied meaty note providing balance.
“Freshness” was the word that summed up the “Prelude” cabernet sauvignon – and to bring freshness to such a bold wine is an art in itself.