March 15 2011 issue


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PAGES (44-47) March 15 2011

WINERY SPOTLIGHT Leeuwin Estate, Margaret River, Australia David Vogels, CWP

Australia’s most decorated Chardonnay comes from a onetime cattle ranch on the Indian Ocean coast.

The late Robert Mondavi influenced countless vintners during his long life in the wine industry, but his impact may be nowhere more pronounced than in a remote corner of Australia. That’s where he inspired a surfer-turned-financier named Denis Horgan to establish Leeuwin Estate—which quickly became the most important wine producer in southwestern Australia and the top attraction in the entire Margaret River region.

An accountant from Perth, the capital of Western Australia, Horgan got into mergers and acquisitions in the 1960s. In 1969, as part of a business deal, he acquired a 1,650-acre cattle ranch 180 miles south of the city, in what was then the wide-open coastland between Cape Naturaliste and Cape Leeuwin. “I used to surf here,” Horgan recalls, “because my grandparents lived in Capel,” just up the road along Geo-graphe Bay. “At a time when we were thinking of wine production, in 1973, Mondavi visited Western Australia on the recommendation of an Australian consultant who had previously worked for him.” Mondavi tried to purchase the Horgan ranch on behalf of California investors, but Denis and wife Tricia weren’t interested in selling. So Mondavi became a consultant and mentor—“we often visited his operation in Napa, and he came over for about 10 days a year in our formative years,” says Horgan.

Meanwhile, Australian agronomist John Gladstone and legendary University of California-Davis viticulturist Harold Olmo had noted distinct similarities in soil and climate between the Leeuwin Naturaliste Ridge and Bordeaux. Gladstone delineated subregions that he thought would be suitable for particular varieties, and five pioneering vintners, including the Horgans, took up the challenge.

“Millions of years ago, this was a granite island,” Horgan explains. “Sand flowed into the channel” formed by the Margaret River, which runs more or less west to east, “and the rocks eventually turned into limestone.” Over time, that limestone decomposed into a gravelly loam over a clay subsoil, hence the comparison to Bordeaux. The climate is dictated by the confluence of two oceans, the Indian and the Southern, at the tip of the Australian continent, but conditions are generally benign, with wet winters and warm, dry summers—“similar to Bordeaux in a great vintage,” as Horgan puts it.

Leeuwin Estate initially contained 100 acres of vines planted in 1972-1973; since then, the vineyard acreage has grown to 370. The varieties recommended by Gladstone and Mondavi have gradually been replanted as the finished wines have been analyzed year after year. For instance, Leeuwin no longer produces a Pinot Noir, but uses those grapes to blend with Chardonnay in a sparkling wine. A block of Shiraz was replaced by earlier-ripening Sauvignon Blanc, with a new Shiraz plot planted farther south.

Forty years ago, Horgan says, he and his wife “had virtually no knowledge of wine, but a keen eye for business opportunities. Production costs are higher in Western Australia than anywhere else, so there’s no way to produce bag-in-box wines here. We had to look at the high end; I worked on the principle that if we weren’t going to make a profit, why do it?” When Decanter gave Leeuwin’s first Chardonnay release, the 1980, its highest recommendation, the winery was on its way. Today, Horgan reports, Leeuwin processes about 1,000 tons of estate grapes per year, representing about 3% of total Margaret River output, but 20% of the region’s fine wine.

The best parcels are reserved for the premium Art Series Chardonnay, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Shiraz, and Cabernet Sauvignon. Block 20, known as the “Front Gate” lot, is the foundation of the award-winning Art Series Chardonnay, its 33-year-old vines set on a gentle, well-drained, gravelly slope with north and west exposure. Under Mondavi’s influence, Leeuwin has always used French oak barrels for aging and vertical shoot positioning in the vineyards, though Horgan says the “canopy management has been enhanced over the years, as we have learned more about our vineyard.”

Most of Leeuwin’s production goes to restaurants; as Horgan explains, “we’re strategic about where we place them.” The company recognized China’s potential as early as 1978, and today that country represents its biggest export market. In another nod to commercial viability, Leeuwin has developed lower-priced Prelude (Chardonnay and Cabernet-Merlot) and Siblings (Sauvignon Blanc-Sémillon and Shiraz) lines for earlier drinking than the ageworthy Art Series wines. As is customary in Australia, the wines are now sealed under screwcap, the primary exception being bottles destined for China.

The Leeuwin ranch sits in a wild, park-like setting 4 miles from the ocean, surrounded by the giant, centuries-old karri trees that are emblematic of the region. That natural beauty has been carried over by the Horgans to the wood-framed winery—erected in 1978, along with a tasting room and fine-dining restaurant—and even to the wine bottles themselves. Inspired by Château Mouton-Rothschild, the Horgans began to commission Australian artists for their Art Series labels in the early ’80s. Their collection has grown into an art gallery that is now open daily to visitors.

Music became another form of cultural outreach for Leeuwin when the London Philharmonic Orchestra needed a place to perform on a 1985 tour of Australia. The Horgans built a stage and amphitheater on the property, and the Leeuwin Concert Series was born. This annual event is held in February, during harvest season; musical offerings have gradually branched out to include jazz and pop, with the classic rock band Roxy Music featured this year.

“When we first put on concerts, we doubled the population of the town,” Horgan recalls. “The population of Margaret River was 3,600 when we came; now it’s 16,500.” In fact, with Leeuwin bringing in more than 100,000 visitors a year and wineries multiplying like the local kangaroos, infrastructure and accommodations have become local issues. In typical fashion, though, Horgan isn’t letting that hold him back—he’s building a resort and a champ-ionship golf course on the estate.

Although the Horgans maintain a home in Perth and consider themselves semi-retired, they keep a constant eye on the property. “My native cunning was being able to pick people to get the job done—all Australian,” Horgan says. The original winemaker, Bob Cartwright, retired in 2005 and was replaced by his assistant, Paul Atwood. The original viticulturist, John Brocksopp, retired in 2002 and was replaced by his assistant, David Winstanley. In recent years, the Horgan children have gradually been taking over day-to-day operations; Justin Horgan is now the estate’s general manager, and Simone Horgan-Furlong the marketing director. It’s enough to make a Mondavi proud.

Leeuwin Estate
Stevens Road
Margaret River, 6285
Western Australia