For the fifth year in a row, Margaret River producer Voyager Estate hosted a masterclass in Melbourne and other Australian cities to benchmark new releases of some of their wines. This was my second time at this event; one of my first entries on this blog spoke about the first time back in September of 2011, just before I left for my trip. The exercise is designed to show sommeliers, buyers and media that Voyager is very confident about the quality of their wine against exceptional examples from around the world. Showing even more hubris, they do this against their three key wines; chardonnay, shiraz and a cabernet/merlot blend. That’s serious chutzpah.
Voyager Estate itself is not one of the oldest in the region (the brand was established in 1991), but the vineyards certainly are. Michael Wright purchased the property which included vineyards planted in 1978, looking to become one of the top producers in the maritime cool-climate region of Margaret River in Western Australia. In the following years the vineyards were expanded and new ones planted from which to source fruit. Their Estate range covers the gamut of everything Margaret River does best, and includes a sauvignon blanc/semillon blend and a chenin blanc wine. Regretfully Michael passed away in 2012 and his two daughters who run the business decided to continue his legacy and vision.
The Voyager Estate team, which includes Manager of Winemaking and Viticulture Steve James and Winemaker and Winery Manager Travis Lemm, take many months to hand select wines to include in the tasting. The goal is to isolate benchmark wines from regions renowned for the variety and style. As much as possible they select cool-climate examples in line with their own region. This year wines were selected from five countries (Australia, France, the United States, New Zealand and Italy), and 16 regions. Although the wines are tasted blind the attendees are informed of the wines but not the order. Thus a large amount of educated guessing based on experience is used to attempt to identify the wines.
The first bracket consisted of wines made from chardonnay entirely from the 2010 vintage. There was a good spread of styles from very lean pure and mineral to quite rich and oaky, and I was quite pleased to have identified three wines correctly. The Bindi Quartz was suitably pure and mineralic, a reflection of the site and handling in the cellar. The Voyager had more subtle sweeter oak elements and was nicely focused through the palate. By process of elimination I identified the Chassagne-Montrachet from Pierre-Yves Colin-Morey from its flinty gun smoke aromas and toasty oak. I thought the Kumeu River Hunting Hill was the Coldstream Hills Reserve, the Coldstream was the Copain Brosseau Chalone AVA, and the Copain was the Kumeu. I disagreed with the apparent consensus that the Copain was overly rich and broad, thinking that whilst it was certainly riper in stone-fruit character, it was sufficiently balanced and textured for the level of alcohol.
Bracket two was syrah/shiraz, two wines from 2010 and the remainder from 2011 including the Voyager. Half of the wines came from warmer regions (in my opinion); the McLaren Vale, Hunter Valley and Russian River Valley in California. Again I managed to pick three of the six wines, and again one of them was the Voyager which had juicy dark fruits, restrained spice and some sweet meaty notes. The Clonakilla Shiraz Viognier 2011 was so aromatically peppery from a very lean vintage it was hard not to pick it, as not even Cote Rotie is that peppery. The other I managed to pick was the Domaine du Colombier Hermitage 2010 was also clearly an old world, rustic and funky example. The Thomas Kiss 2011 was on the briny sweet dark fruit side, making me think it was McLaren Vale; The Du Mol Eddie’s Patch 2010 was very oaky and hot, and for some reason I thought it was the Thomas; and the Brekkers 2011 was bold hot and lacking restraint which I thought was the Du Mol.
Finally the cabernet sauvignon and cabernet blends bracket included wines solely from 2009. Although more confident with my conclusions it turned out to be the toughest of the three brackets, and I only managed two wines of the six. These were probably the easiest to pick as they clearly spoke of their origin which was very familiar to the room. The Voyager had the unmistakable dusty eucalypt of the Margaret River, and the Balnaves Tally was oaky, full and minty. Wine 1 turned out to be my initial guess, the Sassicaia, looking reductive and tight but very ballsy with freshness. The Te Mata Coleraine was aromatically challenged yet precise with great drive and focus. The Chateau Pichon-Longueville Baron was quite restrained and delicate for a Pauillac, particularly from a warm and generous vintage. The Diamond Creek Volcanic Hill Cabernet Sauvignon looked a lot more old-world than new, funky iodine combining with very dark and intense savoury fruit. A challenging bracket to be sure.
My first conclusion from the tasting was that as usual the Voyager Estate wines showed well amongst very strong company. Of the three wines they showed I thought the Chardonnay 2010 was the best, coming from one of the best vintages in the last 15 years. My second conclusion is that although my palate has improved a lot since the last time I attended (I think I managed to correctly identify only three wines in the whole tasting), a lot more experience is needed. But I think this applies to everyone, even the most naturally gifted taster.
The final conclusion is that there continues to be compulsion to arbitrarily bash American wines for being too ripe, alcoholic and over-handled. Granted the wines selected aren’t from cool-climates, but they are also made more for the American palate where the tastes are more geared towards these styles. One comment made was that the Copain Brosseau Chardonnay was “as elegant as American chardonnay gets”, which is not only a gross exaggeration it is also a generalisation, to categorically right off a country in which all 50 states produce wine, and California alone produces almost a third more than all of Australia. In the same way that Australian wineries would like to alter the stereotypical perception of Australian wine, I think that we possibly need to change our assumptions about American wine.