By Celia Strong
The Margaret River – Cape Mentelle area of Australia is known for tourism, surfing, caves, and, yes, good wine. Which is the whole point of learning about it. So, a lot of interesting tidbits to cover, all of which come together to make our wine for this week what it is.
First, let’s look at Australia — the country where Margaret River and Cape Mentelle are located. The Australian wine industry is the fourth largest in the world. About 40 percent of their total production is consumed in Australia. There are more than 60 designated wine regions, with about 350,000 acres of vineyards. The best known regions are South Australia, New South Wales, Victoria, Western Australia, Tasmania and Queensland. Their main grape varieties are Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot, Semillon, Pinot Noir, Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc. Wines labeled as a grape variety must include a minimum 85 percent of the named grape. The first grapevines were brought to Australia in 1788, but the plantings failed. The 1820’s saw the first wines produced in Australia. The beginnings of the industry were hindered by a climate and soils that were very different than those the European growers were used to. They learned and adapted, though, and now they are a huge industry.
The Margaret River wine area is located in the South West of Western Australia, 172 miles south of Perth. The cost here is well known to world surfers. Before wine became so popular, and a driving force in tourism in the area, hardwood timber and agriculture were the mainstays of the local economy. Locally, the area is known as “Margs.” The town’s name, also Margaret River, is thought to come from Margaret Whicher, a cousin of John Garrett Bussell who founded Bussellton (another town) in 1831.
The Margaret River is located six miles inland from the Indian Ocean. Boy, it’s not often we hear about that one in terms of wine regions and climates. Anyhow, the climate here is a humid, Mediterranean one. Annual rainfall is about 44 inches, mostly between May and August. During the growing season, humidity levels, soil content and vineyard practices all come together to make this area’s wines exceed expectations and make them one of the premium wine producing areas in Australia. (We have to remember, harvest in the Southern Hemisphere comes before this rainier season.) The Margaret River wine region is mostly boutique style wineries.
Cape Mentelle is a limestone bulkhead on the Indian Ocean coast of southwestern Western Australia. It is located just north of the mouth of the Margaret River, about 12 miles north of the town of Margaret River. The cape was named on February 4, 1803, by French geographer, historian and cartographer Edme Mentelle. The cape was first charted in 1801, by a French expedition. And the cape gave its name to our winery for this week — Cape Mentelle.
Australian wine industry pioneer David Hohnen, and his brothers, established the winery in 1970. They started with just 35 acres of vines, now called the Wallcliffe Vineyard. They experimented with various grape varieties, including Shiraz, Cabernet, Zinfandel, Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon. In the beginning, they were known for their Cabernet wines. In 1983, they won a prestigious award for their 1-year-old dry red wine. Another award, in 1984, cemented their reputation. Their Cabernet was considered as one of Australia’s best wines. Of course, these awards meant that Cape Mentelle concentrated on red wines. In the beginning, at least.
In 1985, though, the winery saw a turn toward white wines. That was the year that David Hohnen founded a sister winery in New Zealand called Cloudy Bay. World recognition for Cloudy Bay, and their Sauvignon Blanc wine, helped Cape Mentelle Winery gain recognition also. And, Cape Mentelle went on to develop a special white wine, a Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon blend.
Backing up for a moment, though, the 1970s and 1980s at Cape Mentelle Winery were years of experimenting. Improvements in quality and consistency, the understanding of what each grape could do in its particular soil and climate, and the development of a winery style — all of these were what the winery worked on. A partnership with Veuve Clicquot, the Champagne house, brought them financial means to move forward. That meant modern equipment, a new cellar and global markets. Pretty much, a ticket to success, with the right basics, of course.
Today, Cape Mentelle is still part of the Moët-Hennessey portfolio and is still a sister to Cloudy Bay. And still making their special white wine — Cape Mentelle Sauvignon Blanc Semillon, our wine for this week. As we’ve learned lately, Sauvignon Blanc is a white variety that comes from the Loire River Valley and Bordeaux regions of France. It found a niche in the soil and climate of New Zealand that let it become a popular wine around the world. In Australia, this variety found a home in the Margaret River region. As compared to its New Zealand sisters, Sauvignon Blanc wines from Australia tend to be more ripe in fruit flavors, including white peaches and lime notes. And with a bit higher acidity, which is saying a lot.
Semillon is a much less well-known variety. This grape has a gold colored skin, not green or pinkish green. It is a vigorous variety, which means it grows a large number of bunches per vine and grapes per acre. Its wines tend to be more heavy than Sauvignon Blanc’s, with lower acidity and an oily texture.
Because of its vigor in the vineyards, Semillon has been grown in almost every wine region in the world. It was once the most planted grape in the world. By the 1920s, Semillon covered over 90 percent of the vineyards in South Africa. In the 1950’s, it was planted in over 75 percent of Chile’s vineyards. In France, in Bordeaux, it is one of three approved varieties for their white wines, including the great Sauternes. In Sauternes, the high number of grapes per acre, and its ability to stay on the vines and develop botrytis, make it into some of the best and most expensive dessert wines ever.
For a long time, in Australia, Semillon was a very popular and widely planted grape. Sometimes, though, in the beginning, it was labelled Riesling. Oops.
Cape Mentelle found that in their Margaret River region, Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon blended together can become a special wine. So, we get the 2011, 51 percent Sauvignon Blanc and 49 percent Semillon. This wine is fermented in stainless steel to augment its fruit flavors. It is a bright quartz color with greenish tints, with intense fruit flavors and complexity. The flavors include citrus, grapefruit in particular, stone fruits, like peaches, nectarines and kumquats, and tropical fruits like star fruit, mango, passion fruit, guava and more. The natural acidity in this wine is readily apparent, but not too aggressive. During aging, only about 15 percent is barrel aged — just enough to add vanilla and toast hints, if you’re paying attention.
While great with seafood, this wine is also perfect with a turkey dinner. We did say we needed to find new wines for holiday dinners. So this Cape Mentelle Sauvignon Blanc Semillon is new, different, delicious. And only $13.99. Nice to meet the sister. Enjoy!