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Leeuwin Estate: producer profile and 12 wines tasted

One of the early pioneers of Western Australia’s Margaret River wine region, Leeuwin Estate quickly became famous for its now iconic Art Series Chardonnay, after being ranked top in a Decanter tasting 40 years ago.

By: Sarah Ahmed, Decanter

Leeuwin Estate planted Margaret River’s first Chardonnay in 1976, swiftly becoming synonymous with the variety. Two parcels planted to the Gin Gin clone, Block 20 and 22, still produce the winery’s iconic Art Series Chardonnay today.

And from those nascent plantings, it didn’t take long for the wine to make a name for itself. The 1981 vintage – just the second release of Leeuwin Estate’s Art Series Chardonnay – was ranked top in a Decanter international Chardonnay blind tasting.

It was a remarkable result, particularly as Leeuwin Estate was a cattle farm when entrepreneurs Denis and John Horgan bought it in 1969. Not only were vines a relative unknown, so was the Margaret River wine region.

The property fell into the brothers’ hands following a corporate deal to buy an industrial plumbing business. Heavily invested in gold-mining, property, technology and oil, they had no interest whatsoever in wine – it was the location that appealed to Denis, a keen surfer.

Everything changed in 1973, when Robert Mondavi came calling. Consulting for American investors, the California wine legend alerted the Horgans to the property’s winemaking potential.

Rather than sell, the Horgans kept the land, entering into a joint venture with the American investors instead. For several years, the partners developed the original vineyards, winery and portfolio in close consultation with Mondavi. The ambition from the outset was to create world-class wines.

Mondavi convinced the Horgans that Chardonnay had a great future. Accordingly, Leeuwin Estate not only introduced the variety to Margaret River, but also instigated into Australia the Burgundian methods of barrel-fermentingageing and stirring Chardonnay on its lees.

Leeuwin Estate’s joint-CEO Simone Furlong believes that being new to the wine industry was an advantage for her parents, Denis and Tricia Horgan, who bought out her uncle John in the 1980s. ‘They grounded themselves with the most fantastic technical team and the pursuit of knowledge, never wavering from a commitment to excellence.’

What about Cabernet Sauvignon?

Leeuwin Estate is located several kilometres south of Margaret River town, where the predominant influence comes from the chillier Southern Ocean (as opposed to the Indian Ocean). The cool climate enhances the perfume and acid structure of early-ripening Chardonnay, but can be more challenging for late-ripening Cabernet Sauvignon, accentuating its herbaceousness. Consequently, Margaret River’s highest-profile variety has always been second fiddle at Leeuwin Estate.

It is not uncommon for southerly producers (Leeuwin Estate included) to blend in Cabernet from warmer sites to the north, enhancing concentration and tannin ripeness. Since 2002, following an improvement program for red wines, Leeuwin Estate has been progressively reducing the amount of northern fruit, especially for its Art Series Cabernet Sauvignon.

Dry-grown and planted in the mid-1970s to local Houghton clones, Block 8 is the backbone of the Art Series Cabernet. With small berries, a rich repository of tannin, colour and flavour, ‘Block 8 is to Cabernet as Block 20 is for Chardonnay’, says Leeuwin Estate’s chief winemaker Tim Lovett.

As a result of opening up the canopy to more sunlight, rigorous yield management and slightly later picking, ‘we have seen increased concentration, balance of fruit flavours and refined tannins in our estate Cabernet,’ says Lovett. Individual berry sorting (since 2011) and hand-harvesting (from 2017) have also improved fruit intensity and finesse.

Beyond Chardonnay and Cabernet

The red wine improvement programme has accentuated the perfumed, detailed, medium-bodied style not only of its more southern-focused Cabernet, but also Shiraz.

Art Series Shiraz predominantly hails from the Peppy Park vineyard. Located 16km south of Leeuwin Estate and further inland, it has a continental climate, with cooler nights. Playing into that, since 2010 Leeuwin Estate has pursued ‘a more European style’, says Lovett, a fan of Northern Rhône Syrah.

Visits to the French region have encouraged him to ferment with whole bunches and age Shiraz in larger (600-litre) barrels. This highlights the lifted spice and floral notes of Peppy Park vineyard.

Leeuwin Estate wants to raise the profile of Margaret River Shiraz. Following intensive research of soil, wind and aspect, it earmarked three sites on granitic soils: Henry’s Vineyard, Helicopter Hill and Airstrip West. Shiraz plantings within these have tripled its Shiraz holdings to 11ha. The sites are planted to a number of clones, including some from New Zealand (Craggy Range’s Waldron clone) as well as the Rhône.

Shiraz is not the only unusual suspect. Leeuwin Estate is one of a handful of producers here to persist with Riesling. Being a maritime region, Margaret River does not give Rieslings as incisive or linear as those from South Australia’s best-known continental regions like Clare and Eden Valleys.

However, sourced from Margaret River’s oldest and largest holding – four blocks on free-draining, deep, gravelly soils – Leeuwin Estate’s Art Series Riesling shares the mineral tang found in Western Australia’s best examples from Great Southern, 200km further south.

While Margaret River is known for its Bordeaux-style Sauvignon Blanc-Semillon blends, Leeuwin Estate has also long produced a varietal Sauvignon Blanc. Lovett relishes the grape’s aromatic ‘pop and spark’, and a touch of oak makes for a versatile, food-friendly style.

Art Series – and a series of arts

Unusually, rather than building up its brand, Leeuwin Estate launched its super-premium label, Art Series, first. Next came the Prelude range: wines of structure and layer, but made for early to mid-term drinking. The upfront yet sophisticated Siblings range is the entry point.

Conscious that Margaret River was a remote, sleepy backwater in the 1970s, the Horgan family has always drawn on high culture – be it gastronomy, art or music.

Inspired by Mouton Rothschild, artwork has featured on the Art Series’ labels from the beginning, and is chosen each year by Tricia Horgan. The gallery at the Leeuwin Estate winery is home to more than 170 original works by Australian artists.

While the wines play on the world stage, world-class acts have also played on Leeuwin Estate’s concert stage since 1985, when Denis Horgan jumped at the opportunity to host the London Philharmonic Orchestra.

Celebrity chefs make guest appearances too. Since 2012, the Gourmet Village at Leeuwin Estate has been at the hub of Gourmet Escape, Western Australia’s food and wine festival.

‘Wine is sharing, and sharing is what we love about Leeuwin Estate,’ says Simone Furlong. ‘My parents wanted to create something special, and invite people to connect with their passion, energy and excitement.’

97 points – Leeuwin Estate, Art Series Chardonnay, Margaret River, Western Australia 2018

THE ICON From an excellent vintage – warm, with very few hot days – this muscular yet lithe Chardonnay suffuses the senses with Leeuwin Estate’s clear and penetrating signature perfume of granular pear and fleshier fresh fig. Harmonious lemony acidity makes for an ultra-long, seamless finish, through a palate of acacia, lanolin, smoke and crème patisserie. The concentrated fruit effortlessly mops up the 100% new oak. A luminous, graceful and balanced powerhouse.

93 points – Leeuwin Estate, Prelude Vineyards Chardonnay, Margaret River, Western Australia 2019

Late January rain refreshed this unirrigated vineyard, and perfectly ripe Chardonnay was harvested in early March. Burgundy clones and an element of natural ferment with turbid juice give a savoury accent and pillowy, creamy, oatmeal tones, while perfumed pear and white peach flesh out a persistent backbone of zesty lime acidity. Burgundian barrels (40% new) add classy toasted hazelnut and vanilla nuances. Well made, complete and raring to go.

92 points – Leeuwin Estate, Siblings Sauvignon Blanc, Margaret River, Western Australia 2019

THE SMART BUY Classic lifted, pungent aromas of freshly cut grass and herbs, with an exotic lemongrass twist. These follow through on the lively palate, joined by mouthwatering lemon, lime and grapefruit with a pop of pea pod. A barrel-fermented and lees-aged component (30%) and splash of Semillon (7%) enhances structure and texture, with talc and asparagus nuances. Versatile and food-friendly.

94 points – Leeuwin Estate, Art Series Cabernet Sauvignon, Margaret River, Western Australia 2016

A warmer than average late summer and ideal conditions during March and April produced excellent intensity of blackcurrant on the nose, with lifted cedar and cocoa. Sweet blueberry and crunchier red cherry chime in on the medium-bodied palate, together with creamy praline, cedar and cumin oak notes. Ripe but present taffeta tannins elegantly frame the fruit and it has a lingering, spicy finish.

90 points – Leeuwin Estate, Prelude Cabernet Sauvignon, Margaret River, Western Australia 2017

A mild, late year with no April rainfall has given a delicate, translucent and primary Cabernet, with aromas of dried roses, a kiss of oak, chocolate, cedar and toast hints. It has a sappy, redcurrant and cherry palate (thanks to 8% Merlot) with fleshier plum, blackcurrant and graphite undertones and smooth tannins. Pleasant and approachable but lacks a bit of character and conviction.

93 points – Leeuwin Estate, Art Series Shiraz, Margaret River, Western Australia 2017

THE HIDDEN GEM From a cooler year, white pepper, rosewater and cardamom bring levity to nose and medium-bodied palate, along with precise and focused mineral acidity – a Leeuwin signature. The 3% of dense, rich, tannic Malbec accentuates the bright plum and red berry freshness of the Shiraz. Fermented with 20% whole bunches and aged in 600-litre French oak barrels, the fine fretwork of tannins anchors the fruit and lingering spice flavors.