Considering he has almost boiled himself alive, Voyager Estate's Steve James is in remarkably good shape.
The manager of winemaking for the Margaret River winery has spent the night wrestling with a reluctant air-conditioning system in his hotel room. In trying to reduce the temperature, he accidentally turned it up to the max and woke up feeling like a lobster in a French restaurant.
A day of dinners and tutored tastings almost certainly would have been low on his list of 'things I'd like to do today' when he woke up.
But now, sucking on a cold beer, he is in animated form. Perhaps because of the reception for his Voyager Estate Project Sparkling Chenin Blanc, which has gone down very well with the assorted restaurants and on-trade buyers who he’s spent the day showing it to in Soho.
‘We used to make sparkling Chardonnay, but even at 10 Baumé it still had too much fruit power,’ he tells Imbibe. ‘Chenin has better acidity and less “flavour” than Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. It’s been a big hit for us.’
There is, as he admits, no shortage of wineries experimenting with different grape varieties in Australia at the moment. And even in Margaret River, the staunch heartland of Cabernet and Chardonnay people are playing around with Mediterranean varieties.
Voyager Estate have put in some Tempranillo ‘as an experiment’ but James seems less than sold on the idea. ‘It could work in the north of Margaret River,’ he says with the same amount of conviction a parent shows a child intent on making perfume out of crushed grasshoppers. ‘Though I’d tend to veer towards Spain. Mencia could be interesting.’
He’s equally lukewarm about Shiraz, pointing out – rightly, in the opinion of this journalist – that it will always be the poor relation to Cabernet Sauvignon.
‘Cab’s just at home in Margaret River,’ he says. ‘With Shiraz you’re always trying to manage the growth, whereas Cabernet is a natural in the vineyard.’
If this sounds like a ‘nothing to see here’ story, then think again. There is ongoing work in the region on improving the Bordeaux varieties, particularly Merlot.
‘We were lucky in Margaret River to inherit a really good clone of Cabernet – the Horton Clone. But our clones of Merlot were very average,’ he says. ‘The quality of fruit off our new 181 and Q45 clones has blown what we had before out of the water. There’s just no comparison. All our old clone Merlot will be gone inside five years.’
What will not be gone inside five years is Chardonnay. Voyager Estate were one of the pioneers of the new style back in 2000. And if the early ‘flight from big fruit and oak’ days saw the pendulum swing too far towards Chablis, James thinks they’ve got it about right now.
‘Sometimes you have to go to the boundary to know where to come back from,’ he says. ‘We are in a happy place right now.’
Certainly, Australia had another strong showing with the grape in this year’s Sommelier Wine Awards, with seriously positive feedback from the tasters.
‘ABC [Anything But Chardonnay] was more a move away from a style of Chardonnay than Chardonnay itself,’ says James. ‘There’s a stack of great Chardonnay in Australia now. It’s been around for centuries – it’s not a fad variety.’
The good news is there should be a truck load of good stuff coming out of this year’s vintage as well. James is quick to back up the comments coming out of other parts of Australia that this year could be one to look out for.
‘2018 is a fantastic vintage,’ he says with obvious enthusiasm. ‘It will go down as one of the greats. It was mild, with timely rain in December that set the vines up, and with no excessive heat. There will be lots of flavour and beautiful acidity too. The only disappointment is that our yields are down 10%.’
With clonal improvements, and top class expressions of Chardonnay and Cabernet lined up and ready to go, is there, I suggest, perhaps a groundswell of support in favour of introducing some kind of appellation system, that prevents less successful wine styles from attaining the Margaret River label?
James looks as though I’ve just tried to sell him some crushed grasshopper perfume.
‘I embrace that diversity,’ he says unequivocally. ‘It’d be pretty boring if we all made the same kind of wine wouldn’t it?’
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