Three days into our Australian buying trip and I am heady and I am reeling. And I want to shout out the reason why from the nearest rooftop: I have just had the best wine tasting I have ever experienced.
I am writing this on an early morning flight from Perth to Sydney, following a good night’s sleep, so these are considered thoughts and not hasty scribbles. But reflecting on the last three days spent with Larry Cherubino, a recurring question is: God, how does this bloke do it?
I joined the wine trade way back in 1989 and I have attended my fair share of mega tastings – en primeurs, Bordeaux classed growth masterclasses, SuperTuscan launches. And I well remember the first time I tasted Jean-Francois Coche-Dury’s Meursault in his tiny cellar and thinking: Oh, so this is what they mean. So I am no virgin. But for sustained brilliance and diversity, nothing matches the last three days. Nothing.
Ever since our office was inundated with calls from wine journalists after Larry won James Halliday’s Winery of the Year and Matt Skinner’s Producer of the Year in the same year, we have struggled to keep up with the superlatives. But to my shame, this is the first time I have visited him (in fact the only time I have been to Western Australia was an in-and-out visit to Vasse Felix about ten years ago.) So I was anxious to chat about his different wine ranges as he drove Steve and I from Perth to Margaret River.
“This is how we look at things,” he explained. “With Ad Hoc we are looking for exemplars of varietal characteristics and style in each vineyard area. Sometimes these are then blended, sometimes not. With Pedestal, these wines are all about the sub-regionality of the Margaret River region; the north part is better suited to red wines with its slightly warmer Indian Ocean influence, but the south is better suited to whites due to the cooler influence of the ocean. Going up to The Yard, these wines come only from the vineyards that we own such as Channybearup, Riversdale, Justin, and Acacia . They are literally our back yard wines. The Cherubino range is simply the best expressions of fruit we can find. The Laissez Faire wines are meant to be as natural as we can make them”
As we approached the Margaret River area and the big gun emplacements of Leeuwin, Vasse Felix and Houghton, Larry explained the vast differences in terroir between the various regions he farms. “Margaret River is one of the best examples of a maritime climate in Australia. Pemberton, further south and further inland, is also cooled by the sea, but these breezes have moved across more landmass, bringing much-needed heat for ripening. Frankland River is inland from the Southern Ocean. The continental climate means sunny dry days and cold nights. Here, the afternoon sea breezes known as the Albany Doctor drop temperatures a lot. This diurnal variation makes for deep red wines and white wines with freshness and acidity. Mount Barker and Porongurup are both in the huge Great Southern area and have a continental climate. But, because Mount Barker is closer to the sea, the wind arrives earlier and its daily temperatures do not reach the same heights. Porongurup is an elevated region with excellent air drainage. Temperatures are moderated by the Southern Ocean.”
The Wilyabrup vineyard, where Larry is developing his Cellar Door operation, is situated at Cape Naturaliste, just north of Margaret River. Steve and I became terribly excited at the thought of going to a nude beach, but sadly the name refers to the other form of naturalist.
Larry showed us around the estate (and you can certainly feel the cooling wind from the Indian Ocean, which is one kilometre away.) Then we moved on to the first of our blockbuster tastings. I don’t want to bore anyone with long tasting notes, so these are impressions rather than notes:
Pedestal Pinot Gris 2016, Margaret River
(From a vineyard situated three kilometres from Wilyabrup. All fermented in two-three year old oak.)
Lovely soft nose. More rounded and elegant than a Grigio, as it has to be. Delicious.
Pedestal Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc 2016, Margaret River
(The blend is 67%/33%. Fermented in neutral and new oak. 3½ tonnes per acre.)
Oak evident, fruit restrained, serious. The Sauvignon seems the more dominant of the components. Going places, this one.
Pedestal Chardonnay 2016, Margaret River
(15% fermented in new oak.)
Beautiful classic nose. Very soft, elegant. Politely enquiring with one eyebrow raised.
Ad Hoc Hen & Chicken 2016
Lovely nose, cavorting in the glass, obvious, slightly tropical, melons.
Ad Hoc Pinot Grigio 2016, Pemberton
Delicious, moreish, fruity, great example. If only they were all like this.
Ad Hoc Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc 2016
(The blend is 80%/20%)
Lovely nose, serious and elegant and obviously classy. Travels down the more traditional, more subtle road, the one less travelled.
Laissez Faire Pinot Blanc 2016
Lovely expressive, nose, masses of peachy fruit. Poetry in motion.
Laissez Faire The Field Blend 2016
Amazing array of flavours on the nose. Peaches, citrus, stone fruit. Soft and luxurious. Long lasting.
The Yard Sauvignon Blanc 2016, Pemberton
(20% is barrel fermented for eight weeks.)
Rounded and elegant at the same time (how does he manage this?), refined, and obviously serious.
Cherubino Sauvignon Blanc 2016, Pemberton
(All barrel fermented, all new oak)
More concentrated than the Yard (same vineyard but from different parts). A symphony to the Yard’s concerto.
Cherubino The Beautiful South Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon 2016, Pemberton
(The blend is 85%/15%. All fermented in oak.)
Fruit still masked, hiding beneath a luxurious duvet, waiting to be peeled back. Slowly.
Cherubino Chardonnay 2016, Pemberton
(100% barrel-fermented, single Gin-Gin clone. Fruit is taken from one single block.)
Oh heaven – this smells gorgeous. Layered and intense. Wonderful, refined and very classy soft chardonnay with just a hint of ginger.
Cherubino Chardonnay 2016, Margaret River
(95, 96 and Gin-Gin clones)
Another ravishingly beautiful wine. A touch more closed, a touch softer, more ethereal, lifted.
(We spent twenty minutes salivating and comparing both of these masterpieces. I would say that the Pemberton is the Meursault and the Margaret River is the Puligny. We took a long time to recover.)
Pedestal Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot 2015
Lovely, complex, chunky young fruit
Pedestal Elevation Merlot, Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon 2015
A touch dusty, needs time, but voluptuous and crunchy fruit.
The Yard Cabernet Sauvignon 2015, Riversdale
Smells like Bordeaux – classic Claret-type nose. Steve seems so happy he is almost climbing up the wall. “You see a lot of good Aussie wines which are let down because of their excessive weight. This doesn’t have that problem. This has really good weight and balance.”
Cherubino Cabernet Sauvignon 2015, Riversdale
Chocolate orange and black fruit nose. Amazing complexity.
Cherubino Cabernet Sauvignon 2015, Margaret River
Dark brooding fruit, very serious. Chocolate box and sandalwood. Needs time. Tannins firm but not harsh. Not showy at all. Serious. Dark plums.
After this tasting, while Steve and I had a beer to recuperate, Larry cooked a dinner of salad, wild rice and lamb chops at his house on the estate. Here we got stuck into more works of art.
The Yard Shiraz 2015, Riversdale
Amazing fruit, beautiful clean scent. Gamey. The best of the three shiraz wines that we taste.
The Yard Shiraz 2015, Acacia
The fruit is a touch sweeter than the Riversdale, possibly needs a wee bit more integration.
The Yard Shiraz 2015, Justin
Massive fruit, brooding. The most closed of the three and needs more time.
Cherubino Cabernet Sauvignon 2015, Margaret River
Really expressive and vibrant fruit, blackcurrant, heady and rich. Sensual. Kate Bush on a very very good night.
After that, Steve and I staggered back to our guest house in the vineyard. The following morning I went for a jog around the estate and witnessed the diurnal variation; although it would climb to 32 degrees later in the day, there was a fierce and cold wind whipping off the ocean. I could have been in South Shields. Ish.
As we drove the 30 minutes or so to Larry’s 2,000-tonne winery, he explained some of his winemaking principles.
“Although I believe firmly in organic, biodynamic and sustainable principles as a way of preserving integrity, I don’t want to straitjacket myself in the organic category. There are definitely aspects of more widespread traditional winemaking that I agree with, and I’m quite happy to use them. Also, I strongly believe in synthetic closures. My feeling is that all wines are cork-affected, or at least modified by the closure. And after five years, you get good bottles, not good wines.”
At the winery Larry continued. “It takes thirty minutes to get from the vineyard to the winery. At the winery we crush, de-juice, chill, add in a very small amount of sulphur and then move the juice. We do not move grapes. Once they are here, we never rack our wines. We like to have them in a semi reductive state rather than an oxidative state. If you rack, when you have a problem with one barrel it can infect all of the others.”
And then, accompanied by winemakers Andrew Siddle and Matt Buchan, we tasted from tank.
Ad Hoc The Cruel Mistress Pinot Noir 2016
(To be bottled next week – we will be the first to receive this)
An explosion of raspberry fruit, huge and inviting flavours.
Apostrophe Possessive Red 2016
“A ripper” says Larry. Young fruit. Unfined, it is a little grainy but with masses of lifted fruit.
Laissez Faire Field Blend (Syrah, Grenache) 2016
Very young, dark broody plummy fruit. We all love this.
Ad Hoc Middle of Everywhere Shiraz 2016
Larry tells us that this is as good as the Yard Shiraz was some years ago.
Nose closed, but lots of serious fruit. Touches of liquorice and anise, a touch gamey. It is a huge step up on 2015.
(This may go into the Yard or Avant Gardening)
Lovely expressive fruit. Rich and plummy, but more rounded than many Argentine versions.
Cherubino The Beautiful South (Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Merlot) 2015 – from bottle
Lovely lovely wine. Complex, closed, big.
Apostrophe Stone’s Throw White 2016
A lovely rich and serious nose. Beautifully perfumed. The Gewurztraminer is really unctuous.
And then we came to the wine which will stay with me forever:
Laissez Faire Chardonnay 2016, Porongurup
My God! There is funk, there are funky wines, and there is Laissez Faire Chardonnay. A truly amazing array of flavours – ginger, cloves, nutmeg, a smidgeon of pineapple, apple. Where does this come from?
We then tasted this against the two Chardonnays of the previous evening – the Cherubino Margaret River and the Cherubino Pemberton. Eventually, we decided that the two Cherubino wines had more elegance and finesse and that the Laissez Faire had more outrageous fruit.
These three wines alone are worth the price of admission.
And then, still savouring the tasting as we left the vineyard, I received a text from Robin Knapp, our Regional Sales Director back in the UK: “Tell Larry that his 2013 Cherubino Cabernet Sauvignon is the best wine I’ve tasted in at least three years. It’s sensational and a complete marvel of balance.”
So I’m not the only one, then.
We then toured the vineyards, including Margaret River’s 30-acre Glamorgan vineyard, which supplies the fruit which goes into the Pedestal Chardonnay. Then we moved on to the 35-acre Channybeaurup vineyard, the main vineyard of Pemberton. They have pulled up most of the red grapes as it too cool.
As we drove on to Larry’s farmhouse in the Frankland River area, Larry pointed to the Stirling ranges in the very far distance, where it snows two times in every ten years. It is this coolness of climate, he explained, that accounts for the fact that a huge proportion of medal winners from Western Australia come from the Frankland River area. We stopped off at the Pemberton marron farm and Larry bought four marrons, a large freshwater type of lobster. They were still alive and kicking wildly as they were put into a container. This reminded me of the time I bought a couple of live lobsters from Steve Hatt and put them on the back seat of my car. The warmth of the car woke them up and during the journey home I spotted them in my mirror crawling along the back seat, like a scene from Them! What manly courage it took me to remain calm, composed and brilliant.
We visited the Justin vineyard, then passed near Mount Barker, and then visited the Porongurup vineyard on the edge of the brooding granite outcrop of the Porongurup range. Here, amazingly, the grapes had gone through veraison, in contrast to the still-green varieties from further north in Margaret River.
At dinner in the farmhouse, while Steve and I sipped a beer, Larry cooked the marron – and then out came yet more wines.
Ad Hoc Wallflower Riesling 2016
Demure and coy compared to the other Rieslings, but textbook fruit.
Cherubino Riesling 2016, Great Southern
Soft and expressive, floral, a touch citrusy.
Cherubino Riesling 2016, Porongurup
Really expressive floral, lemony Riesling. No trace of diesel or petrol, just waterfall-pure type fruit.
Laissez Faire Riesling 2015
A touch unctuous on the nose. Definitely honey. Open, seductive. Wonderful acidity.
We were drawn back to the irresistible once-in-a-lifetime Laissez Faire Chardonnay of the night before. Steve said: “There isn’t a Chardonnay in the UK that compares to this.”
Laissez Faire Shiraz 2015, Great Southern
Smokey, garriguey, liquorice. Like a Crozes-Hermitage.
Cherubino 2015 Shiraz, Frankland River
A touch of minerality. Herby. Lovely smooth fruit.
Laissez Faire Syrah 2014
A heavyweight feel in the mouth. Our sales teams would go mad for this.
Ad Hoc Avant Gardening Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec 2015
Larry: “This is a sleeper wine!” Restrained and quiet at first, but then in the mouth the taste kicks in and you get really upfront liquorice and concentrated fruit. Excellent.
And then it ended. At 1.15a.m. in a farmhouse at Riversdale in the Great Southern.
What to say?
Well, there’s nothing you can say, really. So Steve and I sipped a beer and stared out into the night. They said there would be times like this…