By Franz Scheurer
Last night I was privileged to attend a vertical tasting of Howard Park’s Rieslings and Cabernets encompassing 10 vintages of Riesling and 15 vintages of Cabernet. Needless to say it was both an exiting and educational night.
With its first release in 1986 Howard Park highlighted the Great Southern area’s potential for benchmark Rieslings and Cabernets to the world at large. Based in the coastal town of Denmark, 450km south of Perth, they practice winemaking by focusing on using only the best fruit from their vineyards and making wine using traditional methods, allowing the fruit to speak for itself.
For the Riesling select parcels of grapes are picked from small holdings throughout the cool climate Great Southern region. Kept cool until they get to the crusher only the grape’s free run juice is used. This keeps the phenolic compounds low and accentuates the flavour and acid composition. The wine is then fermented to dryness at 12º C to 14º C to preserve its delicacy producing wines of relatively low alcohol, finesse and great structure that are finely honed with absolutely no broadness, showing mineral and citrus overtones. Howard Park switched to Stelvin closures in 2001 for its Rieslings.
Howard Park’s Cabernet Sauvignon /Merlot is the company’s flagship wine and has achieved icon status in Australia. Again sourcing only the best fruit is the most important factor in its production. Cabernet Sauvignon from Mount Barker in the Great Southern region and from Margaret River and Merlot from the Great Southern and Pemberton regions provide the quality required. Each batch is kept separate in the winery, vinified in small open-topped fermenters with twice daily pump overs to aid colour and tannin extraction. This highly oxidative process allows tannins to grow and mature into long chain, softer and more textured tannins and the extensive skin contact, after completion of fermentation, (around 30 days) further develop the texture and allow tannin polymerisation. Matured for two years in 100% new French oak from Seguin-Moreau the final selection process for the wine occurs in barrel at the end of two years when each barrel is tasted separately to grade the wine and make the final blending decision. Howard Park’s aim is to create a wine that is highly structured, elegant rather than a blockbuster and extremely long lived. They certainly succeed.
We tasted the Rieslings starting with the 2002 vintage going backwards through the years to 1993. Michael Kerrigan, Howard Park’s winemaker, feels that the 1997 was the best Riesling in the line up, a wine that showed some ageing characters with a perceptive sweetness balanced by fabulous acid. My personal favourite was the 1993, a year where the fruit showed a small amount of botrytis giving the wine the added flavours of marmalade. Still incredibly lively for its age this wine could easily be mistaken for a 3 to 4 year old wine. To me, the 1995 was the weakest link in the chain.
The Cabernets were tasted in reverse order, starting with 1986 (the first vintage) finishing with the 2000 vintage. Now let me tell you up front that there was not a single wine in this line up that I would not be happy to drink, but the 1986 was astounding. Youthful (despite a lot of sediment), green capsicum on the nose, full of fruit flavours with chocolate, coffee and forest floor aromas on the palate, fabulously textured and mouth-filling with a long lingering finish. What a wine! Although I am generally a mean scorer there was not a single wine in this line up under 17/20. The 1988 showed a lot of VA adding an almost Burgundian element to the wine. The 1995 was the winemaker’s choice of the line up. Easily the most elegant wine in the line up it represents what he wants to achieve 100%. My personal favourite was the 1998, (75% Cabernet Sauvignon, 12% Merlot, 13% Cabernet Franc) a wine with an almost umami flavour, underlying aromas of beef stock, forest floor a touch of mint and capsicum with an unbelievably long finish and probably a little more powerful than Michael Kerrigan likes to make.
I like to thank Amy Burch and Michael Kerrigan from Howard Park and Andrew Wood and the team from Divine to bring this fabulous event to Sydney.