Margaret River’s Secret Weapon

Margaret River in Western Australia is synonymous with high quality Cabernet Sauvignon and red Bordeaux blends. Its sunny maritime climate and gravel soils have been likened to Bordeaux, but though ‘secret weapon’ might be overstating things slightly, another factor at play here is the particular clone of Cabernet Sauvignon called the Houghton clone.

Unique to the isolated vineyards of Western Australia, the first plantings of its ancestor vines were in the early 19th century. But the story really takes off in the 1930s, when Houghton Vineyards in the Swan Valley to the north of Margaret River took cuttings of old bush vines and established a specific vineyard block. It would be cuttings from this block, some 30 years later, that became the first Cabernet planted by Vasse Felix in Margaret River. Other properties in the region soon followed.

Science played its part too, with research in the 1990s looking at the viticultural qualities of the Houghton cone, including blind tastings, that concluded the clone produced superior results in this region. That led to a renewed focus for plantings and re-plantings in the area. It is a low vigour clone, producing small berries and low yields, and achieving good ripeness of skins and tannins. This tasting gathered six top wines of Margaret River, each made entirely or predominantly from the Houghton clone.

The Wines

(2022) From vines with an average age of 25 years grown on predominantly gravel soils. There's 5% Petit Verdot and 4% Malbec in the blend and the wine spent 14 months in French oak, 40% new barrels. It's a rich, deep, cherry- and blackcurrant-scented wine, with a definite, firm herbal and cedary edge. In the mouth quite buoyant and ripe black and red fruits, a lean spine of acid and fine tannins, leaving it fresh and quite racy on the finish.
(2022) Vines here were planted in 1978 amd 1995, 94% Cabernet and the balance Merlot, planted on free-draining gravel over clay. The wine was in French oak barrels for 17 months, 50% new. A year older than the Xanadu Black label also tasted, and visible softer and lighter on the rim. Lovely nose, a hint of briar and herbs over ripe and succulent black fruit. Tiny lift of menthol. Sweet and plush fruit on the palate, a thick blackcurrant ripeness, but the creamy and toasty oak underpinning is offset by firm, fine tannin and juicy acidity for a very satisfying and balanced wine.
(2022) The blend includes Petit Verdot 8% and Malbec 2%, 20 - 40 years old grown on well-drained gravel loam soils. A small proportion saw carbonic maceration, and the wine was aged in French oak barriques (44% new) for 18 months. A year since I last tasted this, and the impression is much the same: lifted and fragrent, the olive/tapenade hint of the herbal adds a smoky savouriness to the sweet and solid black fruit. On the palate a tongue-coating raft of thick black fruit and creamy tannin, smokier barrel components combining with brighter cherry acid for a long, fruit and acid-driven finish.
(2022) Biodynamically farmed on tiny, gravelly block planted in 1999. It is 100% Cabernet Sauvignon pressed to French oak barriques, 40% of which were new, for 16 months before bottling. A little development of colour here, and tapenade aromas, earthy and deep with black fruit, but cedary and savoury rather than brightly fruity. Creamy textured, the fruit does come through with mid-palate sweetness, then that restrained, coffee and sweet leathery spice dominates. Balanced and has real gastronomic appeal.
(2022) Free draining soils with high ironstone gravel content were planted 17-47 yearsa ago with Cabernet Sauvignon (90%), plus 5% each of Petit Verdot and Merlot.  The wines were matured for 18 months in selected barriques (mainly French with a tiny amount of Hungarian wood), of which about 58% were new. Just beginning to show some colour development on the rim, this has a graphite steeliness to the aromas, the fruit taut and black, a hint of leafiness and mint. On the palate there is copious sweet black fruit; there's a ripe confiture character, plenty of upfront approachability, but the savoury aspects of tight barrel aromas, fine and sandy tannins, and cherry-pit acidity balance very nicely.
(2022) 27-year-old vines on top soil over a bed of gravel, extending to clay. 94% is Cabernet Sauvignon, with 4% Malbec and 2% Cabernet Franc. A small proportion was wild fermented and the wine stayed in barrel for fully 20 months, all new French Oak. The oldest wine in this small selection, showing minimal colour development. Lots and lots of graphite and cigar-box, a very firm and taut blackcurrant fruit, again those small herbaceous notes adding interest. In a similar vein to the Cape Mentelle, the sweet ripeness of fruit striking the palate is surprising, a mouth-filling succulence, but very classy and elegant support from tight, creamy oak tannins, keen and slightly saline acidity, and a long and very pure finish of spice, fruit and freshening acidity.

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