The return of Leeuwin’s Chardonnay
It’s hard being the best. Or, more correctly, it’s hard to stay the best. Ask any chef who has lost a prized chef’s hat or an Olympic swimmer who can’t quite put in the gold medal winning laps any more. Either will tell you just how hard it is to keep on performing, to keep on winning.
What’s even more challenging perhaps is to realise when you’re slipping before it’s apparent you’re slipping. To nip a problem in the bud before it is even a serious problem. To take an A game and make it an A+ plus game.
All of which brings me to the Leeuwin Estate Art Series Chardonnay. A wine that is, arguably of course, Australia’s most famous, most revered Chardonnay, built in a style that, for the past 15 odd years, all of our Chardonnay makers have wanted to emulate.
Not any more...
Well, not quite any more. For, in the last few years at least, perceptions have changed. Tastes have changed. Australian Chardonnay has changed. Changed from a model of richness and opulence and intensity to something more refined, more minerally, more... of less. It’s now about a style that is set in a cooler climate, with the new benchmark wines on lighter, drier, less oak driven, less rich and less overt than they were before.
The problem for Leeuwin is (or was) that this ‘new’ style is not what was selling. It wasn’t what LEAS (as it is affectionately known) drinkers were clamouring for, and nor was it what the winemakers really thought needed to be done (particularly as sales were still strong). It was more just a perception (one probably perpetuated by wine writers like me).
Yet, like the aforementioned athletes and restaurateurs wish they’d done, what Leeuwin realised was that whilst the star power was still there, the brightness of the star wasn’t quite as apparent any more. They needed to adapt to stay up at the top of the tree.
So what they – and I’m particularly talking about newish winemaker Tim Lovett here – have done is to reinterpret the style. Tim’s cut back on the new oak, reigned in the malolactic fermentation and picked the grapes earlier. He’s taken all the good bits – that wonderful fruit intensity and that serious ‘take me to the cellar’ structure – and seen how they can be tightened up. He’s cut the fat and removed the artifice, all making for wines that taste fresher and tauter without losing that trademark swagger.
All of which is laid apparent in the soon to be released 2009 Leeuwin Estate Art Series Chardonnay ($85), a wine that – despite the warm vintage – looks fitter, svelter and just plain more drinkable than it has in years. It’s a wine that you’d now reassert as the benchmark Chardonnay it is/was/should be - a famous wine, with a long history, packing a lauded reputation for greatness.
Of course it’s still not perfect, and the alcohol still pokes out a little, yet it feels like a step back in the correct direction.
The wines:(I wrote these notes at a vertical of Leeuwin Estate wines held recently in Sydney. Tim Lovett was in attendance and I must say he seems both keen and informed. I was intrigued just to see that he has been able to make his mark on the style. What was most amazing to me though was just how far along the Cabernet has come along. No longer a leafy and dried out also-ran, it now looks proper ripe and really quite impressive.
The following notes are largely as written on the day. Notes from the winery are in italics too).
Leeuwin Estate Art Series Chardonnay 2005
Sour lactic nose. Big volatiles. Nose is blunted by volatiles. A honeyed alcoholic sort of beast with richness aplenty, the flavours all about buttered sourdough richness and alcohol. Raw and held together by alcohol, though so much power and weight. Hard one to score. More shell than wine. More statement even. 17/90+
Leeuwin Estate Art Series Chardonnay 2006
Full malo. Looks very backward, with a milky and completely backward and unusual nose. Very composed and lean sort of wine underneath with white flowers, white peach and fine flavours. An atypical Art Series Chardonnay and a rather solidsy and long, super defined wine. There is a coiled length and detail here that is quite exciting. Excited. Such an odd wine though. May live forever too. 18.7/95
Leeuwin Estate Art Series Chardonnay 2007
Shows big alcohol esters on the nose with butterscotch underpinnings. Back to normal LEAS. A big and slightly raw palate of big open flavours and a sort of heartiness to it. Grapefruit acidity is quite impressive though alcohol detracts a fraction. Lots to like but the alc. hurts a smidgen. Classic LEAS Chard. 18.3/93
Leeuwin Estate Art Series Chardonnay 2008
Looks warmer and has an open, gaytime-esque richness. It's a fraction more mealy too, a little toasty and oaky and just a bit broad trough the middle. Golden sunshine style without the detail. All through the middle and not quite the penetration, though the middling characters may be something of a passing, dumbish phase? 17.7/92+
Leeuwin Estate Art Series Chardonnay 2009
Definitely a more restrained wine this one, closed but more grapefruity too, with very fine buttered nougat flavours and just a fleck of melon. Long finish seems less encumbered by alcohol and certainly a rather smart wine. Everything in its right place, with that typical mouthful of Leeuwin richness and weight. Ligher and more exuberant with real joy. 18.5/94+
CabernetLeeuwin Estate Art Series Cabernet Sauvignon 2005
Lovely mulberry eucalypt nose. Ripe but also laid-back minty. I think you've got to be mint tolerant, but there is depth underneath. Age certainly helping this wine, for I think it would have looked a little pointed and underripe in its youth. 17.6/91
Leeuwin Estate Art Series Cabernet Sauvignon 2006
13% alc. 11% Malbec, 2% Petit Verdot
Light and minty style. High acid with sticky tannins, looks a fraction short and very minty indeed, though not without some attraction. Rather light and simple though. 16.5/88
Leeuwin Estate Art Series Cabernet Sauvignon 2007
Finally fully ripe! Plays the mint card rather well this time, with a quite open nose. Long drying tannins are the key to this wines charm, coupled with a little more ripe red/black fruit, bark and more mint. I like this! Almost regal style underneath. Needs a tweed jacket. 18.5/94+
Leeuwin Estate Art Series Cabernet Sauvignon 2008
Immediately more modern, generous and less minty/dust. It's certainly a more open and approachable wine but perhaps a diffuse one. Generous, but still dried and savoury, there's extra baby fat here. Good now, perhaps even very good, but better later. 18/93