Jeremy Gordon, winemaker of Amelia Park Wines in Western Australia’s Margaret River, shows how the region is dispelling old notions of Australian winemaking with ambrosias that offer elegance and complexity.
Winemaker Jeremy Gordon tells me wine tourism is growing in Margaret River, but the region is “located so far on the other side of Australia that we sometimes get overlooked”. It is quite an amusing remark: If you are an international visitor heading Down Under from Asia, Perth in Western Australia offers the shortest flight time. Perhaps what Gordon meant was a sense of geographical isolation. After all, between Margaret River and Adelaide in South Australia (the next nearest destination city), you have a 2,000 km drive through a Mad Max world of dusty highways and creaky roadhouses.
It is this isolation that happens to be Margaret River’s biggest strength. Tucked in the southwestern tip of Western Australia and nestling right beside the Indian Ocean, the area has a maritime climate, allowing it to escape the extreme temperatures that often trouble inland wine regions like Barossa Valley and Yarra Valley.
“The beauty of being that close to the sea is it moderates the temperature,” says the 45-year-old Gordon, who runs Amelia Park winery. “The coastal breeze works like an air flow, blowing straight through the vineyards, drying out the canopies, and decreasing disease pressure. There is a lot of talk about global warming these days, but it doesn’t really affect us in Margaret River. We have had consistently good years.”
Gordon says winemakers are “doing backflips” for this year’s vintage. The Perth native has come full circle with Amelia Park in Margaret River. After starting his career with Evans & Tate in Western Australia in the 1990s, he moved to Hunter Valley and spent seven years there before returning to Margaret River to set up Flametree Wines with his wife Daniela in 2005. The venture did not turn out well, so in 2009, they established Amelia Park in Wilyabrup. Today, the winery focuses on the Margaret River staples of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Semillon. It produces 300,000 bottles a year—a fairly small operation—and is a rising star in the Aussie wine industry.
The Right Plot
Like other wine regions in Australia, Margaret River’s winemaking fashion has ditched the big shoulder pads, saying goodbye to fat, chunky quaffs and welcoming sleek, elegant ambrosias. “The wine styles have become more refined. Back in the 90s, I used to make really powerful and buttery wines, with more oak,” recalls Gordon. “We used to pick the fruit later [during harvest season] so they would have a higher alcohol content.”
Gordon and his team now handpick the Cabernet Sauvignon grapes for his mid-tier Reserve range in the cool of the night to keep the fruit’s freshness. The grapes are then crushed and destemmed, and fermented with minimal pump-overs for a gentle extraction of tannins. The wine is then aged in French oak barrels for 18 months. For his entry-level Trellis Collection quaffs, the grapes are machine-harvested.
“You can still get top quality fruit from machine-harvesting,” says Gordon. “There’s a lot of spin [from winemakers] these days about whether the fruit is handpicked or machine-harvested. But handpicking won’t guarantee the best job either—if it happens during the day, fruit may sit around under the heat, or you may have pickers who just want to fill buckets and pick whatever they want.” Old vines, which are easier to control because they are less vigorous than younger vines, may not necessarily give great fruit, too, if the soil is not ideal, he adds. “On the other hand, you can have young vines and a perfect site, and you’d get outstanding wine. Thus, site or vineyard location is everything.”
The gravelly loam soils of Wilyabrup are great for growing Cabernet Sauvignon. “If you look at the best Cabernet Sauvignon grown around the world, they are always in soils with a lot of rock in there to allow for good drainage. You don’t want earth that is rich or else you’d have too much vigour in your vines.”
Gordon’s Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon is a Bordeaux-style blend—a popular style in the region given the dominance of Cabernet Sauvignon in Margaret River—which also contains a small amount of Malbec, a grape better known as the flagbearer of Argentinian wines. “Merlot can be quite a fickle variety; it may not give you the softness you are looking for sometimes,” he says. “The Malbec [in Margaret River] is lighter and doesn’t have the weight of its Argentinian counterpart. It is beautiful and lush, and gives my Cabernet blend an extra bit of roundness. I guess I can’t help myself mucking around.” He adds that he’d love to do a straight Malbec but he doesn’t have enough fruit—he currently owns only a hectare of the grape variety.
In recent years, small plantings of ‘alternative’ varieties like Vermentino, Sangiovese and Tempranillo have also showed up in the region. Gordon thinks this reflects the winemakers’ willingness to experiment with grapes that may grow well in Margaret River’s climate. Gordon makes Pinot Gris and a Tempranillo rosé, to show that Margaret River isn’t “just about Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay”.
The top tier Amelia Park Chardonnay is arguably the winery’s showpiece ambrosia and should clearly put the old, anti-Antipodean joke of ‘ABC’ (Anything But Chardonnay) to bed. The wine is fermented in barrels with wild yeast and allowed to mature on its lees for nine months. The 2017 vintage has a lovely, gentle expression of peach, honey and citrus notes, and a beautiful minerally finish. For such a youthful wine, the profile is layered and complex, offering much cellaring potential.
A New Era
Gordon notes that Margaret River is still not very well understood on the global stage. “When people think of Aussie wine, they have in mind a place like South Australia and its Shiraz. But Margaret River makes Shiraz, too, which has a more delicate style. For example, we source our grapes from Frankland River, which has been producing outstanding Shiraz for a long time. It shows the quality we have from the diverse sub-regions in Margaret River,” he says.
Despite increasing demand for his wines, Gordon doesn’t plan to increase the size of his vineyards or production for now. “The way of the future is about quality, not quantity. I got caught up in the wine industry when it was booming, with many big companies setting up in the region. Some of them have had problems when ownership changed hands,” he recalls. “But today, we are seeing more independent winemakers starting their own small wineries. And that’s what it should be because winemaking is a cottage industry—it should be made by passionate families.”
This article was first published in Wine & Dine’s Sep/Oct 2018 issue – Behind The Scenes At Singapore’s Top Restaurants.