VOYAGER ESTATE: EXCELLENCE THROUGH ORGANICS IN 2020.
2020 IS VOYAGER ESTATE’S FIRST FULLY CERTIFIED ORGANIC VINTAGE AND THE VINEYARDS (AND THE WINES) HAVE NEVER LOOKED BETTER. GRAPES, SPIDERS, WINES AND VERY HEALTHY VINES.
I was standing in the barrel room at Voyager early on a Friday morning at the end of January, discussing the 2020 vintage in progress over a coffee with winemaker Steve James. Winemaker Travis, poked his head out of the lab and said “Steve, you want to take a look at this.” He passed him a small bottle of chardonnay juice. “It’s already at 12.8 baume”. As Steve tasted it, he raised his eyebrows and sort of chuckled to himself. “You know,” he said, turning to me “we normally pick this block a week later than the others. Looks like it’s pretty much ready to go now – we haven’t finished picking the other blocks yet.”
The end of the grape growing season in January 2020 brought with it fiery devastation and destruction to many parts of Eastern Australia, affecting even those areas that the flames did not physically touch. The vineyards in Western Australia were spared major catastrophe in the form of fire, but the season has been relentlessly hot, nevertheless. On the 16th of November 2019, the temperature hit 40.4C as Perth endured the hottest November day since records began. Not two weeks later on the back of the record-breakingly hot November, the temperature again climbed to 41.6 degrees celsius just after midday on Tuesday the 3rd of December, eclipsing the previous record of 40.4C on December 5, 1977. Needless to say: it’s been a warm start to the 2020 vintage, and we were reminded of that, last Friday morning, with the earlier ripening of the chardonnay block.
We spent that morning walking up and down rows of vines, tasting fruit at various stages of ripeness, and discussing the multitude of clonal trials that are underway. Perhaps the most interesting and ground-breaking shift in relation to winery and vineyard practices is the move to fully certified organic from 2020. The certification process began in 2017, however 2020 is the first vintage where both fruit and wine coming off the property is organic. The vineyards look really good for it. Healthy inter-row life, plenty of spiders, bugs and little insects ticking and clicking through the vines. It was buzzing with life and energy, and being there on that warm but overcast morning, I could not think of one reason in the world not to be organic.
The move to organics has been a long process, but one that seems to have yielded a wonderful natural balance in both the vineyard and the wines. It’s pretty much imbued in what everyone is doing and saying there – it’s already woven into the reality of the place.
While we were in the winery I noticed some (very) big (and good and fancy looking) concrete fermenters in the corner of the room. They were Nico Velo tanks used at Chateau Cheval Blanc in Bordeaux. “We had a local guy make one up for us [a replica] in stainless steel, to work out what the difference in material would make to the finished wine. We found that the rough surface of the concrete captures miniscule pockets of air that are absorbed into the wine from a very early stage. This seems to help soften the tannins and help with poise at the end of the day. That coupled with the fact that the sheer thermal mass of the concrete helps to regulate the temperature without the need for heating/cooling, like the stainless requires.”
So, onto the wines and vines. It wasn’t just chardonnay and cabernet that I was interested to learn about in the context of Voyager (although I’ll admit, the wines they make from these varietals are easily their best); it was the shiraz and the various Rhone Valley clones they are working with, the sauvignon gris (the only vineyard in Margaret River to have planted the variety), the chenin blanc and the merlot. Raise your eyebrows at merlot if you will, however this was a variety that made a very big impression on me. The usual clone forms a tighter bunch of berries. The varietal flavours are faint and likely it does more to enhance the palate texture rather than fruit characters of the wine. They have a second, Italian clone of merlot planted approximately 7 years ago at the property. This fruit looks vastly different, and hangs in a much looser, almost straggly, uneven way. Tasting the fruit (and looking at it), even unready as it was, was a revelatory experience and I did not expect to say that about merlot any time soon. It had fine phenolic texture, a burst of raspberry fruit at the front of the palate and rounded out to a spicy cocoa character. I have always been taught to look for this character in merlot, but have never seen it as clearly in Australian merlot as I did that day – certainly it changed my opinion of its future success as a standalone variety.
Back in the winery, we tasted through the current wines. The clarity with which those vineyard blocks speak through the wines is astounding. The Broadvale Block 6 Chardonnay, for example, is made from Clone 95 chardonnay; not the typical Gin Gin clone. It has a much more pronounced and zingy acid line and a character which I could only describe as lime blossom. It’s leaner and brighter than the Gin Gin. The berries are thinner skinned and bigger (making another point of difference, in texture, to Gin Gin), with a shorter optimal picking window. This clone is always put through full malo (the acid can handle it) and the resulting wine shoots straight across the centre of the palate – it is structured and almost linear – perfectly ordered, a perfectionist if a person.
The Broadvale Block 5 Gin Gin clone is all about textural flow. Raised on full solids and aged in lower toast barrels than those of the Broadvale Block 6 wine. The full power of the clone is made apparent on the palate – it is fuller, chewier, more concentrated. If this clone had a shape in the mouth, it’d be like a comet – all power and glory up front, with a long lingering tail as it goes by. (It is advisable not to get too attached to this individual bottling, the 2018 is the final year where it sees its own label.) Both wines go through the same winemaking process; wild ferment and no fining, albeit tailored oak to match the different attributes of each. Together, they make the Voyager Estate Chardonnay. It is a blend of the 95 and Gin Gin clones, and the ultimate example of a ‘perfect sum of parts’.
Seeing each clone expressed so eloquently in their individual bottlings only serves to make the Estate wine more beautiful. It’s a fantastic intersection of contribution. A balancing act of texture through the palate, power and finesse, and purity of fruit expression. Looking ahead to a barrel sample of the Estate Chardonnay 2019 showed a wine that was already integrated and uniform. The 2019 MJW from barrel had been blended only the week prior – a 60% / 40% blend of Block 6 and Block 5 respectively. Already the edges between clones were blurred, the wine purely representative of that vineyard site on top of the hill and the soil it grows on. Pretty exciting stuff if you ask me.
We moved on to the cabernets and again, each component has its own individual bottling. Perhaps I might have thought this method convoluted prior to this tasting (I didn’t actually, I hadn’t considered it, but I might have, had it been suggested to me), however after the experience with the chardonnays, and having been to the vines and tasted the berries, I could not have been more ready for it.
The 2015 North Block U12 (‘U’ here stands for Ullingers) has an elongated, pinot-esque elegance about it. Structured and silky. The fruit has a real darkness with hints of cocoa, cassis and raspberry (all of which were evident in the berries). “This vineyard has produced top shelf cabernet from day one” says winemaker Jimmy Penton. There are rivulets of flavour running through this wine. It is perfumed and persistent, the tannins are like finely crushed gravel. I have to say, some vineyards really have a personality to them… and this one was, just, different somehow. The breeze that whipped through it was the essence of coastal (let’s call it roughly 6-6.5kms from the Indian Ocean) and the vines looked… energetic, somehow. Anyway, if you’re with me or not, the wines carried that vineyard feeling into the glass.
The 2015 Old Block V9 (Voyager old block, from the original plantings from 1978 - 42 years ago) cabernet was fragrant from almost a metre away, rhubarb and mulberry with salted heirloom tomatoes. The wine was balanced and restrained with incredible power, in only an older-vine-can-produce kind of way. I asked Jimmy about the tannin structure in the Voyager Cabernets, because as far as I am concerned, this is really one of the defining characters of their house style. They are uniquely soft and fine, while providing sure structure and palate shape. They are recognisable and they are intriguing. “We keep the ferments cold, and we don’t push them too hard, too early. There is a slower release of finer tannins with the cold, but we don’t cold soak. We’re chasing perfume and texture” said Jimmy.
Both wines see 50% new French oak, and 50% 2 year French oak. Which leads us to the 2015 Estate cabernet. First of all, this wine is the first to feature the first crop of that intriguing little Italian merlot clone (4%, but its presence is felt). As with the chardonnay, this Estate cabernet is a blend of the two single bottlings: ~60% U12 and ~30+% of the V9, 4% merlot. The wine is cohesive, plush, balanced and complete. It has that finesse from the Old Block V9 fruit, and the elegance and flavour from Ullingers. And the tell-tale Voyager tannins: firm, fine, seamless and omnipresent.
Steve James started his wine career in viticulture, “I’m a viticulturist who learned winemaking, usually it’s the other way around.” This made perfect sense to me when we were walking those vineyard rows. He looks at every vine, touches leaves, tastes fruit, and talks about the clones and blocks with total authority and knowledge. Both he and Jimmy have been at the winery for a very long time. The consistency of custodianship shows in the wines.
You want a dynamic and excellence-focused winery that is actively investing in not only perfecting the current wines but exhibiting an impressive single-mindedness when it comes to safeguarding its qualitative future? Don’t we all. Voyager Estate.