“Naked ladies dancing on the tongue.” This is how I responded on first tasting Art Series Chardonnay at the cellar door of Leeuwin Estate in 2004.
Hearing my uncensored appreciation, the man serving me at the cellar door, Mr D. Moore, told me a story. He told me about the wine’s background.
It is arguably Australia’s greatest Chardonnay. It’s almost A$100 a bottle. [Edit: In 2023 it retails for no less than A$140.]
The story begins in 1969. In that year the cattle farm known as “Leeuwin” was sold to Dennis Horgan, an enterprising accountant in Perth. The property is in the Margaret River region, about 300km south of Perth.
Then one day in 1973 Dennis received a phone call. A Seattle attorney called enquiring if Dennis was interested in selling the Leeuwin cattle property. The prospective buyer was an American, Robert Mondavi (pictured right on his 90th birthday).
To research this name Dennis instructed a secretary to go to the State Library in Perth. The report came back that Mondavi was a well-known name even beyond his wine world of Napa Valley, California. He’d been on the cover of Time Magazine!
Alerted by this market knowledge, Dennis re-evaluated his property. He considered his options. In time, instead of selling to Mondavi, he asked him to be a consultant, to turn Leeuwin into a vineyard. A business relationship began. In time Dennis and his wife Trish visited Mondavi’s mission-style winery in California.
In making his purchase bid Mondavi’s eye noticed the similarity of Margaret River to great wine regions of Europe. Common features were a similar latitude and proximity to sea winds on three sides (see the map below).
Denis planted a nursery in 1974 and in 1975 started planting a vineyard. In 1978 a winery building was opened.
Mondavi selected the land at Leewin where Chardonnay vines should be planted. Chardonnay was a rare variety in Australia at the time. By now 200 acres of various vines were in place. In 1980 the first Leeuwin Chardonnay was made, and Decanter magazine in Britain in 1982 named it the best in the world. The dream run continues to this day.
The success of Leeuwin Estate owes a great deal to the family business Dennis and Trish Horgan have run. From 1985 Trish has managed the Leeuwin Concert Series. Its total audience is now over 100,000. It has featured local and international acts including orchestras, Ray Charles, Diana Ross, Tom Jones, Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, Sting and The John Butler Trio.
Mr Moore, my cellar door informant, said that Chardonnay vines have been tried on other land at Leewin. Nowhere do they have the quality of the plot selected by the fine wine master, Mondavi.
Quality is the hallmark of the Margaret River. It is said to contribute only 3% of Australia’s wine grapes, yet commands over 20% of Australia’s premium wine market. [2023 Edit: Now about 16 years later, that percentage has not declined.] There are nearly 5,000 hectares under vine and over 100 wine producers in the region.
This story about fine wine is timely at this time when even friends of Australian wine abroad are recommending re-invention back to the future, a re-emphasis on quality amidst increasing New World Wine competition.
Leeuwin Estate remains a class act. Wine, concert promotions, label design – all still spell “quality”.
It is timely also because Mondavi died last week, on 16 May 2008, aged 94. He was an Italian immigrant’s son. He went from being almost jobless and broke in 1965 to growing a huge wine business and selling it in 2004 for US$1.35 billion to Constellation Brands, the world’s largest wine company. He became an ambassador for fine wine and mentor to many of America’s finest winemakers and for one enterprising couple in Western Australia.
Photo credit: Photo of Robert Mondavi credited to Scott Manchester/The Press Democrat in New York Time.