One of my motives for visiting Howard Park was to taste Western Australian wines from regions other than the Margaret River. It's well known that Howard Park produces fine wine from the Great Southern region, but they also spread their wings to less famous south-Western Australian regions such as Pemberton, Geographe and the little known Harvey.
The range at Howard Park is large and diverse, probably the largest I encountered in the region. Other than their flagship Howard Park range, they also release more affordable products under the MadFish label. Interestingly, they now make reserve level MadFish wines under a new Gold Turtle label. I haven't seen the Gold Turtle range in Adelaide yet, but some of the wines look promising. I like the clean and simple labeling of these new wines, as well as their provoking variety/regional combinations. I also applaud the lack of direct competition with Howard Park.
OH MAN! IT'S A MAN!
When I first walked into Howard Park's modern, spacious, or perhaps even cold and neutral cellar door, I noticed something was different:- it was staffed by a man! This was the first and inevitably the only male cellar door hand I encountered in the Margaret River. To be frank, I actually felt a sense of relief.
I was so enthused by this revelation I immediately approached him and introduced ourselves, while congratulating him on his fine achievement. Turns out his name was Jamie. Now what was even more surprising, was he was easily the best cellar door hand in the Margaret River. Which made me wonder why there weren't more like him around. I'm not sounding sexist, am I?
Jamie possessed six attributes which I think made him great. There were no other Margaret River cellar door hands I met whom I considered possessed these attributes. These basic attributes are:-
1. Passionate about wine
2. Passionate about learning more about wine
3. Loves people
4. Loves meeting new people
5. Honest to the customer
6. Ability to improvise
There was no question Jamie was passionate about wine, but I really appreciate someone who is passionate about learning about wine from wherever they can. Many cellar door hands hold the impression they educate the customer and that's it, but really, it's a two way street. Every single person who walks into the tasting room is an educational opportunity for a cellar door hand, and the good ones are aware of this. Even the most novice of wine drinkers is a chance to gain knowledge. The novice tourist may not be able to provide information on the great wine estates of Burgundy, but they can certainly provide information on consumer tastes, opinions, trends, stories and so much more. This feedback is vital. Too many cellar door hands ignore this fact, believing they and only they are capable of intellectual wine conversation, and the customer's role is to listen, not speak.
Jamie talked with us for nearly an hour, slowly, across their entire range. It was downright obvious he listened carefully to everything I said and even though it perplexed Beck a bit, I loved that he asked her direct opinion on every single wine she tasted. Brilliant Jamie, brilliant.
Honesty was also a fine attribute of Jamie's. As we drank and discussed, he gave us his honest opinions of all their wines. That's right, he even told us which wines he doesn't like! Not much frustrates me more than going to a cellar door with a large number of wines and being told by the host how great every single wine is. "I like this one, now this one's my favourite, I really like this one, I drink this one all the time etc. etc. etc." This kind of attitude tends to make me tune out a bit on a cellar door hand's opinions, but as soon as one tells me they don't like a wine, that's when I start to think they're being honest with me, and really listen to them (this isn't to say there aren't wineries out there who produce brilliant wines across their range).
Something I've just come up with is Jamie's ability to improvise. Howard Park charge a $5 tasting fee for any Howard Park wines, only the MadFish range is free of charge. We had a brief introduction and discussion about wine as soon as we arrived, then proceeded onto the first MadFish wine (the riesling). After the first tasting Jamie questioned us on our opinions of the wine. I responded with a typical Australian Wine Journal-esque comment, to which Jamie listened carefully. Immediately, he offered to pour the Howard Park Riesling. That's how the rest of the tasting proceeded. Jamie quickly picked up I was no young punk looking to get pissed for free (some cellar door hands never realise this) and reacted accordingly. He ended up pouring us the entire Howard Park range, including the newly named flagship Abercrombie. At no point did he ask us for money. Personally I felt he saw it as a good opportunity to get a more detailed opinion of the Howard Park wines.
Bravo Jamie, bravo. If I presented an award for best cellar door hand in the Margaret River, you'd get it by as big a margin as Brisbane's Daniel Rich just won the NAB Rising Star Award.
The Howard Park whites were the real highlights here again. The 2008 Riesling in particular is looking quite spectacular, seemingly even better than when I reviewed an entire bottle at release.
Howard Park's reds however, disappointed me once again. I can't remember having a Howard Park red I really liked since the 2004 Leston Cabernet Sauvignon to be honest. At $40 cellar door I'm concerned their prices might've gone up. I recall paying $28 at Man Durphys for those 2004 Lestons. I do like how Howard Park only released one of the reds from the very cool, poor 2006 vintage (the Leston Cabernet), but the 2005's weren't much hat anyway.
The MadFish range had some good surprises. The pinot noir and carnelian (my first encounter with this variety) were real successes for under $20, while the Margaret River sourced Gold Turtle Chardonnay might've been even better than the Howard Park Chardonnay.
MadFish Riesling 2007 ($17)
Great Southern fruit. Fast developing, more savoury riesling with a dry, schisty and austere palate. 87
Howard Park Riesling 2008 ($25)
Outstanding purity of fruit character coupled with superb structure, acids and length. This was even better than I remembered. A real purists riesling, but even my girlfriend who doesn't fully appreciate the style loved this. 94
Howard Park Sauvignon Blanc 2008 ($25)
Wood fermented Margaret River/Pemberton fruit. The wood is just starting to overlap its fruit now, but it still remains a most enticing savvy with an emerging savoury flavour profile and smooth texture. 92
MadFish Gold Turtle Chardonnay 2007 ($24)
Margaret River. Good aromatic lift to its melon, stonefruit and vanilla oak notes. The palate has very good length of pungently flavoured chardonnay fruits. A long and generous chardonnay with surprising refinement. This could challenge the Howard Park in coming years. 93
Howard Park Chardonnay 2007 ($38)
Very generously proportioned, savoury chardonnay with a fine marriage of tightly wound mineral lemon citrus notes and bready barrel ferment notes. Creamy texture. (reviewed separate post) 91
MadFish Pinot Noir 2008 ($19)
Pemberton. Sweet cherry and raspberry nose with hints of stalk evident. True varietal fragrance. Fairly light palate but does have reasonable depth of flavour and some earthy undertones. A rare, pleasant early drinking Western Australian pinot noir. Priced correctly. 88
MadFish Carnelian 2007 ($19)
A hybrid variety of cabernet sauvignon, carignan and grenache. Jamie told me he really didn't like this but I still approached it with open arms. Slightly sweet, confection like red berry fruit characters with some soft vanilla accents. Palate is medium-bodied with good, silky concentration on entry, before a wave of very strong, firm tannins takes over the wine, dominating the finish. The tannins seem a little detached, but I have a feeling they'll sort themselves out in the next 6-12 months. I found this quite enchanting, and now deeply regret I didn't buy any at that price, as finding some in SA could take some work. 89
MadFish Gold Turtle Tempranillo 2008 ($28)
Lightly perfumed, cherry fruit and licorice/aniseed nose. Palate does lack true depth, revealing strong all-spice characters. 87
Howard Park Scotsdale Shiraz 2005 ($40)
Quite ripe and meaty, with cooked fruit evident. Palate doesn't meld well, lacking length, impact and sensuous enjoyment. 85
Howard Park Leston Cabernet Sauvignon 2006 ($40)
Some minty tones to red/dark fruits and vanilla oak. Quite a distinctive, well defined palate for this vintage, but it doesn't show true penetration or harmony. 88
Howard Park Abercrombie Cabernet Sauvignon 2005 ($85)
Once again berry fruits and vanilla oak on the nose, with obvious eucalypt notes. Good concentration to the palate, with a pleasing savoury undercarriage, but it does seem to have a slightly disjointed tannic lift, without the sensual ripeness of the best '05s. 90