As one of the ‘founding five’ Margaret River wine estates, Cape Mentelle has achieved much in a short time and helped shape the region’s identity. To celebrate their 50th anniversary, Selector explores the great wines of this great estate.
Plenty can happen in 50 years, but when it comes to wine, the game is long. The ones that have had time to evolve, to experiment, make mistakes and recover are the ones that make great wine more often.
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Cape Mentelle is one such estate, and as you dig into their story, it becomes clear that foresight and a willingness to experiment are the drivers behind them becoming one of Australia’s great wine stories.
Pioneers of the Cape
In 1965, mining engineer John Hohnen purchased a 110-hectare property called Wallcliffe Farm. Until the late 1960s, it was a beef farm, but when beef prices fell, John saw an opportunity with wine. He and his sons Giles, David, Mark and John Jnr planted five hectares of Cabernet Sauvignon in 1970 and Cape Mentelle was born.
There was no blueprint for wine in Margaret River back then and John had no experience in viticulture. Befriending neighbour Tom Cullity (Vasse Felix) and inspired by drinking the great wines of France, they set about creating solutions to the challenges of growing vines and making wine with limited resources, learning from each other along the way.
In building Cape Mentelle, all the Hohnen siblings played a role. Mark was in finance, John Jnr brought contacts to the table, Giles’ artistic talents created the label and David, who went to California to study winemaking, eventually returned to take the lead. The lack of resources and capital meant creativity and experimentation soon began to define Cape Mentelle.
From their first vintage in 1976 through to the mid 1980s, the choices David and the family made pioneered winemaking in Margaret River and paved the way for others. The Hohnens were the first in the region to build with rammed earth, and the first to create a tasting environment that was attractive to women.
“David understood very quickly the power of the woman’s palate,” Mark Hohnen recalls. “It rocked us when we started the cellar door to realise the real decision-maker was the woman. David got an old tractor and built a kids’ play area and had a colouring competition in the cellar door. He was the first to acknowledge that if the kids are happy, then the parents are happy, and would be more inclined to make a purchase.”
Cape Mentelle was also the first in Australia to pioneer wine club marketing and communication by creating Mentelle Notes, a monthly newsletter that kept members up to date with the goings on at the estate. David began an annual benchmarking event called the ‘Cape Mentelle International Cabernet Tasting’ that brought together some of the world’s best Cabernets, and David became one of the first in Australia to plant Zinfandel.
David’s experimental approach soon began to gain traction, with Cape Mentelle winning Australia’s most coveted wine trophy, the Jimmy Watson, twice in 1983 and 1984. This was the first time a winery outside of South Australia and Victoria had won the award, and for a 12-year-old winery, it was unprecedented.
These wins put Cape Mentelle and Margaret River on the map and soon David branched out, planting more vineyards and establishing New Zealand’s Cloudy Bay in 1985.
Tasting Cape Mentelle
Today, Cape Mentelle is owned by Moët Hennessy, but the ethos of experimentation and the founding spirit of the estate is preserved and nurtured by a team including winemakers Ben Cane and Coralie Lewis, working closely with viticulturist David Moulton.
“We don’t make any compromises on the quality or level of personal involvement,” notes David. “In such an extraordinary terroir, with its vast unrealised potential, there is a common feeling that we are the current custodians of this beautiful place, with a duty to keep exploring the potential.”
To get a closer look at the special wines of Cape Mentelle, Ben hosted Selector through a tasting of its special vineyard and varietal assets stretching back to the early 1990s.
The Whites of Wallcliffe
Starting with Sauvignon Blanc Semillon, it is clear Cape Mentelle’s non-barrel and barrel fermented approaches to this style are designed to appeal to both ends of the wine loving spectrum. As Ben explains, the Sauvignon Blanc Semillon blend is a perfect expression, not only of Cape Mentelle, but of Margaret River in general. “Margaret River can be defined by its SBS,” he describes. “It is fresh, distinctive and has a unique energy to it, the Sauvignon Blanc represents the ocean and Semillon represents the earth. There is nothing quite like it anywhere else in the world.”
The 2019 Sauv Blanc Semillon is clean, energetic and full of fresh lemongrass and gooseberries and the barrel fermented Wallcliffe versions (15/16/17) are more textured and creamy showing depth and harmony between the two varieties.
Three vintages of Chardonnay followed, showing a preference for a more traditional style that is rich, full and creamy. All three wines had peach, apple and vanilla spiced aromas and generously weighted palates full of stone fruits, melons, brioche and cream.
Zinfandel as a variety typifies David Hohnen’s approach to experimentation. Having fallen in love with the variety in the States, he procured it once back in Australia to plant one of the country’s first commercial plantings.
The punt worked and Cape Mentelle’s expression of the variety has carved out a solid following. It’s a rich and powerful wine with waxy blue/black fruited aromatics and a complex, savoury palate expressing layers of chocolate, cherries and Christmas spice.
A collection of red Wallcliffe wines from the original 1970s and 1980s plantings followed with each wine representing the best individual vineyard expression for each year. Each vineyard parcel is micro-selected, harvested and produced, and after maturing in the cellar, is graded and blended as a limited release wine. These are expressive wines aimed at purists with the 2014 Cab Sauv/Cab Franc impressing all with its youthful poise, structure and detail.
Representing the second iteration of Cape Mentelle vineyards planted in 1988, the Trinders wines are a nod to the classic 19th century Australian varietal pairing. Designed as a balancing act between the opulence of Shiraz and the structure of Cabernet, these wines are full, layered and complex. The 2017 was favoured for its European spice and elegance and the 2018 for its power.
A wonderful bracket of Cape Mentelle Shiraz stretching back to 1995 showed comprehensively over a 25-year spread that if Cabernet Sauvignon is king in Margaret River, then Shiraz is queen. Savoury and opulent, these wines are powerful and complex. The older wines showed graceful, long term cellaring potential and the younger wines all had highly appealing qualities.
The Single Vineyard and Two Vineyards Shiraz bottlings from 2015 and 2016 represented a step up in complexity, showing more European style spice and mouthfeel. The 2016 includes a very small amount of Viognier to lift the aromatics and add texture. Both wines impressed with their velvety textures, elegance and complexity.
Lastly came five Cabernet Sauvignons spanning 28 years from 1992. These special wines show an incredible amount of detail resultant of the effort that goes into the vineyard and winemaking.
“Cape Mentelle Cabernets are on the juicier side of Margaret River Cabernet, showing the special attributes of Wallcliffe,” offered Ben.
Precise and elegant, these wines are truly special with the nearly 30-year-old 1992 showing soft youthful characters melding into aged blackfruits and leathery complexity. The 2004 impressed with delicate finesse and the 2012 and 2016 both showed a brooding complexity that promises to unfurl beautifully.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of Cape Mentelle and this bracket, as well as the others, showed much has been achieved in a short space of time, cementing the estate as one of our greats.
Read more on how Cape Mentelle has a greater focus on minimising our carbon footprint as well as maximising the quality and complexity of our wines.