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Howard Park Dream Vertical

Western Australian wine is a true phenomenon.It contributes less than 5% of Australia’s total production, but in a good year, can create some of the country’s best Chardonnay, Riesling and Cabernet Sauvignon.

And in such a short space of time, just over 40 years, the west has come a long way. 

Margaret River has an identity of “bush, blue sky and surf” combined with “pioneering spirit meets entrepreneurial drive” to create something that is completely unique, stylish and undoubtedly Australian.

One of the stories that completely embodies this special identity is the Burch family that owns and operates Howard Park Wines.

Like many of the great Margaret River estates, Howard Park did not start as a Burch family concern, but as a side project. In 1986, John Wade, while working as a winemaker at Plantagenet Wines, made a Riesling and Cabernet at Denmark Agricultural College and labelled them in honour of his father Howard. During this time, John attended a single bottle club lunch in Perth as a guest and sat next to Jeff Burch. Over this lunch a kinship was formed and not long after that Jeff and his wife Amy became partners in Howard Park.

Two years later, Jeff Burch purchased a picturesque 138 acres of pasture in Margaret River that has the Wilyabrup creek running through it. Named Leston after Jeff’s father, it was situated in the heart of prime vine growing territory.

The partnership between John and Jeff grew and in the early 90s they added Chardonnay to the Howard Park stable and started to release wines under the MadFish label. Early on, MadFish gained attention due to the striking depiction of the Aboriginal water turtle that symbolises perseverance and tolerance. Produced from cool climate fruit as approachable, contemporary and solid value wines, MadFish is now 20 years old and one of Australia’s most recognisable wine brands.

A family business

Over the next decade, the MadFish-Howard Park growth story accelerated. They purchased a property in Denmark upon which the first winery and cellar door were built. Jeff’s brother David and sister Lesley came on board and foundations for a new winery and cellar door at Leston vineyard were poured as the flagship single vineyard range of Scottsdale Cabernet and Leston Shiraz was released. By this stage, John had left and Howard Park-MadFish became a Burch family operation.

In the early 2000s, they acquired a 200 hectare, cool climate property in Mt Barrow (Great Southern).

As the wine stable grew and the quality increased, the accolades started to roll in. Jeff and Amy’s daughter Natalie joined the business, and the Burch family combined forces with Burgundian winemaker and biodynamic ambassador Pascal Marchand on a project to produce wines from both WA and Burgundy under one label. The Marchand & Burch range includes French bubbles (Cremant), Pinot and Chardonnay and Australian Shiraz, Chardonnay and Pinot.

Today, family is still at the fore with Jeff CEO, Amy GM and marketing director, David managing the vineyards, daughter Natalie managing operations and sons Richard and David managing east coast sales and marketing.

Tasting history

Wine is the Burch family’s religion and it binds them in a way that is both humbling and inspiring. To get closer to their story, along with Wine Selectors Panellist Dave Mavor, I headed to Margaret River for a tasting with the family. In their newly opened Wine Chapel, we absorbed the family narrative through the varieties they hold dear: Riesling, Chardonnay, Shiraz and Cabernet.

Howard Park Riesling 2001, 2004, 2005, 2008, 2012, 2014

Howard Park Chardonnay 2003, 2004, 2007, 2009, 2013, 2014

Marchand & Burch Parongurup Chardonnay 2011, 2013, 2012, 2013, 2014

Marchand & Burch Mount Barrow Pinot Noir 2012, 2013, 2014

Howard Park Leston Shiraz 2000, 2002, 2003, 2005, 2009, 2012

Howard Park Abercrombie Cabernet Sauvignon 2000, 2003, 2004, 2008, 2010, 2012

First up was Howard Park Riesling from the cool climate of Great Southern, a wine that since 1986 has defined the identity of Howard Park and is one of Australia’s most collected. Stylistically, Great Southern Rieslings are quite different from those of Clare or Eden Valley in that they start out as tight and slender with positive minerality, and with age, blossom into generous and elegant wines that have wonderful complexity. The older examples of 2001 and 2004 proved that these Rieslings age wonderfully with both wines showing delicate, youthful flavours balanced by toasty development. Everyone had favourites for a range of reasons: winemaker Janice McDonald loved the 2012 for its concentration and effortless neutrality and Natalie favoured the 2014 for its refreshing zest and weight.

The highly awarded Chardonnay was next, stretching back to 2003. These wines are constructed with a mixture of fruit from Mount Barker, Porongurup and Margaret River and represent the leaner, cooler side of the Chardonnay spectrum. Very pretty and elegant, they have fresh acidity and bright, clean flavours that help them age slowly and gracefully. Minerality and texture are noticeable with the standouts holding beautiful fruit flavours of melons, grapefruits and nuts with a creamy, savoury complexity. Dave enjoyed the 2007 with its fresh citrus core and Jeff loved the 2013 for its balance and length.

French connection

Next came the Marchand & Burch Porongurup Chardonnays. The standard was high with a lean and tight style that delivers citrus and melon flavours with complexity, minerality and finesse. Standouts were the 2013 for its crème brulée aromas and tropical fruit palate and Jeff loved the 2007 for its French leanings and flinty complexity.

Pinot Noir followed with the Marchand & Burch Mount Barrow line-up. These wines showed a distinct development of style that highlighted how critical vine age is to creating wines that have weight and complexity. The 2012 was lovely, with pretty sour cherry fruit, savoury spices and soft tannins and the depth and structure built as we moved through to the 2014. Considering how demanding Pinot Noir can be, especially from young vines, the potential of the Marchand & Burch Mt Barrow Pinot is massive. Amy and Natalie were both wowed by the 2014 due to its luscious layers and fine complexity.

Leston Shiraz was next, stretching back to 2000, and considering Margaret River is not known as a Shiraz region, the high quality and consistency came as a pleasant surprise and highlighted the diversity of Australian Shiraz. All the wines had a lovely soft, black fruit signature with delicate layers of spice and fine tannins. As Shiraz goes, these wines are definitely on the savoury side and the oldest wines were aging beautifully. Richard loved the 2003 for its complexity, Dave’s standout was the balanced 2005 and Janice loved the perfume and fruit integrity of the 2009.

Flying the Cabernet flag

Lastly came the flagship Abercrombie bracket crafted from a selection of the oldest vineyards in Margaret River, Mount Barker and Porongurup. These wines are serious; they have depth, structure, complexity and would easily rank as some of the best Cabernet Australia can produce. Named after Jeff’s great-grandfather Walter Abercrombie, the wines are earthy, savoury and full of black fruits, but have incredible finesse and harmony. Jeff was impressed with how well the 2000 had aged, Natalie loved the 2012 “just because.”

The tasting was a special line-up of wines that highlighted that Howard Park, just like WA wine, has come a long way in a short space of time. The exercise was made extra special by the generosity of the Burch family in sharing their wines, their stories and proving that wine is made better with family.

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