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The Campbell Mattinson column

Howard Park back to its best

By Campbell Mattinson 

Let's cut to the chase: there's a popular theory that the premium West Australian producer Howard Park Wines just isn't as good as it used to be. After all, John Wade, the winemaker who made Howard Park famous, has been gone for a few years now. And taking John Wade out of Howard Park is like taking Lois Lane out of the Superman stories. It's just not the same.

And for a while there it's a theory that probably had some truth; but let there be no doubt, it does no longer. If there is one truth of winemaking it is that the best wines come when the winemaker has had time to get to know his vineyards intimately – and judging by the latest release wines from Howard Park, new winemaker Michael Kerrigan must be damn near having an affair with the vineyards at his disposal.

There's not a dud in the line-up. The range is split into two: the Madfish Bay range at the everyday drinking end of the (a-hem) scale, and the Howard Park range in the premium bracket. And while the Madfish Bay Pinot Noir 1999 is the least appealing, the Madfish Bay Chardonnay 2000 is a ripper: unoaked and fruity, it's lusciously aromatic with lifted lime and peach scents which then offer a real party-in-the-mouth of fresh, tropical fruit. Completely outside the standard Australian cliché of oaky buttery richness: I could not fault it as an unoaked fun-and-friendly style.

The same goes for the Madfish Bay Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot 1999 blend and Shiraz 1999. Absolutely two peas in a pod, both are seriously good, black-fruited, inky-purple stunners. I preferred the cab/merlot - and really, what Howard Park is doing putting fruit of this quality into this level of wine borders on the insane (though get in on it while it lasts). Lovely dark chocolate flavours with a layer of cool capsicum and considerable length, this is really good Oz cabernet in a spiffy bottle at a great price. Howard Park are clearly trying to make an impression on the UK market and are over-delivering in quality-at-the-price to do it. Grab some.

Same goes with the shiraz: it's got a touch of earthy black-pepperiness to it and is more closed than the cab. But the quality is there.

The Howard Park range itself is a step up - and an interesting one when you consider the quality of the Madfish; here we have more traditional styles. The Howard Park Riesling 2000 is a perfect expression of Oz riesling - and if you're unfamiliar with the style it's quite different to the German style. The best Oz rieslings are stunningly dry, zesty, zippy beasts with (usually) a quite magnificent ability to age. The Howard Park version fits this mould. Intensely lemony, minerally, dry and racy, it carries a slight edge of orange-rind complexity and is really begging to be put away for seven or more years. To hell with it. Give it a go now with calamari salad on a warmish day. Yum.

Though if you want real class, the Howard Park Chardonnay 1999 pretty much delivers it. Beautiful green/yellow (always a good sign), this is a wine throwing truly delicious scents: just-ripe nectarine, lovely crisp clean stone fruits, grilled-warm nuts, and a fine line of musky/butterines there too. It all oozes on to the palate, which is fine and refined and rich with pristine grapefuit and lime. If I had to fault it, it could do with added complexity. But the bottle we had disappeared fast. Say no more.

Which brings us to the big one, the star of the stable, the Howard Park Cab/Merlot/Cab Franc blend 1998. Without doubt, this is a big wine: and unless you enjoy drinking huge brooding beasts then this one really should be left alone for some time. That's my only caveat. Everything else about it is quite sensational. Highly oaked, yes, particularly on opening, and really should be allowed to breathe for a few hours. Once it has, you'll find that it's quite massively fruit-flavoured, the colour like searing red-black coal, the texture plush and luscious and velvety like panther fur. And yet (and this is the thing) at no time is there anything melodramatic about it all. There are scents of light soy and nutmeg, charry aniseed and very freshly-shaved pencils, all of which falls into sweet and savoury harmony. The same goes for the palate: here there's charry oak. Crushed blackberry depth. A cover of leafiness. And stalky, fine tannins to finish.

Believe it or not, I'm generally not a great fan of big black high-powered wine, but the '98 Howard Park is thrillingly, juicily, sensually soft and – in the true sense of the word – complex. In 6-9 years time, this wine will have me blubbering like a madman.

Which is pretty much how I am about the whole Howard Park range right now: there's something there for everyone; drink the Madfish Bay wines now, and the Howard Park wines later. It's all looking very, very good.

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Copyright Ó Campbell Mattinson 2001