Margaret River is one of the few places in the world where fine Chardonnay and Cabernet can beautifully co-exist.
Larry Cherubino tells us why he has resisted the call for Chablis style austerity and we taste his two latest releases of Robert Oatley Pennant
by Lisse Garnett
Cherubino knows his stuff. He’s been making wine for over twenty years and is in huge demand. He started his professional life as a horticulturalist and his connection to the vines is obvious. Frankland River is his home turf. He is approachable open and direct.
We meet to sample the two new releases of the Pennant – at the very top end of the Robert Oatley range and priced accordingly, these wines are made in comparatively tiny quantities. They need to hit the market at the right price to make them viable. Wines are layered, full, complex yet refined and tense – not in the least bit malnourished, no struck match here.
Larry Cherubino/ Chardonnay in Margaret River is famed for quality – it’s the most consistent Chardonnay region in Australia and also represents incredible value when compared to European counterparts. Both wines that we are looking at today are considered premium.
Margaret River is about 100 km long and about 10 km wide so it’s a big region. Saying that not much of it is planted. We have a real focus on growing Cabernet in the Northern end of Margaret River and Chardonnay at the Southern area where the Southern Ocean and Indian Ocean meet. Picking times vary as much as three weeks between north and south. You do get a lot of weather coming from the Southern Ocean, southerlies that are pretty mild.
We make a pretty classic style of Chardonnay – everything is hand-picked, it’s all whole bunch pressed, its goes to barrel with reasonable high levels of solids in saying that we are not trying to make a reductive style of Chardonnay, we still want plenty of fruit character and richness of flavour. There is a school of reductive Chardonnay coming out of Australia and I am not into it. I like a little bit of it, and we make wines in a way that we weave some of that in on the blending bench but certainly we are not looking to do it. It really interferes with the region, so we keep it out.
‘There is a school of reductive Chardonnay coming out of Australia and I am not into it’
This wine is a blend of clones, predominantly Gin Gin or Mendoza and there are some Dijon clones folding back in there too. 2019 was a tricky vintage, generally we had a cyclone season in western Australia. We had some rain in March as a remnant of one of those cyclones, we probably hand-picked three times more Chardonnay than we normally do to enable fruit selection and sorting. The fruit was always magnificent, but we had to really work hard to pick out the best of the best. 2019 has an excellent level of richness and complexity and just fruit quality. We don’t always run through malo but we ran through about 10% more than we usually do.
They are magnificent wines but the malo brings in that richness. Some really pick on acidity and really try and chase that linear style, on the Chablis spectrum but that’s not what Australian Chardonnay is about, certainly not from Margaret River. It got to be flavour based for me – I don’t like wines that are flabby, I’ve got to have acidity, so I really try and grab it at its optimum. We will generally press straight into barrel. It’s typical traditional Chardonnay, there is nothing complicated about it. Three years ago, the whole show system was looking for something else in Australia, but we stuck to our guns, we always wanted a Chardonnay to express a really good flavour and that is unashamedly our Chardonnay. The pendulum swings back and forth. We keep it fresh. These are only 12% alcohol, when you look at Chablis in Burgundy it’s getting bigger and bolder, we’ve always understood a warm climate so we know how to do it. The abv is often dictated by the point where the acid starts to slide, usually I find that occurs at 12.5%, there will be some parcels at 13%.
‘Three years ago, the whole show system was looking for something else in Australia, but we stuck to our guns, we always wanted a Chardonnay to express a really good flavour and that is unashamedly our Chardonnay’
Gin Gin has that bunch formations where you get large and small berries, the small berries can sometimes be 14% and the big berries will be 11%. It’s a tricky one to try and get it exact. Sometimes they come in at 13.5% potential alcohol and they’ve got 9.5 acidity which is a lot but when you work in solids and malolactic and they are able to carry all of that.
2020 vintage was interesting for a lot of reasons, we had a really dry Spring, there is a real purity in that wine, we used larger barrels, there were a lot of solids in the ferments. We don’t get too caught up in temperature control. Sometimes they’ll go through in a week, sometimes it takes a month. I don’t get caught up in that as long as they don’t get that attenuated strung out sort of character.
In 2020 in Yara Valley and much of the east coast much of the Chardonnay wasn’t there. In lockdown people were buying brands they trusted and knew so from March to June Penfolds Treasury was selling out. They went for the big quality brands. I grow a lot of Italian varieties as well and they sold really well.
PENNANT MARGARET RIVER CHARDONNAY 2019
Crystalline clarity, vibrant lemon green – naturally fermented, toasted vanilla, peach, beeswax and salty candied lemon, sublime silky texture with perfect viscosity, pink grapefruit, oyster shells, mineral rich, full flavoured and layered. Complex and delicious – evolves in the mouth. 92
PENNANT MARGARET RIVER CHARDONNAY 2020 (only 120 cases produced)
Crystalline purity, silk like texture, oyster shell, saline mineral notes, pink grapefruit, candied lemon, a touch of delicious reduction, incredible length of flavour and sapid acidity. 94
LC/Frankland River is in the Great Southern, about two and half hours southeast of Margaret River about 50km inland, so it’s in the Great Southern region of Western Australia. Both of these wines, the 17 and the 18 are from the same prime vineyard. Planted in the 50s by Western Australian standards its old vines. The vineyard is considered to be one of the best in the state. Interestingly enough a lot of the clone diversity – when this vineyard was planted it had about 13 different clones of Cabernet and this is the best of that selection.
It a good comparison because 17 was a tough year and 18 was considered the most perfect vintage we have ever had for years, from budburst through to harvest there wasn’t a thing out of place. No heat spikes, it was just a beautiful textbook season. Whereas 17, in April I was sitting there going ‘is this all going to go to hell’ we were having days at 22 degrees and we got to the end of April and it warmed up – mid 20s. All in all, this amazing Cabernet fruit.
‘Some of the oldest vines in the planet are from Maclaren Vale in the Barossa. I’ve got wines made from this vineyard in 1999 and they just go on and on’
They are made in a typical Bordeaux fashion, handpicked, whole berries, long maceration, one new and one three-year-old oak barrel. It’s wonderful to be releasing them at five years. It’s certainly not liked your average blackcurrant bomb Cabernet – immediate hit. There are about 8 different clones – Haughton clone – this vineyard had a number of other selections put in the 60s. this is considered one of the best vineyards in Australia. Some of the oldest vines in the planet are from Maclaren Vale in the Barossa. I’ve got wines made from this vineyard in 1999 and they just go on and on, with time.
PENNANT FRANKLAND RIVER CABERNET SAUVIGNON 2017
Balsam – cool – beautiful chewy compact tannins…rosemary, dark dense colour, super sapid acidity – savoury and pure – blackcurrant, plum and iodine. Structured, concentrated and firm. This will go on and on. 94
PENNANT FRANKLAND RIVER CABERNET SAUVIGNON 2018 (Released September)
Pure and savoury – divinely meaty with rich blackcurrant and an aromatic rosemary note, silky, viscous and dry – cools the palate with an herb noted balsam – gorgeously taut sapid acid line. Firm, fine, delicious. 95
Pennant Margaret River Chardonnay (released September) RRP £38.25 and the Pennant Frankland River Cabernet Sauvignon (released September) RRP £40.00.