By Max Allen... in The Financial Review December 2022
W hen I first visited Marri Wood Park vineyard in Margaret River in 2008. Owner/ Vigneron Julian Wright told me about his burning ambition to become a top producer of chenin blanc.
“I have a dream,” he said, “of producing a bone-dry, barrel-fermented, age- worthy chenin that could make me famous, even if it takes 10 or 15 years.”
Back in 2008, this was a bold, perhaps foolhardy vision: few people were interested in chenin blanc, or considered it to be a grape that could produce fine, high-value wine. But Wright was determined. And to help him achieve his goal, he asked Bob Cartwright, the legendary ex-Leeuwin Estate winemaker, to give him a hand. As I wrote at the time, the result was fantastic: a “reserve” chenin that was “lean and taut, full of the flavour of green apple skin laced with minerals, destined for a very long life in the cellar”.
I tasted the 2009 vintage of Marri Wood’s reserve chenin when I caught up with Wright recently. It’s a testament to his vision and Cartwright’s skill: yes, the wine has developed some toasty, savoury complexity over time, as you’d expect, but it’s still quite lean and taut – very age-worthy, with a long way to go.
As impressive as that older wine is, though, it’s the chenin blanc and other wines being produced by the vineyard today that really deserve to make a rejuvenated Marri Wood Park famous. Natalie Wright, Julian’s daughter, joined the business in 2017, swapping a career in law – and culinary training in Paris – for the life of a vigneron.
“I worked in the cellar door when I was at uni,” she says. “I’ve always enjoyed wine and been quite passionate about it. After I had my first baby in Paris and then came home, Dad was keen for me to get on board with the vineyard, and I saw an opportunity. I felt we had a good product; we just needed to repackage it and give it a bit more life.” The Wrights started by reducing the number of wines on offer and modernising the label. They also hired rising star Nic Peterkin of leading new-wave Margaret River label L.A.S. Vino – to make the wines from the 2018 vintage on.
“Nic immediately saw the uniqueness of the site,” says Natalie Wright. “And we came up pretty quickly with the strategy of just making the best, most delicious wine we could.” Marri Wood Park has been certified biodynamic since 2008, and Julian Wright practices a form of viticulture that is quite unconventional even by biodynamic standards, allowing the vines to pretty much manage themselves.
“When I started with biodynamics, I asked myself: how do you farm as naturally as possible?” he says. “So, I looked at the bush. And I thought: the bush sustains itself through leaf-fall, twig-fall, dying grass, animal manure and some rain. And I said, I can do that. So, I don’t irrigate the vines, I don’t
fertilise, I don’t plant cover crops, I don’t till the soil, and I don’t balance my soils. All I really do is prune.”
Wright also observed that, among fruiting plants in the bush, yields are not uniform. So he doesn’t “target yield” through pruning or other viticultural techniques, as others do, hoping for a consistent crop. As a result, yields fluctuate wildly from year to year.
“But I’m not worried,” he says. “I think, hopefully, what we have achieved is something that will be seriously sustainable, and also produce a more intense flavour in the wine.” This is what Peterkin responded to when he started with the Wrights. “You go into the vineyard with its open, sprawling canopy, and you think: ‘This shouldn’t work,’” he says. “There are so many things that, if you’ve studied textbook viticulture, you look at and say: that’s wrong, that’s wrong, that’s wrong.
So, the first year making the wines I had some trepidation. But as soon as we started fermenting the chenin blanc, the whole winery was engulfed with this incredible aroma. And I thought: ‘We might be on to a good thing here.’” Since Julian Wright had his first crazy dream to become famous for chenin blanc, the grape has enjoyed a resurgence of interest – not least thanks to younger winemakers such as Peterkin advocating for the variety’s potential.
Peterkin says: “When I started L.A.S. Vino in 2013, growers were giving me their chenin grapes for free because no other winemakers wanted them. It took a new generation of us to actually give it a punt and go: ‘Hey, this is a grape that’s half the price of chardonnay but makes wine just as good. Let’s give it a crack.’ And that collective voice pushed it forward.”
Now, Peterkin buys chenin from six or seven growers for his L.A.S. Vino label, but none of them have the character that Marri Wood has, he says. “There’s just something very unique and beautiful about that vineyard. I think most winemakers try to find vineyards that will produce unique wines despite your winemaking. And this vineyard has always had that.”
2021 Marri Wood Park Chenin Blanc [Margaret River] Nic Peterkin picks the chenin blanc later than was previously the case here, then wild-ferments and matures the wine in mostly older, larger barrels, stirring the lees every fortnight for 10 months before bottling. The result is sublime: all of chenin’s characteristic ripe golden-apple flavours and thrilling, mouthwatering acidity, but also layers of delicious rich savoury texture. Gorgeous, appealing, seductive – and age-worthy.
2021 Marri Wood Park Cabernet Sauvignon [Margaret River] As there are no other red grapes like merlot or malbec at Marri Wood Park to add to the cabernet to bring extra complexity or modulate structure (as is so often done in Margaret River), Peterkin uses techniques such as leaving some of the wine on skins for six months in amphora before draining it into barrel. There’s no shortage of complexity here: fabulously intense pure blackcurrant cabernet flavour, fine, grippy, tightly wound tannins.
2021 Marri Wood Park Sauvignon Blanc [Margaret River] Deliciously complex, pulpy expression of this famously aromatic grape, focusing more on the palate structure than the perfume, thanks to malolactic and maturation in barrel and clay amphora. “Dad wants to be famous for sauvignon blanc now,” says Natalie Wright. “It’s my favourite white grape,” insists her father. “Julian’s a contrarian,” laughs Peterkin. “Sauvignon blanc’s not trendy now, so he wants to be the best producer.” No doubt we’ll come back in a further 10 to 15 years, and he’ll be proved right.