Spotlight On: Howard Park Wines
Max Brearley discovers award winning wine with a distinctive sense of place
Howard Park has a rich family history, spans two wine regions, and boasts award-winning wines. Max Brearley sat down with the Burch family and chief winemaker Janice McDonald to discover the story behind the wine – from the chardonnay, to the cabernet to the Jeté Méthode Traditionelle.
“There’s a duality that we like to exhibit all the time,” Natalie Burch tells me of the wines produced under the Howard Park label; part of the larger umbrella of Burch Family Wines, that have had a foot in both the Margaret River and the Great Southern wine regions for decades now. Lined up in front of Burch and chief winemaker Janice McDonald are the signature wines produced under the Howard Park label. Each distinctive, with a sense of place, they tell their own story.
“It started many years ago,” says Natalie Burch holding a glass of their Howard Park Grand Jete; a méthode traditionelle sparkling wine. “My father [Jeff Burch], he’s a pinot-lover and he goes to Burgundy every year. But one year he read this book on small producers of champagne that he bought in Harrods and he was just addicted. He just started door knocking all the champagne houses that he found in this book.”
From that initial impulsive visit Burch found himself the Australian importer for the likes of Franck Bonville. “Because that’s how decisions are made at Howard Park,” laughs Burch. “My dad has a crazy idea and then he pushes us all in that direction and we end up doing it. That trip was quite an eye opener because they [the Champagne Houses] were all very different in style. But it just made us think, hang on, we have very similar terroir in the Great Southern. We can do something similar. We’ve got fantastic pinot and chardonnay resources; we’ve already been building up for years for the Marchand and Burch project [a collaboration with Burgundian winemaker, Pascal Marchand] that we can utilise for our own méthode traditionelle sparkling.”
“It’s not an easy thing to do, to make méthode traditionelle ” wines, says McDonald. “My normal line when we taste with people is that my experience, and I think our experience in general with sparkling wine, is how to drink it, not how to make it. We’re a few centuries behind on that, but we’re catching up.” McDonald is perhaps underplaying how they’ve caught up; winning a clutch of national and international awards in recent years.
“If you are likening it to something out of Champagne, it’s more along the grower model in the sense that we want it to be expressive of the vineyard,” says McDonald. “it’s not ‘big house’ in style; it’s not trying to smooth out the bumps along the way and just have that glamorous, silky smooth house style. It is allowing that vineyard to be, to express in the wine, so each year it’ll be a little bit different. To me, it’s about the quality of the fruit and our improving skills in making méthode traditionelle wine. It’s all done here, we make the base wines, we tirage, we dosage. From a winemaking point view, it’s a really fun and challenging project to make sparkling wine.”
“This is Janice McDonald’s wine,” says Natalie Burch, turning to the 2018 Allingham Chardonnay. “A no holds barred – make the best Margaret River Chardonnay you can, do whatever you like, all the fruit that we have, everything is at your disposal, do whatever you wish – wine.”
“My involvement in Margaret River as a winemaker has always been very much in the southern part of the region,” says McDonald. “I think that the southern part of the region for chardonnay just gives you a little bit more coolness, a bit more cloud cover, a little bit more finesse in the fruit. And this particular wine, the Allingham, comes from a vineyard on Brooks Road, just on the end of Rocky Road. So not far from Devil’s Lair. A vineyard which was originally planted for Howard Park in the late 90s. The fruit had been in and out of here a few times and then in ’11 it was the first time we were reacquainted with it when I was here. It was quite spectacular.”
“It’s a pretty tough site and the best part of the block actually faces south, so it gets a reasonable amount of wind and it’s that cooler part of the region,” says McDonald. “Presently all of this wine is from Gingin clones. We have planted some 95 and 96, but that material is really quite young. So, we’re just looking for that lovely, cool, elegant, fine style, fermenting it in a combination of bigger barrels these days.”
Moving to the 2017 Abercrombie, it’s another expression of Howard Park’s roots in two Western Australian wine regions – Margaret River and the Great Southern. “It shows that lovely elegance which comes from our combination of the Great Southern vineyards,” says McDonald. “Abercrombie vineyard is a very old vineyard planted to the old clones of Cabernet in the 70s. It gives a lovely line and more elegance to the wine, and then combined with our quite young vineyard here, the Leston Block,” she says gesturing to the vines within view of the cellar door.
“It’s got the elegance; it’s got the power and it has sophistication. It’s definitely cabernet: beautiful fine tannin, lovely berry notes, it has that poise that cabernet should have. You get a richness of fruit, so it’s a really lovely combination. We want to pull those two vineyards together to make our signature best wine, because it’s who we are,” says McDonald. “We started in the Great Southern, we came to Margaret River, we have a unique footprint in both regions, and we always will have.”