The wine cup runneth over at Howard Park

24 Apr, 2001 10:00 PM
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IT may seem unusual but the Howard Park label was established for 10 years before the owners planted their first grape vine.

It is equally unconventional that the Howard Park cellars and processing facility stands with not a vine in sight.

But the breathtakingly spectacular views from the cellar across the Denmark River to the towering tree tops on the opposite ridge are testimony that owners Perth businessman Jeff Burch and his wife Amy did not simply stumble down a path of progression.

Their commitment marks a dual faith in both the growing tourism potential of Denmark and the south coast and also the belief in the region's emerging significance in the wine industry.

This regional faith was echoing that of former Goundrey winemaker John Wade, the man who instigated the Howard Park label.

He established it by buying and processing relatively small quantities of premium grapes at Goundrey and Plantagenet wineries to cater for the top end of the market.

The winery continued to buy its grapes and it is only recently that vines were planted.

John later established a secondary label ‹ Mad Fish ‹ in 1995 to target the massive price-driven market in the $10-$20 price range, processing several vintages in a shed at the Denmark Agricultural College.

Today the enterprise sells more than 100,000 cases of wine with Mad Fish, pulled along by the high quality image of the Howard Park label, accounting for 80 percent of the sales.

The Burch family bought the label in 1995 and built the cellars and processing plant ready for its first vintage in 1997.

Aspiring young winemaker James Kellie toured the facility while it was still under construction as part of the course he was studying at Wagga Wagga in NSW. He was taken by the design, seeing a winery that was purpose built to a 1500-tonne production capacity rather than a facility that has been adapted to cope with increasingly bigger vintages. He decided it would be an ideal place to work and returned three years ago to become the winemaker.

But even a winery the size of Howard Park has been pressed to keep pace with the massive industry growth. The 1995 vintage of 500-600 tonnes has grown to an estimated 2500t expected for this vintage.

This year's vintage will be the fourth at Denmark and the second at Margaret River.

Jeff built a second processing facility on part of a property he already owned, deciding the two locations would offer contract growers in both regions greater efficiencies for delivering grapes.

Their fruit is delivered from vineyards in Margaret River, Pemberton, Frankland, Mt Barker, Porongurup and Denmark, and having a processing facility at both ends makes good logic.

Also behind the decision to establish a second winery was the attraction of the bigger tourist trade on the west coast.

It also has enabled him to retain the "boutique" attributes of two smaller wineries, rather than be limited by the factory-like processing of a single big facility.

However, quantities of juice are transported between the two after the initial pressing so that the Pinots and white wines are made at Denmark and the reds at Margaret River under the hand of winemaker Michael Kerrigan.

Even though Jeff has planted 30 hectares of Shiraz, Cabernet and Chardonnay grapes in the first of a two-stage planting ‹ he put in a further 10 hectares in a second stage ‹ he has no plans to establish a more extensive vineyard.

His vision for expanding lays with increased total output and the number of varieties marketed.

After an ordinary year in 2000, where only half the amount of Howard Park Riesling was produced, 2001 is shaping up to be the best for a few years.

Not only has the season been kind but the new plantings are hitting their stride, and some of the superior fruits that "disappeared" into the Mad Fish label have been identified to allow three new wines to be released under the Howard Park label.

Included was its first botrytis Semillon from Denmark, launched before Christmas and available only at the cellar door.

Other new releases carrying a freshly redesigned Howard Park label are Howard Park Leston made from Shiraz grapes which have been, and will only ever be, sourced solely from the Margaret River area.

The equivalent Denmark regional red to be released for the first time this year is Howard Park Scotsdale, a cabernet sauvignon from the great southern region.

The new wines will have a reputation to uphold.

As a supporter of the local Mt Barker wine show and the Perth Royal wine show, James and Michael have the reassurance that every one of their wines has received an award.

None was more rewarding than the gold medal in the 2000 Sheraton wine show for the 1999 Howard Park Chardonnay, after James had made big changes to how the wine was made. As a winemaker, he admits such changes can be a little scary.

He is looking to 2001 as a year to consolidate, fine tune the better vineyards and, like many wineries looking for a marketing edge, maybe look at producing a sparkling wine.

On a domestic level, James says marketing is tough especially amid the number of new labels that have proliferated over the past three to five years.

About half the wine produced under the two labels is exported, going to numerous small markets and, importantly, the United Kingdom and the United States.

"There had been an explosion in wine consumption in the United States and wines like Mad Fish that are good quality fruit-driven with a good Aussie label are a great combination."

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