It’s daybreak and I’ve managed to insinuate myself into the competitors marquee at the Margaret River Pro in Western Australia. Looking like charcoal figures etched in the blue-grey early morning swell, wet-suited surfers line up waiting for a wave on one of Australia’s most famous breaks.
I had scored a rather good bacon and egg roll to grease away the effects of a minor hangover from the night before. Beers had been consumed at Margaret River local Must Winebar to wash down a fantastic run of wines we’d consumed at Winos Restaurant earlier in the evening and I was feeling just a little tender.
Winos had trotted out some rather comforting bistro fare including local scallops with Jamon; a duck confit with an orange glaze; moreish beef ribs doused in a chimmichurri sauce as well as seasonal vegetables matched with some pretty extraordinary wines.
Opening with a couple of cracking Chardonnays including a 2005 Olivier LeFlaive Batard Montrachet we progressed to a couple of acknowledged showstoppers including a 1982 Mouton Rothschild as well as a 1975 Latour and a 1975 Les Forts De Latour. Interestingly, on the night the Les Forts was a personal highlight with bucketloads of rich fruit pushing through which was quite extraordinary for a wine over 30 years old.
Now the reason for all this was Devil’s Lair chief winemaker, Oliver Crawford not only wanted to drink some great wines but he hoped to share with his guests a vision of where he’d like to take Devil’s Lair – a winery now firmly hitting its straps with some of Australia’s best Chardonnay and Cabernet already squirreled away in the cellar.
Crawford, who arrived from Penfolds in 2009 where he was chief white winemaker, wants Devil’s Lair to become one of the iconic brands of the Margaret River region.
“I’ve been able to come to something a little bit smaller, where I can put a firm stamp on everything. It’s also a chance to have a crack at doing reds again,” Crawford says.
But first up was the winery’s chardonnay.
Crawford acknowledges Australian Chardonnay is evolving and he says it’s primarily because Australian viticulture has gone through a dramatic change.
“As a winemaker I have my own style that I like to make but I also respect what Devil’s Lair Chardonnay is all about and what Margaret River is all about. There’s much stronger vineyard management nowadays. When I first started in this industry, most winemakers’ had the philosophy that the fruit arrived on the back of a truck. I strongly disagreed with that then and I strongly disagree today. Get the fruit right and the winemaking is easy.
“Now you’re seeing a lot more leaf cover on the vines which means less sun exposure. I don’t mind if, when we’re picking, we don’t see those honey melon/yellow peach characters that come from a lot of sun exposure.”
For Crawford though, the smaller economies of scale, away from a big brand like Penfolds, means he can do more of what he wants to do.
Moreover, he can have a more hands-on role in the vineyard.
He says one great advantage he has as a winemaker is the 10 years he spent helping his parents in the family vineyard at Orange in New South Wales.
“Every waking hour was spent in the rotten thing. Now I can walk out into the vineyard with a pair of secateurs and prune it for the viticulture team if I want to. It’s a great advantage because it helps me interpret what you do in the vineyard determines what happens in the winery.”
He says soil variation is a big factor and he and viticulturist Simon Robertson work very hard to understand the land and its soil.
“Simon’s very particular about it and that whole notion of precision viticulture. If you walk through the vineyard with an aerial map, you can see exactly where the soil differences are and you can taste the differences in the fruit.
“As a winemaker, you can pick according to how it’s naturally growing or take out some of those inconsistencies. You can change how irrigation is managed or apply a little bit of mulch to the top of the block or the bottom of the block to change the water flow and get the vines to work for you a lot better.”
Crawford believes the viticulturist deserves more respect.
“Go to Burgundy and grape growers aren’t called grape growers, they’re wine growers. Whether you’re physically planting, pruning, picking the fruit or stirring the barrels, you’re a wine grower.”
As for the future, Crawford is keen to challenge the status quo in the region.
“We released a Cabernet Shiraz rather than Cabernet Merlot from Margaret River because it’s a better wine. Why can’t we have a Mt Barker Riesling or a Pemberton Pinot? And sure Devil’s Lair is a Margaret River winery but why can’t we do a Mount Barker Cabernet – sourcing the best fruit from the around the area?”
And importantly, Crawford seems to be in it for the long haul – he loves the region.
“The beach is just down the road, we can go fishing in the dam right in front of the winery, my family loves it and it’s a lot better than the Barossa,” he concludes.