Hiding in the 90’s

Interview by Samuel Moppett
Words by Cameron Haskell 
Photography by ????

    I’m Cam Haskell, the Wine Manager at Arimia. I’m pretty much a wine obsessive - and have been, more or less, since the day before I turned 21 - I’m now 40. Wine is the single most rewarding thing in my life and has been for a long time. Constantly rewarding, challenging and inspiring. Sometimes frustrating. But always, always, ALWAYS interesting. It’s a subject I know I’ll never get to the bottom of within my lifetime. How many people can say that of their work?

Wine is a genuinely enriching accompaniment to profound moments in life - from the deepest sorrows to most supreme highs. They’re all better with the right wine. The last great wine I drank with my (deceased) mother. The wine that celebrated my engagement. The Burgundy that made me realise just how great wine can be, as profound as the Vatican is for the reverent. The Barbaresco I had recently, on a Thursday night that sung its way out of the decanter and is like a great pop song I’ve got stuck in my head. It’s an incredibly varied and constantly changing landscape, and a privilege to work in part of it.

The Produce
    The Chardonnay mostly comes from the more westerly edge of the vineyard, from a mixture of loamy sands and sandy soils. The aim is to transmit this time and place to bottle. A snapshot of that vineyard; that time; that season. We want fruit expression, structure from oak and enough acidity to keep it taut - all the best wines have a few things: balance, freshness, and tension. Too ripe and wines end up loose-knit. Underripe and it’s not really expressive enough. Palate weight, brightness from the acidity and a generosity from the fruit.

The fruit is hand-picked and transported up to the winery. It sits overnight in a cool room before being whole-bunch pressed into a barrel. It’s all unseasoned oak (meaning it’s not toasted in the coopering process) and it’s a wild ferment from there. It’s stirred fairly frequently in barrel - we’re looking to broaden the texture and fill out the palate a little. No malolactic ferment (usually making for a less buttery/oily wine) and then, after 9 and a bit months, it’s not bottle.

“We want fruit expression, structure from oak and enough acidity to keep it taut.”

The Process
    It starts with Graham the viticulturist and vineyard manager. He gets the pruning team in, and manages the vine through the growing season - lifting wires on the trellis, shoot thinning, sometimes bunch thinning, managing vine health (particularly for disease pressure), and ensuring the vine has everything to produce healthy, flavourful grapes. Then he’ll be sampling. Once ripeness arrives (in the first 2-3 weeks of February) the pickers come in, and it’s transported up to Mark and Chloe in the winery. From there it’s nurtured to bottle and then onward to the most important person in the process: the drinker.
Chardonnay should have a lot of different things. The first point is that there’s a LOT of different styles of Chardonnay - from mineral, lean Chablis, to racy, tight Blanc de Blanc Champagne to rich, opulent Meursault to old-fashioned ultra-ripe buxom, new-world Chardonnay. They’re all part of a big church. What I like in Chardonnay is a balance between fruit that’s ripe enough, nice oak framing it all, a breadth that comes via barrel fermentation (and lees [dead yeast] stirring once in barrel), enough acidity to keep a ‘tension’ in the wine, and, ultimately, balance and length of flavour. All the best wines have freshness, balance and, to my mind, tension.

“Opulent Meursault to old-fashioned ultra-ripe buxom, new-world Chardonnay.”

Here’s something that a lot of the wine industry thinks, but is generally too polite to say. Chardonnay is the greatest of white wines - and German riesling aside, nothing else comes close. Wines that are refreshing and fruit-forward are fine. But they’re not ambitious and they’re a long, long way from everything wine can be. To put it bluntly, comparing an unoaked, fresh Sauvignon Blanc to Grand Cru Burgundy or the best of Margaret River Chardonnay is… a bit like comparing Jack Vettriano with Velazquez.

The Lifespan
    Acidity and tannin (and, to be fair, sulphur) determine age-worthiness. But, crucially, so does fruit quality. Without a degree of fruit power and drive, the wine will be, as the Scots might have it, all fur coat and nae knickers. A site as sandy as ours, and as coastal as ours (the most westerly vineyard in Australia) makes for fairly volatile yields. But typically we get around 200 12-bottle cases or so of the Chardonnay. The shelf-life is likely to be up to a good 7-8 years - part of the beauty of screwcap closures.  

Wine IS hard to work out. But that’s part of what is thrilling about it. I’ve found wines, at turns beautiful, provocative, annoying, enlightening, depressing, profound, prying, and for a first last year, I thought a wine funny. Actually laugh out loud funny. The trick ALWAYS when it comes to wine, is to try to see what the wine is trying to do. Wine is so much better than a binary like / don’t like thing. To say you ‘don’t like’ Guernica is an ok response. But it’s not a very clever one. What is it trying to do? What is it trying to say? You don’t have to like it, but does it achieve its goal? It takes a heck of a lot of effort to make profound wine, from a stack of people over many years. Give the wine a chance to move you.

The Environment
   Margaret River has a great reputation, why? I think, in a relatively short time, we’ve figured out a fair bit of what works viticulturally. But the real benefit is having an industry that has been pretty much qualitatively focused from the start. It’s the most expensive viticultural land in Australia, and wages, generally, in Western Australia are higher. There’s really not much propensity to focus on the cheaper end of the market. The climate is pretty temperate, and, unlike a lot of Australian regions, we’re able to collect plenty of water - but crucially rain doesn’t usually interfere too much during the grape ripening process. Aside from this, there’s a fair bit of virtue in it being an attractive place to live - great climate, world-class beaches, terrific chefs, good schools, and reasonable proximity to Perth make it fairly amenable for visitors and residents alike.

Arimia sits toward the north-west of the region, in Yallingup. It’s warmer than the southern-ocean-influenced places like Karridale, with a tad less rainfall too. You see more power in both the Chardonnay and the Cabernet in particular. There’s less gravel than Wilyabrup (where most of the original MR plantings are concentrated). But, generally speaking, Chardonnay is ok with a bit of sand.

Chardonnay is always the first thing to ripen. In a sense it’s fairly ‘safe’ in a way - you’re not going to get too much rain pressure in February. Powdery and Downy mildew are the two primary viticultural hazards in the region, but they’re fairly manageable, for the most part. We’re yet to have a REALLY hot vintage, and thereby accelerate ripening too much, leading to less complex fruit - but we’re probably coastal enough that this is moderated out of play.

The Sustainability
    Undoubtedly it’s at our core. We’re moving more and more towards an organic model of farming, and are just starting to look at certification. In a sense, we’re farming the soil as much as the fruit. Farming is pretty different when you’re farming for quality and not for yield. And the quality of our soil is a resource we want to build up. We’re not interested in selling to the highest bidder and moving on. We’re chasing the best fruit there is year in, year out.

What time do you start work, how long are your days
Cellar door is working stooges hours: 9-5. Picking, however, starts at about half 5 in the morning…
Most historical moment in regards working at Arimia
For me: tasting the 2011 Chardonnay, and seeing in that wine just how much potential there is in the vineyard.
Favourite place to drink wine
In Margs: at home, with my wife and some pretty wine-y friends of ours. Internationally: VinCafe in Alba, Piemonte, Italy.

In 1 sentence, what inspires you to keep drinking wine
The next great wine is always just around the corner.
Favourite wine in each 4 seasons.
It’s a list that’s ALWAYS changing. Except for the Rabaja.
Summer: Deep Woods Estate Rosé
Autumn: This year? Will probably be the Blue Poles Reserve Cabernet Franc.
Winter: Produttori del Barbaresco Rabaja
Spring: Bonneau du Martray Corton-Charlemagne. An ’93 if you’re buying.