Turning east off the Bussell Highway towards the Allingham vineyard marks one of those transitions in a wine country experience, where the glamour of high-profile estates and their imposing cellar doors is left behind, and the reality of the grape farming enterprise and its relationship with the natural environment becomes the focus of attention and admiration.
Nestled between the localities of Witchcliffe, Rosa Glen and Forest Grove are narrow gravel roads bearing the names of early farming families, which snake through dense eucalypt forest. This wild landscape was tamed with great difficulty by these 20th century settlement groups, who were blissfully unaware that their hard-earned pasture held the potential to become world-class Chardonnay terroir. Yet in a relatively short time frame some paddocks have been filled to the forest boundary with precisely trellised vines, and streams corralled to provide water to support this viticutural endeavour. This immediate contrast of organised vineyards, imposing forests and rolling farmland has become an indelible part of the visual language of Margaret River.
The vineyard we know now as Allingham is part of this mosaic, and has become the engine room for Howard Park’s signature Chardonnay wines since the company purchased the property in 2014. Prior to that the coveted fruit was always a key component in our top blends – the oldest Chardonnay block was first planted in 2004 by the original vineyard owners in collaboration with then winemaker Michael Kerrigan, who urged them to use the Gin Gin clone for their young vine material. A decade later the evidence was clear in the bottle that we were engaged with a special site, and the opportunity to acquire it and expand the Chardonnay plantings was too good for Jeff and Amy Burch to refuse. Our icon Allingham Chardonnay has evolved in the era of winemaker Janice McDonald, and while the first two vintages were multi-regional blends, from 2014 onwards the destiny of this wine is entwined with Southern Margaret River, with the Allingham vineyard as its sole fruit source.
The expansion of the vineyard began in 2015 and was an epic undertaking, involving the removal of a blue gum plantation and the remediation of that root-filled soil to a state suitable for vine planting. When this foundation had been achieved, Janice, Jeff and our Chief Viticulturist David Botting faced an important decision – which clones of Chardonnay to select for the new blocks?
The discussion about different grapevine clones, once confined to academia, is edging into the mainstream as winemakers and critics highlight the beneficial characteristics that particular clones bring in terms of enhanced flavour, and especially overall complexity of a fine wine. It’s helpful of course to understand the definition of a clone:
“In the context of viticulture, a clone is defined as genetically uniform material derived from a single (mother) individual and propagated exclusively by vegetative means such as cuttings, divisions or grafts” (Hartmann & Kester 1975)
Grapevines can be genetically unstable, some varieties more than others, and when a variation is discovered that demonstrates something positive and unique for the vine and its fruit, vine scientists have been able to capture and then propagate these characteristics to expand the opportunities for growers to have a successful harvest and winemakers to improve their blends.
Some clones have proved to be particularly well adapted and successful in certain environments, none more so than the Gin Gin clone, which has become inextricably entwined with the meteoric rise of Margaret River Chardonnay on the world stage. This clone was imported in the late 1950s by the WA Department of Agriculture, who obtained it from the University of California. After 20 years of trial plantings (including at the Moondah Brook vineyard, located in the town of Gingin) it became widely available to Margaret River winegrowers in the late 1970s and was planted in some of the region’s most notable vineyards. The success of Chardonnay pioneers such as Leeuwin Estate cemented the affection among growers and winemakers for this clone, and as its fame spread more cuttings were taken and planted as wineries expanded their Chardonnay holdings.
The attributes associated with the Gin Gin clone that winemakers value so highly actually don’t sound particularly positive at first. The vine is prone to a leafroll virus, the fruit sets poorly at the start of the growing season and the final grape yields are often low. It’s most famous visual characteristic is the uneven size of its berries, with some significantly smaller than others and often referred to as “hen and chicken”, or the more formal and French millerandage. These smaller berries are less ripe and more acidic than the larger ones and have an impact on harvesting decisions as winemakers look for an overall balance within the bunches and the different parts of the vineyard block. However, in Margaret River’s soils and climate it somehow works, and the proof is in the bottle. The lower yields create more concentrated flavour in the grapes, the smaller berries help retain acidity and freshness in the wines while the later picking brings power and fruit weight. Importantly, Gin Gin brings a uniqueness of style to Margaret River Chardonnay, which our experienced winemakers have been able to parlay into considerable and consistent acclaim for the variety in this region.
The new plantings at Allingham provided the opportunity to expand our holdings of this local legend, but also to establish blocks with different Chardonnay clones, and increase the overall diversity of our plantings in order to benefit from the positive attributes of more than one proven clone of quality. Not surprisingly, the scientists at the University of Dijon in Burgundy are at the forefront of clonal research, and several “Dijon” clones have become prominent in Australian vineyards, including the two ultimately selected for planting at Allingham, which are known as clones 95 and 96. These clones flower, grow and ripen in a different fashion than Gin Gin, are generally higher yielding; and their fruit shows different acid character, structure and an alternative set of typical flavours. Powerful citrus and tropical fruit notes are inherent in Gin Gin clone Chardonnay, while 95 and 96 can tend towards flavours like white grapefruit, dried and exotic fruits, and grilled nuts.
More diversity of flavour, of palate weight, texture and structure satisfies the sensory cravings of winemakers like Janice McDonald, who can weigh up all the variables of clone, vintage, fermentation technique and oak barrel selection to blend a vinous expression of the Allingham vineyard and its location in Southern Margaret River that ultimately speaks to the philosophy of Howard Park, to craft elegant and ageworthy wines from our very best sites. Janice describes the Allingham Chardonnay as “flavoursome and complex (but) never a wine of extremes…always nuanced and full of subtleties and harmony.” The emergence of more superb and varied material from new vineyard blocks can only help to maintain and enhance this quest for a wine of exquisite balance.
While our young plantings of Burgundian clones at the Allingham vineyard begin to adapt and thrive, the established Gin Gin blocks drive the evolving character of its namesake Chardonnay. With only seven vintages released to date it is exciting to think about the future of the Allingham Chardonnay as this site evolves into full maturity and we can explore all the interest and nuance that clonal diversity can bring to the appreciation of a noble variety like Chardonnay.