Château Pichon-Baron on the Left Bank produces beautiful reds.

Ben Cane, Cape Mentelle’s new winemaker, is taking his ‘other’ job as raconteur very seriously. “The story goes,” he prefaces, “that in the late ’60s, Tom Cullity was moving across the road from the Hohnens, who had purchased their Wallcliffe property in 1965. Cullity was a cardiologist and John Hohnen Snr was having some heart issues one evening. They’d heard about Cullity and ran across the road to seek advice; Tom helped John through it and the two families became quite good friends.”

The barrel room at Cape Mentelle.
The barrel room at Cape Mentelle.

Cullity established Vasse Felix in 1967 and set off a swift chain reaction when he planted those first sticks in the ground; the founding of Margaret River’s wine industry was very much a collective effort. Moss Wood and Cullen were established just two years later, before the Hohnen brothers – David, who had just returned home with a winemaking degree from California, Giles and Mark – set about planting 16 hectares of vines on the family’s Wallcliffe property in 1970. The name: Cape Mentelle, after the headland situated to the property’s west.

“At that point Margaret River was all bush and sheep grazing land,” says Cane, and while there were a few people to consult for wine-related knowledge, there wasn’t the rich amount of resources there are now. “So the brothers,” continues Cane, “then in their early twenties, did what they thought was logical.”

In this instance, logic involved planting the vines along the contour in an east-west orientation (it’s now commonly known that to achieve equal sun exposure, plantings should run north-south). The row width was determined by the size of their big tractor (about three metres). And how best to navigate the rough, gravelly soil? “They didn’t have much technology at their disposal,” admits Cane. “My understanding is they threw some gelignite in the ground to loosen it up a bit.” It all seems pretty unconventional – the most exciting stories often are – but John Hohnen was a mining engineer by profession, and David had worked in mines himself. It wasn’t just rogue guesswork with explosives. “I’m just imagining a pack of lads with their mates and a bit of equipment,” says Cane. “That whole mentality of, let’s test it out and see what happens. It’s pretty special considering where this brand is now.”

Pristine views above and surrounding Cape Mentelle in Margaret River.
Pristine views above and surrounding Cape Mentelle in Margaret River.

Of course, this is not to understate the years of painstaking work undertaken by David Hohnen and his brothers; Cape Mentelle is undeniably one of Australia’s preeminent wine producers, and deservedly so. It has long been a flag-bearer for the quality potential of Australian cabernet sauvignon, their iconic version rivalling the great châteaux of Bordeaux in top years.

And it’s not just cabernet, either; the exquisite zinfandel, which has become something of a cult Margaret River wine; phenomenally balanced, age-worthy chardonnay; beautiful, medium-bodied shiraz and fresh, ocean spray-like sauvignon blanc semillon blends, all retain their reverence in the modern Australian wine landscape.

Although Hohnen sold his share in the winery – along with another of his significant creations, Marlborough’s Cloudy Bay – to Moët Hennessy back in the early ’90s, he remains something of a figurehead for Cape Mentelle and Margaret River, a vital component of the story Ben Cane and the team now share around the world.

“He was highly conscious of what it took to make high-class wine, but it was really a matter of resources at that point,” Cane says of Hohnen in the early days. “A classic quote of his was that a new French barrel cost more than his car.” One oft-cited tale involves Cape Mentelle’s 1983 Jimmy Watson Trophy win, where Hohnen almost didn’t get to accept the award because he was struggling to wrangle the cash for the flight to Melbourne. Such modesty, it seems, is testament to both Hohnen’s personality and his work ethic.

“David created a special atmosphere [at the winery],” continues Cane. “He never did this thing for money or fame; he just felt like this was an opportunity to make some of the best wine in the world, and he wanted to make it affordable for people, too, which is a great legacy.”

Harvest.
Harvest in the early days.

That legacy remains something of a nucleus for Cape Mentelle’s resolve; despite being overseen by LVMH’s Estates & Wines division, both the team and the wines maintain an air of quiet confidence with a good amount of sophistication. It’s a magical combination that seems to be present across the region – hardly surprising in a place as beautiful as Margaret River.

Its French ownership has also afforded the winery international opportunities that many Australian producers could only dream about, from access to some of France’s top vignerons to a large scale export program (Cape Mentelle sends over half of its wines overseas; as a region, Margaret River exports just 15% of its total output), not to mention the enviable role-call of winemakers over the years.

Rob Mann revolutionised the ‘Margs’ style of chardonnay with his focus on early picking and heavy solids fermentation. Frederique Perrin’s attention to detail, particularly in the vineyard, is unmatched. And newcomer Ben Cane, a burly but loveable South Australian who spent the last 15 years crafting elegant cabernet and pinot noir in Sonoma, joined the team in late 2018. He’s a match-fit winemaker, clearly up for the challenge.

As far as viticulture and winemaking go, Cape Mentelle’s current approach is a fascinating mix of science and technology, and hands-on, boutique winemaking. The science they’re utilising in the vineyards – mainly for monitoring vines – is more complex than ever.

John Hohnen  Snr and David Hohnen.
John Hohnen Snr and David Hohnen.

“Through the French government we’ve had this VIE program, which has allowed us to have some of France’s top graduates come and work with us every two years over the last 10,” enthuses Estate Director Cameron Murphy. “We’ve had amazing people who have given us an incredibly detailed picture of what’s happening in our vineyards.”

Cane elaborates: “We have all these ‘micro-plots’ being monitored, so when veraison comes along, we can differentiate between the early and later-ripening bunches. Which means we can get more of the best quality bunches into the top bottles; ultimately, it’s about better selection.”

Conversely, the vines are organically managed and undervine weeding is a big focus. The majority of the work is done by hand: grapes are hand-picked and brought to the winery in small tubs affectionately known by workers as FYBs (f**king yellow buckets) and wines are hand-plunged, more or less made in the same way they always were. The result is a range of wines with a level of detail and complexity way beyond the team’s resources.

The early team.
The early team (from left) John Hohnen Jr, David Hohnen, David Patterson, David Sands.

The focus on cab sav is as important as ever. “Cabernet in particular has gone through these cycles, where people were looking for bigger, higher alcohol styles, and we’ve never gone to that level in Margaret River,” admits Murphy. “We’re now seeing those styles lose a little bit of favour – ‘Parkerisation’ for want of a generalism – and I think the one thing that differentiates us from those regions is that we always manage to achieve elegance in our wines. We can’t achieve those big styles anyway – we’re maritime, we’re temperate, the wines here always produce freshness and consumers now seem to be seeking that out.”

If there’s one thing that can be said about David Hohnen, he doesn’t do things by halves, and the workload doesn’t appear to be slowing down any time soon. Among his various vinous pursuits, he and daughter Freya operate a winemaking and broking business where they source, make and promote WA wines in Europe, particularly in the UK. But his chief passion these days is farming free range, grass-fed pigs and lambs, and making exclusively top-shelf smallgoods – a venture whose success, he says, has been reliant on his winemaking and farming mentality.

Building the foundations.
Building the foundations.

“Like winemaking,” says Hohnen, “producing smallgoods relies on an understanding of aromatics, flavours and textures. It’s all about the purity of the herbs and spices.” But more than that, winemaking is farming, and David Hohnen is a genuine, compassionate farmer. It has always been that way, and Cape Mentelle is all the better for it.

“I’ve always said that [Cape Mentelle’s] acquisition by a big French company is the best thing that ever happened to Margaret River, and I’ll still say that,” he admits. “I talk about exclusivity; I’ve spent my whole life making wines that are, in effect, exclusive. That’s the way it has to be. Margaret River is just not a place you go to produce anything other than really, really good wines.” Happy 50th, Cape Mentelle!

The writer travelled as a guest of Cape Mentelle.

Cape Mentelle Wines to Try

2016 Cape Mentelle Cabernet Sauvignon, $98
It may be a baby but elegance is written all over this beautiful wine. Black fruits, cassis and crisp red fruits with vanilla oak offset by a distinct umami character. One for the cellar, without question.

2017 Cape Mentelle Shiraz, $45
A modern, clean and vibrant shiraz with red and blue fruit aromatics, lifted violet perfume and dark chocolate undertones. Medium bodied with fine, sandy tannins and subtle vanilla oak.

2017 Cape Mentelle Zinfandel, $65
Raisins form naturally in ripe bunches of zin, resulting in a myriad of complex perfumes and flavours – think red fruits, dark chocolate and purple flowers with Christmas cake and maraschino cherry.  

2016 Cape Mentelle Wallcliffe Cabernet Franc, $49
It’s a bit of a treat to see a straight cab franc from Margs. Aromas of dried herbs, dark forest berries, forest floor and nougat lead to a fleshy, medium-bodied palate with blackberry and tobacco flavours bound by savoury, earthy tannins. Barbecued rib eye, please.

2015 Cape Mentelle Wallcliffe Merlot Petit Verdot, $49
Anyone who has doubted the quality potential of Australian merlot needs to try this –plum and blackcurrant, crisp red fruits and graphite. It’s medium-to-full bodied with a definite mineral feel.

2017 Cape Mentelle Chardonnay, $49
Wild yeast fermentation and partial malolactic fermentation have resulted in a pristine take on a Margs chardonnay. Nutty and complex with citrus and stone fruits, moreish salinity and refreshing acidity.

2018 Cape Mentelle Sauvignon Blanc Semillon, $26
Fresh and energetic with wild herbs, white pepper, citrus and pine needle bound by a distinctive sea-spray character. Put it away for a year or two so the textures and flavours really come to life.

Those ‘yellow buckets’ full of Cape Mentelle.
Those ‘yellow buckets’ full of Cape Mentelle.