It’s early April 2019 and mid-harvest in the Margaret River, a gorgeous sunny day of about 15 degrees, blue skies and not a cloud to be seen. I’m in the shed at Windows Estate and on the end of a giant plunger, hand plunging a beautiful open ferment of merlot. The red fruit aromas coming from the must are, to say the least, delightful, and although it’s only 10am, my palate is already warming up for a fine glass of wine.
The plunging is hefty work, the cap on the top of the juice is deep and hard to push through. It reminds me of the energy required for rowing. I do a second ferment of merlot and move on to another one of malbec – the cap is even more dense with this fruit; in fact, a small child can stand on it and not sink in. About halfway through, winemaker Chris Davies, slightly bemused at my slow progress and technique, pilfers the plunger off me and stirs the juice with far more proficiency and elegance.
Chris has been doing this on his own for the last two decades. In peak periods, he handles up to 20 open ferments that he plunges twice per day for weeks. This is in between tending to his 6.3 hectares of vines, which include chenin blanc, sauvignon blanc, semillon, chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, shiraz, petit verdot, merlot, viognier and malbec.
Chris has dug every hole for each of the 12,000 vines on the property and hand prunes each one on his own. No one else is allowed in the vineyard, except for a few trusted pickers (who are still closely watched) at harvest time. Feedback from the pickers is that the vineyard is so pristine, it’s a real pleasure to pick the fruit.
Chris’ wife Jo manages the business side of the operation, running the cellar door, hosting tastings and overseeing its administration – all the things Chris, in his own words, “dislikes”. Jo, who holds a business degree, is the pillar of sharp focus providing the acumen, strategy and structure for the Estate to operate and flourish.
The couple’s list of achievements, for just two people, is nothing short of extraordinary – 2012 Small Producers of the Year from Ray Jordan; Gourmet Traveller WINE’s Best Small Cellar Door in Margaret River for 2015, 2016, 2017; Halliday 5 Red Star winery since 2013; and consistent high scores, including several 95-plus ratings from Huon Hooke and accolades from Decanter magazine for best chardonnay in the region. All this from a quiet chap who has taught himself how to make wine.
The story starts back in 1999. After finishing school, where he focused on woodwork, metalwork and all things manual, Chris landed a job at Evans & Tate, working in their Redbrook block under Doug Crapsley, where his rapid learning started.
“It was a lot of pruning and I did this day in and day out,” he jokes in a matter-of-fact way. “But I saw and learnt a lot about viticulture, how to tend to vines and how a wine operation should run. At the same time I was studying viticulture – our lecturer had his own vineyard, so he had plenty of practical advice about pruning, irrigation, soils and setting up vineyards.”
At the tender age of 19, Chris convinced his parents to allocate him a few hectares of land from their larger farm to begin his winemaking dream. As a note, Chris earnt a pittance for the first 10 years of the vineyard, a tribute to his relentless resilience and drive to be a one-man tour-de-force of viticulture and winemaking.
“He’s one of those rare people who just loves working,” Jo says with a gleam in her eye. “Anything that needs to be done on the property and across the vineyard operation he has built, he does – the vines, the irrigation system, the fencing, the mowing, the gardening, the list goes on.”
Jo, who grew up on a third-generation sheep and cattle farm in Busselton, about 30 kilometres away, met Chris at the Coconut Club in Dunsborough. It was love at first sight from across the room and the couple have never looked back, now with a son Lucas and daughter Violette.
While it might seem their meeting was a chance occurrence, you get a real sense of destiny between the pair, almost like winemaking is in their blood.
“Chris’ paternal great grandfather, Thomas Waters, was one of the first people to bring grapevine cuttings into Western Australia,” Jo elaborates. “On my mother’s side, those ancestors were some of the original Spanish settlers who also brought vines with them from Spain.
“Oddly enough, my uncle recently advised us there is an old grapevine in one of the family sheep paddocks and it is one of those original vines. We are so delighted it has been found, Chris is going to prune it for cuttings this year and in a few years we will hopefully have enough to plant a little plot of special vines.”
Over a beer down at the nearby tavern, the local pickers tell me fruit from the 2019 vintage is not in the best shape. One explains the whites have been looking shrivelled with rot, there has been bird and insect pressure, and plenty of fruit has been going on the ground.
Which brings me back to Chris; all of his grapes were still pristine, a testament to his back-breaking work in the vineyard to tend every individual vine and bunch. As a perfectionist, he has enlisted some help from time-to-time, but it hasn’t worked out.
“When they went home I had to go back and redo it all, so why bother?” Chris smiles. “Plus, if other people make cutting errors, you have to fix it up the following year. Vine care and pruning are critical because you are not just pruning for that vintage, you are actually pruning for the legacy of that individual vine.”
Pushing 40, you do wonder how long one man can continue to do the job of five men, while continuing to produce such fine quality wine.
“I still have plenty of energy,” Chris says. “I’ve got a good 20 years at least left in me!” Which leads us to the estate’s future, where their continual journey of improvement goes up another notch this year.
“We are in the process of building our Petit Eco Cabin,” Jo says. “The idea is to do a tiny chalet, only 32 square metres, off the grid, no television and no wi-fi, with a skylight in the roof to gaze at the moon and stars. We would like to bring people back to connecting more with nature and where their wine and food comes from, things that are very important to us.”
Gaining certification from Australian Certified Organic is another well-earned milestone Windows will hit this year in December, taking quality again to the next level.
“It is something we have been transitioning to for a very long time, so it has not been a big change,” Chris says. “With our children, and the vineyard right there, we don’t want sprays or anything unnatural near what we eat and drink. With good vineyard practice and care, giving your fruit enough sunshine and air flow, you actually don’t need to use any sprays.”
Jo continues by saying that it’s those difficult jobs that bring the big results and rewards in the vineyard and wine.
“Chris looks at every vine individually and uses cane pruning to meet the vine’s individual needs,” she says. “The best vine health and canopy management takes time, you just have to get out there and do it. We care about the whole process so much that we do every step ourselves, we are very focused on leaving our beautiful little plot of land in better condition for our children.”
When you visit, Jo and Chris’ DNA can be found everywhere. The cellar door is a relaxed and focused experience with Fabian Haegele and Stephanie Dunning greeting visitors. The culture is one of energy, warmth and etiquette. There’s plenty of wine to try, with a big green lawn and a dam at which you can pull up a seat, open a bottle and share some charcuterie and cheese.
Jo also offers the Tasting Terroir vineyard experience, a tour of the vineyard where you can get behind the scenes in an informative way while trying a few wines. There are also private tastings with cheese available on Saturdays. Going ahead, all of the wines will be sold under the Petit Lot label, with a focus on telling a story through the artworks on each bottle.
“A local artist Trilby Glen designs the labels that help tell the story of the vineyard, the wine, the year, and also focus on a particular part of the farm,” Jo says.
“On the property we have two highland cows, dorper sheep, three types of ducks, geese, chickens, guinea fowl and plenty of kangaroos, there are so many interesting things to talk about. Our tasting notes will also start reflecting the individual story and the artwork that features on the label.”
As I wrap up I ask Chris, whose secateurs are his favourite possession, what his best year has been and what his favourite memories are from the last two decades.
“The year I got married and the years I had my children,” he says with glee. “When it comes to wine, every year after I finish pruning I have a pruning party for one, which is a special dinner with a bottle of wine. Others have big vintage parties but I have a solo pruning celebration!”
You can’t fake this humility and it nicely sums up what is at the core of the winery’s ethos.
The Windows name comes from a nearby surf break which is popular with local surfers, like Chris and son Lucas. Similar to the perfect wave, the wines are fine, smooth, and full of life, length and finesse. There is much more to come from Windows Estate and the waves look epic – roll on 20 more years of excellence.
2017 Petit Lot Mousseux, $39 100% chenin blanc sparkling made méthode traditionnelle. Pome fruits, citrus and acid are nicely balanced with cream and floral notes – perfect as an aperitif or served with shellfish.
2018 Petit Lot Chardonnay, $48 Put a blindfold on and you would think you are drinking a premier cru from Burgundy. Quality oak showing white spice and other subtle toast notes, supported by a structure of stone fruits and grapefruit. Minerality and a dash of salinity brings the wine into beautiful balance.
2018 Petit Lot Fumé Blanc, $37 A textural sauvignon blanc that has spent some time on skins and in old oak. The nose reveals nectarine, herbs and passionfruit. There is good palate weight with a wide array of flavours – white stone fruits, sherbet, apple, pear and minerality. The long acid length of lemon seals the deal.
2017 Petit Lot Syrah, $39 Made with 10% whole bunches and 2% viognier, the nose is complex with spice, perfume, green peppercorn and red fruit. The palate shows great balance between earth, dried fruits, plum, tannins and white pepper. Delicious.
2017 Petit Lot Cabernet Sauvignon, $48 The nose shows boysenberry, black fruit compote and some peppery oak. A beautiful palate of dark fruit balanced with acidity and tannins. A nice long dry finish.
2017 Petit Lot Violette, $39 A complex and structured wine featuring a blend of cabernet sauvignon, petit verdot, cabernet franc and merlot. On the nose, eucalyptus leaf, thyme, red fruit, white spice, cranberry and hints of aniseed and liquorice. The mouth reveals plum, blackberry, cedar oak, umami and mint. A very long life ahead of it.