At a recent tasting of Western Australian wines, one winery stood out as offering exceptional quality and value for money across its range – but it is a name barely known outside Australia.
Domaine Naturaliste is a relatively new winery, established in 2012. Owner Bruce Dukes is a highly experienced winemaker with 25 vintages under his belt when he set up his own winery in the heart of Margaret River. Dukes is an exceptionally talented winemaker, serious agronomist, obsessive soil and clone geek and eloquent spokesman for this remote isolated region.
“This is the young wild frontier of Australian wine”, he says. “I returned here because I felt that it delivers incredible value, distinctive fruit freshness, amazing texture and accessible open soft tannins. Margaret River is now 55 years into its grape growing learning curve; we are beginning to understand how our geographic subregions influence the characters in our fruit”.
Dukes was born in a coastal suburb of Perth, four hours drive north of Margaret River, but his mother’s family came from Margaret River and childhood holidays were spent discovering the limestone caves, pristine beaches and fishing.
He headed to California to study winemaking at UC Davis and spent four years rubbing shoulders with celebrities as winemaker at Francis Ford Coppola’s Coppola Niebaum winery in California’s Napa Valley; an experience he says had a massive influence on his wine styles.
In 2003 he returned to Margaret River where he worked at Pierro winery, then set up a custom crush business working with numerous wineries. He calls this period ‘a fantastic learning curve discovering different sites in the region, which is basically a gently undulating tapestry of decomposed granite’.
“What I was looking for was the beautiful sweet spot”, says Dukes. “In northern Margaret River you get riper richer styles, in the southern subregions you get fresher aromatic wines”.
Dukes reckons his sweet spot is Wilyabrup, 7km from the Indian Ocean, where he bought 35 hectares. 21 hectares have ungrafted vines, planted in the 1990s on their own roots.
“This part of Margaret River has a set of natural conditions that suit certain vines. I work with five clones of Cabernet Sauvignon, each with a subtle difference, which put together make a wine with greater depth and detail”, says Dukes
Rebus Cabernet Sauvignon 2018 is the first vintage from a newly acquired vineyard in Wilyabrup with 20 year old Cabernet Sauvignon vines. Dukes adds 3.5% Merlot for earthy fragrance and 3% Malbec for its distinctive blue fruit and slate character.
Dukes makes two exceptional Chardonnays with stunning fresh pure fruit flavours. Western Australia’s isolation and remoteness plays to its advantage with its unique set of clones, which for Chardonnay is the special Gin Gin clone.
“Gin Gin consists of larger (hens) and smaller berries (chickens) in the same bunch. As the fruit approaches flavour ripeness, larger berries develop the most magnificent flavour and perfume whilst smaller chickens remain slightly sour. When you press them together the result is a succulent juice of great flavour resulting in naturally balanced wines with moderate alcohol”.
For Discovery Chardonnay he looks for flavour and texture to match delicate flavours, preferring riper Wilyabrup fruit to cooler southern Margaret River Chardonnay – and he restricts malolactic fermentation to maintain natural acidity.
Artus Chardonnay, from southern Margaret River, is a step up in quality. “It is an artistic translation of the Gin Gin clone, a textural wine created by allowing dappled light into the fruiting zone”, says Dukes. Tiny 100g clusters are hand-harvested at first light to preserve fruit freshness, fermented with wild yeast with malolactic to soften acid and aged in Allier oak (40% new) for 10 months.
For his 83% Sauvignon Blanc/17% Semillon, he blends two vineyards in Wilyabrup and Wallcliffe. Sauvignon gives lifted gooseberry and lychee fragrance whilst Semillon adds fig, white grapefruit and minerally notes; it is oak fermented in partly new oak, with early bottling so it is ‘jumping out of the blocks in the spring’.
No surprise to see Dukes recently scooped the Best Value Winery in Australia award from James Halliday, Australia’s most influential wine critic, as Domaine Naturaliste offers great quality and value. A hidden gem.
DOMAINE NATURALISTE REBUS CABERNET SAUVIGNON 2018 (14%) ***STAR VALUE***
£15.50: Bright cassis fruits, violet perfumes, succulent juicy flavours, soft velvety tannins: ripe elegant Cabernet with remarkable freshness and earthy savoury undertones.
DOMAINE NATURALISTE DISCOVERY CHARDONNAY 2021 (12.5%)
£15.50: Beautifully textured, bright limey flavours with racy zippy acid backbone, such incredible juicy freshness, very subtle oak – delicate and thirst-quenching.
DOMAINE NATURALISTE ARTUS CHARDONNAY 2020 (13.5%) ***STAR BUY***
£25: Serious barrel fermented Chardonnay with brioche and struck match nose, deep dense citrus with lemon peel and lime, ripe succulent fruit, spicy cinnamon, underlying minerality and well-integrated oak.
DOMAINE NATURALISTE DISCOVERY SAUVIGNON BLANC/SEMILLON 2021 (12.5%)
£15.50: Blackcurrant bud aromas, limey acid, grapefruit flavours, zippy zesty, guava notes and smoky undertones from oak ferment.
Join Rose’s Fine Wine Dinner at The Peat Inn on 8 December www.rosemurraybrown.com