Interview with David Hohnen

David Hohnen

When David Hohnen came to show his wines to members in London last year, we took the opportunity to find out about his latest venture, McHenry-Hohnen Vintners, and more about the man who brought Cloudy Bay and Cape Mentelle into the world.

While even non wine-drinkers have heard of Cloudy Bay (the iconic New Zealand wine), the man behind it is not such a household name, testament, I think, to David Hohnen's humility and commitment to pursue his dream quietly and in his own way.David was in the UK to promote wines from his Western Australia venture, McHenry-Hohnen Vintners, but the story of how Cloudy Bay came into being is a good one and says a lot about its creator.

In 1983 some New Zealand winemakers who had been at a conference in Perth arrived late one night at the cellar door at Cape Mentelle to try David's wines. Their own bottles, left behind with David to taste, were a revelation. "I had tasted Sancerre and other good quality sauvignon blancs, but I had never tasted anything quite like these before".

Though he says he is not commercially minded, Hohnen knew that there would be a market in Australia for this style of wine. The fresh, vibrant flavours suit the culture and climate well and it was a style of wine that no-one had seen. Almost immediately, Hohnen was in New Zealand seeking out the best region for the grape and finding a winemaker.

In 1983 and '84 Hohnen won the prestigious Jimmy Watson trophy for his Cape Mentelle cabernets, helping to give both him and Margaret River credibility. So when he set out on the New Zealand venture people took him seriously. He quickly discovered that Marlborough was the best region for sauvignon blanc and it wasn't long before he met up with fellow Australian Kevin Judd and got him on board. Judd, who was making wine under contract in Gisborne at the time, accepted the job of winemaker despite the fact that at that time there was no winery and no grapes! Kevin had the experience necessary of working in New Zealand and with sauvignon. He's still at Cloudy Bay.

Others played an important role too. David's brother Mark secured financial backing for the project. Another wellknown Australian viticulturalist, Richard Smart, worked with them in the early years advising on canopy management, which proved vital in getting the grapes properly ripe and eliminating the green flavours that had been a persistent problem. But the vision was all Hohnen's and though he insists he doesn't have a commercial bone in his body, the iconic imagery on the Cloudy Bay label (and Cape Mentelle's) was his idea too.

Hohnen commuted between Blenheim and Margaret River for 15 years. When Veuve-Cliquot became involved as financial backers they helped take the wines to the rest of the world and let Hohnen get on with what he did best, but with more money behind him. However, when LVMH took over Cliquot, Hohnen found that he was enjoying his job less and less. "I had painted myself into a corner doing a desk job. Eventually a computer appeared on my desk. I actually did a course but I ended up sending an e-mail to my bosses in France (my first and last) saying I didn't want the computer and when it was taken away I thought that maybe I should follow it through the door."

David finally left Cape Mentelle in 2003 to pursue his interests in farming (rare-breed pigs, deer and sheep), grape-growing and winemaking. Together with brother-in-law Murray McHenry, the family owns four vineyards (300 acres) planted with over 16 different varieties. Reflecting the region's affinity with Bordeaux varieties are semillon, sauvignon blanc, malbec, merlot, cabernet sauvignon and petit verdot. Grapes associated with southern France and Spain acknowledge the Mediterranean climate (marsanne, viognier, roussanne, grenache, graciano, mataro, shiraz and tempranillo). Add to this chardonnay, barbera, sangiovese and zinfandel and one can see that they have a rich palette of varieties from which to choose.

David makes the wine with his daughter Freya, a graduate in oenology from Adelaide University with a special interest in permaculture. Hohnen describes the way they cultivate the land as "grandpa farming", not exactly organic but recognising the importance of integrating animals into the whole to increase nitrogen levels in the soil. Kangaroos are a big problem, so they put up a deer fence to keep them out then decided to put deer in the vineyards over the winter, immediately recognising the benefit this had on soil quality. Hohnen feels that good winemaking is all about returning to a simple approach, allowing grapes to turn into wine, courageously monitoring a natural process and engaging with the land rather than interfering with the wine. "This is the only way in which wine can retain its purity and authenticity, providing an honest expression of the varieties and place that it came from."

McHenry-Hohnen "is not another Cloudy Bay story" says David. "They come around once in a lifetime" but he has great confidence in what they are doing and the wines are just as innovative, showing once again how well Margaret River is suited to the production of fine-tasting wines. "Varietal wines have played their part in demystifying wine, but very few single varieties make great wine." David Hohnen already put Western Australia on the map with his former home property, Cape Mentelle.

His pioneering days look far from over as he introduces to the world a range of beautifully balanced, regional wines from a fascinating mix of grapes.

Joanna Goodman
News editor

This article originally appeared in Societynews April 2008

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