Australia's Winemaker of the Year moves to Napa


Newton Vineyard is not currently one of Napa Valley's most talked-about wineries. Long gone are the days in the early 1980s when high-profile winemaker Ric Forman was lured from Sterling, then riding the crest of a Coke-financed wave (upper case C), to Newton, where he was succeeded by John Kongsgaard. The estate, including sumptuous gardens, was created on Spring Mountain north west of St Helena by Peter Newton and his second wife Su Hua Newton. Before selling it to CocaCola, Englishman Newton had established Sterling as early as the late 1960s – almost pre-history for Napa Valley. He ran a successful paper company in San Francisco and was once, inter alia, responsible for the omniscient Lex column on the back page of the FT. 

Today Newton Vineyard is probably best known for being part of the LVMH wine portfolio, called rather unmemorably Moët Hennessy Estates & Wines. As I reported in Cloudy Bay and cousins, it has been one of the concerns of the new head of the division, Jean-Guillaume Prats. Newton has, arguably, been bumbling along rather than making anyone's heart beat faster, but presumably Prats, who ran super second Ch Cos d'Estournel in Bordeaux for most of his working life, would like to change this.

The name of the new Newton winemaker may not mean much to thejack_mann_cabernet_sauvignon California wine scene, but it means a great deal to Australians. Rob Mann (pictured) is from a famous winemaking dynasty and grandson of one of Australia's most revered winemakers ever. His grandfather Jack Mann not only created the best-selling Houghton's White Burgundy (sic) but, perhaps more significantly, made so many great Cabernet-based reds in Western Australia during his 50-vintage career that Hardys' top bottling is named after him. Rob was senior winemaker at Hardys' historic Tintara winery in South Australia before being wooed by LVMH in 2005 to take the tiller at Cape Mentelle, their flagship Margaret River winery – see New winemaker for Cape Mentelle at last.

When those organising the first of the superb Landmark Australia educational weeks for opinion-formers (which seem to have evaporated...?) wanted someone to introduce Cabernet Sauvignon, they chose Rob Mann. See Julia's video of Mann introducing Cabernet at Landmark Australia in 2009. During Mann's 10 years at Cape Mentelle, the winery was twice awarded Producer of the Year and Rob Mann Winemaker of the Year.

It will be quite a culture shock, I would have thought, to move from Margaret River to Napa Valley, however beloved both of them are by wine-loving tourists. But I should imagine that Mann's experience with Cabernet will be pretty relevant, even if the terroir is quite different. It will not be completely new to Mann, however, since he made the 2007 vintage at Newton on secondment from Cape Mentelle.

Newton currently comprises 120 acres of vineyard with some plantings on Mount Veeder, Yountville and Carneros, but the kernel of the estate at Spring Mountain is very promisingly located between the super-lauded Abreu and my beloved Spottswoode. (I'll be publishing an account of a vertical Spottswoode tasting before too long.)

Mann's official comment on the new challenge is: 'I am very pleased to be continuing my exploration of the wonders of Cabernet Sauvignon. Moving from Australia's most highly regarded Cabernet region of Margaret River to the USA's most highly regarded Cabernet region Napa Valley presents an amazing opportunity.'

Talking to Mann in 2011 about his time in the Napa Valley in 2007, Huon Hooke
reported in the Sydney Morning Herald that Mann was particularly impressed by the effects of clonal selection of Cabernet Sauvignon there even if he thought about the results that 'Californians harvest their grapes too ripe and their wines lack elegance – but the quality of their fruit is spectacular'. I for one will be particularly interested in the evolution of Newton Cabernets.

evan_thompsonPrats would of course be crazy not to leave Cape Mentelle, the high-profile winery founded by David Hohnen, who went on to create Cloudy Bay, in ultra-capable hands. He has appointed two layers above winemaker Evan Thompson (left) who has been renamed maitre de chai (not sure how that will go down with his peers).

The new estate director is not a winemaker but Cameron Murphy who was previously 'Business Development Manager- Asia Pacific, Japan, Australia & New Zealand' for Moët Hennessy (and presumably had quite big business cards). Reporting to him as technical director will be Frédérique Perrin. She was previously oenology and production manager for Champagne Krug and between 2007 and 2012 was associate winemaker at....Newton Vineyard.

Incidentally, on the Cape Mentelle website, from which the portrait above was taken, Mann is quoted as declaring, 'Cabernet Sauvignon is the only variety that would be tolerated in heaven' while Thompson '
has a great interest in the wines of Bordeaux, particularly St-Émilion, and is a big fan of Riesling from the Mosel'. Wise man.

The official announcement of this personnel shuffling carries the following final paragraph:

'Estates & Wines, the Moët Hennessy Wine Division, has an impressive portfolio comprising Chandon in Napa, Brazil, Argentina, India, China and Australia; Cloudy Bay, Cape Mentelle, Newton Vineyard, Terrazas de los Andes, Cheval des Andes, Numanthia and Shangri-La in Yunnan, China.'

Looks as though they have now decided on a name for that amazing project, described in China's new wine frontier, that Nick and I visited last March…