When Western Australia’s winemakers present their latest vintages in November at the annual fair in Margaret River, an area rich in tradition, they will be joined by a grower from Maine who has upended preconceptions of viticulture in the region and whose prices reflect both the rarity of his bottles and the quality he has achieved in the 12 years since he started planting vines.
Margaret River is Australia’s top region for Cabernet Sauvignon Bordeaux-style wines, as well as being noted for its red Malbecs and Burgundy-inspired white Chardonnays. Will Berliner produces all three under his Cloudburst label, and over the past decade has carved out a remarkable niche for himself in a neighborhood where quality expectations are already high.
His wines are hand-crafted from a tiny 0.8 hectare (2 acre) plot of land in a sheltered corner of his 250-acre estate along the shore of the Indian Ocean. The attention to detail is intense, the result of plant biology and forestry studies at Yale and an intimate knowledge of the land acquired over eight harvests, and is reflected in the price of his wines at around $250 a bottle.
His original intention when buying the land back in 2004 was simply to have a warm-climate oceanside escape from the Maine winters. Vines were only planted after an initial scheme to grow avocados was assessed and rejected as too costly to be practical.
“I designed a garden essentially,” he said in an interview in London during a tasting at Fine+Rare in September. “It’s never been about commerce.”
Vines were planted close together, just one meter apart in each direction, giving a high density of 10,000 per hectare, and were denied the usual irrigation given to young plants in order to force their roots down through the arid soil. “As I started to work with it, I found my preconceptions were smashed by the vineyard itself,” he recalled. I was “ridiculed by my peers.”
Vines are rooted directly into the ground rather than being grafted onto other rootstock, no chemicals or treated pine posts are used in the vineyard and kangaroos eat the weeds around the property. His philosophy, developed following long-distance oenology studies on a University of California Davis program, is one of biodynamic viticulture and as he honed his winemaking skills working in vineyards in Margaret River and tasting in wineries, he was determined to create his wine on a different model.
“I saw how people treated their plants as industrial inputs in a commercial enterprise,” he said, while in vineyards “I found myself in endless rows that were demoralizing to me.”
He made 1,100 bottles of Chardonnay in his first 2010 vintage, boosting that to 1,400 in 2011. As his reputation developed, he won entry for his wines in restaurants such as Le Bernardin in New York and the French Laundry in Napa Valley.
He made 1,688 bottles of Cabernet Sauvignon in 2013 and 2,800 in 2014. Now he is preparing to release his 2016 whites and 2015 reds.
Back vintages listed as available on his website are the Chardonnay 2010 at $250 a bottle in the U.S. and Chardonnay vintages from 2011 to 2015 at $225. Cabernet Sauvignon from 2010 to 2012, and for 2014, is $250 while the 2013 is sold out, and Malbec 2012-14 is also listed at $250.
“My vines have started to reach a certain maturity,” he said as he poured tasting samples during our conversation and moved from one bottle to the next. The ’16 Chardonnay has got “all the right qualities.”