We are standing in the rather bare barrel cellar at Lake’s Folly. Winemaker Rodney Kempe waves his hand over the concrete floor. “Normally we’d have 43 barrels of chardonnay in here after the vintage,” he says “but this year, only 11.”
Such are the vagaries of viticulture and the helter-skelter of crop yields. It has been a tough year in many parts of the country. Drought is the cause. The Lake’s Folly chardonnay vines are on sandy soil and even with irrigation it’s difficult to keep the soil moist in a drought.
Most modern Australian wineries are pragmatic about shortfalls in the crop; they simply get on the phone and buy fruit from other vineyards. Not Lake’s Folly. The Lake family, who founded it in 1963, stuck to an estate concept and so does the new owner, Perth businessman Peter Fogarty, and his winemaker, Kempe. Some would laugh and say Fogarty and Kempe are kidding themselves that this attitude of purity is worth anything. They’d say its folly – no pun intended. But what would they think if Chateau Petrus bought in grapes? Apart from breaking the French appellation law, it would be lethal to Petrus’s reputation … And reputation is something Lake’s Folly has in spadefulls.
…A recent vertical tasting of most vintages of chardonnay back to 1989 and most cabernet back to 1980 showed me that Lake’s Folly in on the comeback trail. The professionalism of Fogarty and Kempe is adding impetus to the revival and Lake’s Folly’s wines are at least as good as ever.
Kempe is a trained winemaker who’s done the hard yards at other wineries, coming to the Folly via Rothbury Estate and then Brian McGuigan Wines, where he was assistant to Peter Hall. Kempe is full of enthusiasm and determination to do his best as custodian of the Folly. And although he lives in Perth, Fogarty is a keen wine-lover and a long-time customer of Lake’s Folly who already owned the Millbrook winery in the Perth Hills when he bought the Folly. He has the wherewithal to further polish this Hunter Valley jewel and seems to have all the right motives. I don’t use the word jewel loosely: the key to Lake’s Folly’s greatness is the vineyard. It is a superb piece of land and has been fortunate to have been farmed by a succession of good viticulturalists.
I have no doubt that Lake’s Folly chardonnay has only one serious competitor in the Hunter: Tyrrell’s Vat 47. All the wines I tasted, 11 vintages from 2002 back to ’93, plus the ’89, were excellent, with the exceptions of ’97 and ’93. An ’82 drunk with dinner was also good, although past its best. The latest four, as well as ’96 and ’89, were all outstanding chardonnays and would stand up in any company.
We tasted 22 of the reds, from 2001 back to ’80, plus ’72, and a similar pattern emerged. That is, the best wines were the most recent (2001 to ’96, again excepting the wet-year ’97) plus various older vintages such as the ’90, ’93 and ’89. I also greatly enjoyed the ’81 and ’72 but most of the wines from the 80’s had seen better days. The question of hydrogen sulfide or brettanomyces spoilage in several older reds was raised but I was less concerned about these issues in recent vintages.
They are lovely wines and still unique in the Hunter. Elegance and balance are the keywords but, rather than being long-term cellar propositions, I’d say they drink at their best for 10 years from release date, 15 for the best vintages, occasionally longer.
The chardonnays impressed for their intensity, freshness, clean dry finishes and piercing non-malolactic acidity. The greatest wines were the very complex, hazel nutty, slightly meaty 2000 and leaner, refined, honey/mealy 2001.
The red, not labeled cabernet but simply Lake’s Folly (a 60 per cent cabernet sauvignon, 20 per cent petit verdot, 10 per cent merlot, 10 per cent shiraz blend) shows more variability but is generally taut, elegant, medium to full-bodied with moderate alcohol and subtle use of oak (although the ’01 is also very good, blackberry / mulberry scented, perhaps less nuanced at the moment but Kempe believes it will be long-lived.
There were many observers who predicted the bastardization of Lake’s Folly when it left the family three years ago. But the integrity and uniqueness remain and, if anything the quality is better than ever.