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He was passionate about producing complex, powerful, yet elegant wines from the best regions in Western Australia. Having founded Capel Vale in 1974, Dr Peter Pratten is one of the early pioneers of the Western Australian wine industry. In a candid interview with Caroline Andrade, Dr Peter Pratten speaks about his award winning wines and bringing them to India.

Describe in brief the history of Capel Vale Wines.

Capel Vale started in 1974. My wife and I moved to Western Australia at that time from Sydney and the opportunity to start on a green field’s area of grapes was really pioneering in the area.

There had been some interesting research done between the climates of Bordeaux and Burgundy in France and the climates in the South West of Western Australia and as a result of the research, it appeared that the grape variety in large areas in Western Australia were bearing very high quality results. So myself and several other doctors who were interested in wine, all started to grow grapes in these areas from new.

There had been grapes growing in this one valley in Perth for many years which is quite a hot region for growing grapes and the best quality wines would be difficult to make from that area. Whereas the cooler areas in the south west of Western Australia being very similar to the areas in France should theoretically grow better quality wine, so it was up to us to find out just which of these areas would grow which of the best wines. So that’s how Capel Vale started and I was working in South Western Australia and this started as a hobby.

Over the years it became evident that some areas in the south west corner of Western Australia had a lot of different climates and different soil types, so we had quite a variety of possibilities as to which grapes grow best there. So we made the same variety from different areas in the same climate, sort of in constant conditions and with a kind of research; with a little bit of guess work and a little bit of science we managed to work out pretty much what varieties went where and once I had done that, over the years I actually purchased land and acquired vineyards. So Capel Vale has vineyards in the four cruised areas of Western Australia.

Western Australia has nine recognized wine regions registered with the European Union. In Western Australia we have regions and sub-regions inside as well and they are all recognized by the European Union, so it’s kind of world recognition. The other side of Australia also has gone through this process.

Our winery is near a little town called Capel on the edge of the Capel River, so its called Capel Vale and this is in a wine region called Geographe. A little further is the Margaret River region, Pemberton region and the Great Southern region and all of these regions grow very different grape varietals.

In Margaret River region, Cabernet Sauvignon is king, but they also grow very good Chardonnay there and Sauvignon Blanc in that area, so we have one vineyard in there. In Capel at Geographe vineyard, we grow interesting grapes such as the Verdelho. We also grow Viognier, Merlot which is better there than the Viognier of the Margaret River, then down in Mount Barker in the South, which is more like the Northern Rhone valley we grow very good Shiraz and Riesling. Whereas, in Pemberton we grow Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc and a different style Chardonnay. In the Geographe region which is where Capel is we’re also now experimenting with some of the warmer climate European varieties such as the Sangiovese, Tempranillo in the red wines and in the cooler areas like Pemberton, we’re starting to work with some of the white wines from other areas like Pinot Grigio and may be Grüner Veltliner which is a wine from Austria.

Can you detail your portfolio of wines?

Basically we make wine in three different levels and the levels of wine we make are very similar to the way that we classify wines out of Bordeaux. So our entry level wine range is basically just region South Western Australia and that could be a blend of wines from a lot of different regions, but it all comes from inside Western Australia.

The basic varieties is area Western Australia and that we call as a ‘Debut’ label and in this range we have Unwooded Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, SBS, Verdelho, Cabernet Merlot, Shiraz, Pinot Noir, Merlot, Shiraz Rose and Sparkling NV. Our next level up is our ‘Regional’ level and that comes from a region within Western Australia. In this range, we have SSB, Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Cabernet Merlot. Then we have the Capel Vale ―’Cellar Exclusive’ Range which comprises of Cabernet Blend, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Viognier, Sangiovese, Sauvignon Blanc, Petit Verdot and Vintage Sparkling.

Also, at the very top we have our ‘Single Vineyard’ line which comprises of Shiraz, Riesling, and Cabernet Sauvignon (Mar 09), so that’s how we have structured our levels and then the grapes that we use are appropriate to the area/vineyard.

We gather that a few of your wine labels are winning awards consistently. Can you tell us more about it?

We received a Gold at the London International Wine Challenge in 2005 for our Cabernet Blend and at the Decanter Wine Awards in 2007 for our Viognier. We also received a trophy at the Melbourne Wine Show in 2005 for our Merlot. Apart from that, we scored 96 James Halliday points in 2005 for our Cabernet Sauvignon and received a trophy at the Margaret River Wine Show in 2008 for our Sauvignon Blanc. In 2008, the Shiraz from the Mt Barker Vineyard got the top Gold from the whole of the world at the London International Wine & Spirit Competition and all of our wines have done well.

Describe the difference between Eastern Australian wines and wines from other parts of Australia?

The eastern side of Australia produces about 95 to 96% of Australia’s wines. West Australia only produces about 4% of Australia’s total volume of wine because it’s very new, but it produces nearly 50% of Australia’s top premium wine so you see the quality out of West Australia because its new, the technology is high and the climate is very good so we got everything going for it.

There are lots of different regions in the eastern states and there are hot climates, cold climates, also it’s in between, so you can’t sort of talk about it in the general way because every area is different. But what I can say is that the wines out of Western Australia tends to be a bit more elegant, closer to the old world styles. For instance if you take Shiraz as a grape which is grown everywhere in Australia, the most famous Shiraz of Australia comes from South of Australia and they are big dark huge wines and they are very popular but the style of wines that we make in Shiraz out of Western Australia are much more like the old world style, it’s like top-end. So it’s just that they can’t do what we can do and we can’t do what they can do. In general, West Australia is higher in quality, smaller in volume and closer to the old world.

Can you throw some light on your preference to use screw cap over the conventional corks?

All wines will mature with time in the bottle, the rate being mainly determined by the wine itself, and the cellar temperature variation. Screw caps will allow this to happen by stopping air from entering the wine and stopping the wine escaping from the bottle. With screw caps all bottles of the same wine will age at the same rate in any one environment. With corks there will be significant bottle variation, but also some deterioration due to oxidation and taint.

Also, all wines will mature in the bottle, but much more slowly with screw caps than with corks. With modern winemaking technology, the winemaker can advance the maturation of red wines in the winery before bottling. This can reduce the need for long cellaring times, bringing wines closer to the best age of the wine when ready to drink. Screw caps are an advantage for this technique.

By using screw caps one can avoid, taint in wines, leakage of wine, loss of total volume of bottled wine and loss of wine due to oxidation. Wine can be kept much fresher for longer with better retention of aromas. It is also easy to open and the bottle can be re-sealed easily. The Pilfer proof “crack open” closure and new Lux+ caps look smooth, attractive with internal thread.

Do they help wine to age in a bottle in a uniformed manner over a long period of time?

Becausea cork is a biological product, it’s the bark of the tree so every piece of cork is porous and lets air through but everyone is different. So if you have a box of 12 bottles of wine and they all have corks in them every bottle will get a different amount of air through. So the bottle will age at a different rate so you will not get the same consistent aging of each bottle, whereas if its got a screw cap there will be no air in and no air out. Ever bottle will age at the same rate, so that’s one advantage. Secondly, the cork because it’s a biological product it has a taste and the taste is due to a substance they call Trichloroanisole TCA and that taste is very obvious to any consumer in about 5 % percent of wines closed with cork. But there’s another 5% that affects the wine that the average consumer would not understand but if you were the winemaker you would know that its not the same wine. So if you add it all together about 10% of wines are actually significantly changed in flavor by the cork.

So why stick a cork in when you know its going to destroy 10% of the wine. So from the point of view of aging provided the wine is properly made you can put it in the bottle and you can put a screw cap on and both red and white wines will age because the aging is not due to air coming through, its due to a change in the chemistry inside wine. It doesn’t need air and reds and whites can be aged quite well in bottles with screw caps but it takes longer because there’s no air coming in and of course it means that they will stay good for longer as well.

Tell us about your plans to export Capel Vale Wines to the Indian market. Would this justify your commitment to higher quality and lower volume principle?

I think India is a wonderful growing market and I think that it would be nice to be able to find some importers who are small enough so that we could make a difference to them.

But the problem in India is that each state in India has their own rules about wine and their own taxes etc so it’s evident to me having seen what’s going on that you don’t really market into India as a country, you market into a state in India. Every state may require a different importer or you may have one importer whose able to handle several states, so it just depends on who we find and we’re actively looking to see if we can find somebody who we can match with.

We have the ability to make more wine than we are currently making in Australia because Capel Vale is a totally an estate. We do everything from the ground to the final product. We have a very modern bottling wine so we do everything in house, but because over the years we have also contract bottles for other people we know where we can get the grapes or the wine to keep the style that we’re making consistent. So we actually have quite a bit of flexibility in terms of volume out of Western Australia but anything we sourced was from Western Australia and deliberately from the regions.

Tell us about your future expansion plans in the wine industry as a winemaker and as an exporter of your premium wine labels.

We are very obsessive about making sure that our branding is accurate, so the label integrity is really important to us. Anything that goes into our label has got Capel Vale written on it so the labels are accurate, the varieties are accurate, and there are very strict rules if you are exporting wine out of Australia which you must adhere to and we do this willingly because it keeps the name of Australian wine high. So yes we can supply wine in different levels at different quality levels and different levels of interest, but because we see the Indian domestic wine market is growing very quickly just like it is in China, I think that the Indian wine market will tend to supply the entry level product in India so that as the palette for consuming wine grows in India this is how we see it.

In Australia, particularly the Eastern side of Australia can make very high quantities of wine of quite good quality but not really excellent quality. Now for us to survive in that sort of market is very competitive; the margins are very small and I don’t think for a small operation like ours, it wouldn’t be commercially viable for us to try and compete at that level. We have to compete at the next level so what we would do is concentrate on selling out better wines and the top end wines into India and it will take a lot of time.

So our main export plan is to not aim at the bottom end at all but to start somewhere in the middle and go right to the top.

You are also associated with a boutique winery named Roustabout Wines. Can you explain more about it?

Because Capel Vale now is quite a well-known name in Australia, and we are distributed in Australia by a National distributor through the whole of Australia, I wanted to be able to provide some wines a little bit different with a little bit more personal input and so we started another label just this year called Roustabout.

The name Roustabout originally came from the dock sides in England many years ago and these were the rough guys who loaded the ships then. As England colonized America and Australia, in Australia the name Roustabout got to be associated with the guys that worked on the capelin ship stations just the hubs worker; whereas in America it got associated with guys who worked in the oil industry who did the drilling. But basically it’s the lowest guy in the picking order and there is a poem by Henry Lawson called Middleton’s Roustabout which is all about this guy who started off as the lowest of the low and end up owning his own company.

So we thought it was a very interesting name and very Australian, so again that’s how we’ve divided it into levels and each level roughly corresponds to the way we run Capel Vale. But some of these wines are not yet available and some of them will be quite different to what we’ve produced in Capel Vale. The way they are made is different, taste will be a little different, fruit may come from a slightly different region and the volume might not be anything like the volume of Capel Vale. So at this stage we are not looking to export except for very exclusive; we’re not really looking for a big distribution but may be one or two exclusive outlets we might supply. It could happen within the next twelve months, it’s only launched in New South Wales and Victoria, not yet in West Australia and it’s likely to be happening in Hong Kong within the next few months.


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