My first meeting with Julian Langworthy began with him regaling me with a long and colourful story about how Deep Woods, the estate in Western Australia’s Margaret River for which he is chief winemaker, was named after a famous comic-strip character, the Phantom. “Our estate symbol is that of the Phantom’s peace ring,” he even clarified, “which he wore on the opposite hand from his skull ring, which he used to punch people with!” That was in October 2013 in Hong Kong and, bemused by his enthusiasm despite having never read those comic books, I accosted him after a splendid wine dinner in Causeway Bay to sign a bottle of his 2010 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, a wine so sublime that it inspired me to visit the estate that Christmas.
Exactly three years later, its newest incarnation in the form of the 2014 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon won the prestigious Jimmy Watson Memorial Trophy for 2016, for the Best Young Red Wine at the Royal Melbourne Wine Awards, right after Deep Woods had already taken the Best Cabernet or Cabernet Blend trophy – only the second winery to do so for three consecutive years. It was also the fifth Western Australian estate to win the coveted Jimmy Watson, whose past winners usually hailed from the Barossa Valley (thanks to the likes of Penfolds Grange) and elsewhere.
Langworthy then became named Winemaker of the Year in The West Australian Wine Guide 2017 by critic Ray Jordan, Deep Woods was cited as Winery of the Year and the 2014 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon the Wine of the Year. This was a fitting end to 2016 for Langworthy and his chief viticulturist John Fogarty, who work the 32-hectare property nestled in the dense woods of Margaret River’s northern reaches, established in 1987, now also home to excellent versions of Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon and Shiraz. Perhaps instinctively, I’d waited until now to chat with Langworthy – an opportune time since this past February’s harvest was delayed due to unexpectedly cooler weather, affording him the chance to chat about the winemaking vision that won him his most cherished prize.
How did it feel to win the Jimmy Watson trophy after coming so close for a few years prior?
It was a very surreal experience, but also an amazing feeling, very gratifying, a bit like kicking the winning goal at a final or similar. I can honestly say it was a long-term goal from my earliest winemaking days at university, when you’re young and feel all set to take over the world.
I still have a signed bottle of your Cabernet Reserve 2010 from when we met in October 2013, after it won gold at the Decanter Wine Awards the same year. Is this a collectors’ item?
I’d forgotten I signed that bottle for you – it might actually be worth something one day! That was a great trip and Ch’ng Poh Tiong from Singapore, who hosted that dinner, is a hugely entertaining and knowledgeable guy. I learned that Hong Kong is a dangerous place – I vaguely remember hitting the town quite hard after the dinner, into the early hours, and I believe I may have got about two hours’ sleep prior to getting on my plane the next morning.
You took over as chief wine-maker and general manager of Deep Woods in 2011. Where were you before that and why the transition?
I was senior winemaker at Knappstein in the Clare Valley, South Australia. I received a phone call out of the blue from Peter Fogarty, owner of Deep Woods Estate since 2005, and was impressed with Peter’s vision and commitment to producing the finest wines from Margaret River. I myself am originally from Margaret River and I was already a fan of the region so I suppose it was a perfect fit. I also saw it as a great opportunity to realise some long-held ambitions, so I resigned from Knappstein and headed back west.
Margaret River as a region has acquired an Epicurean reputation. But when I visited at the end of 2013, I was surprised that you didn’t have a restaurant on the premises and was told you had no plans to do so. Any reason why?
When you visited, I know you lunched at Bunkers Beach House, right on the beach at Bunker Bay on the edge of the Indian Ocean, only 15 kilometres away from my winery. I like to think of it as Deep Wood Estate’s restaurant, only at the beach. It’s owned by Peter Fogarty. His Fogarty Wine Group, which we are part of, has a restaurant at one of its other wineries, Millbrook, just south of Perth. At Deep Woods we certainly considered the option of doing a restaurant on our premises. But our focus and investment to date have been on our vineyards and our winemaking. As with anything we do, we will only do it if we can really be up there with the best.
Aside from your Cabernets I was very impressed with your Block 7 Shiraz. What makes that wine work, in a way that’s different from the Barossa Valley Shiraz style most people know?
Our Block 7 is made from grapes in one of those awesome sites from which we get lovely blue fruit and ripe spice, resulting in a wine with a much finer structure than its cousins from the Barossa. There’s some good Shiraz in Margaret River. You just need to pay careful attention to your site selection and viticultural practices.
Since the inception of the Jimmy Watson trophy, only five estates from Margaret River have won. Most victors are South Australian, so you’re now giving them a run for their money.
You know it! I was stoked that a Cabernet won, too, as they’ve been dabbling with too many wines that are Pinot Noir and Shiraz, at least for my liking. I think, in all seriousness, that Margaret River Cabernet and Chardonnay are set to shake things up on the world stage, let alone the Australian one, simply because they’re that good. I’ve been asked if Deep Woods is a standard bearer for our district, Yallingup, in terms of what our microclimate and terroir have to offer, and I would say yes, but not consciously. Yallingup fruit is more immaculately ripe yet subtle and age-worthy, particularly for wines that are 100 percent Cabernet Sauvignon.
What would you say are your own best traits as a winemaker that might make your style unique or different to others working with similar grape varieties?
Well, I believe that the best winemakers have an almost obsessive quality and an innate drive for perfection, and perhaps my personality is of that ilk. I’ve probably got, in a twisted sense, a set of incongruent traits, being spontaneous yet pedantic within my own winemaking style. I can make spontaneous decisions with complete confidence during harvest time in the face of rapidly changing conditions, with very little agonising, and then I’ll spend hours doing barrel allocation because I’m myopically finding fault where perhaps none exists.
You harvested two weeks later than planned because of unexpectedly cooler weather. Some Australian estates have had to pick fruit earlier than usual in recent years. what’s your take on the impact of climate change?
Climate change is a tricky thing. We’ve enjoyed great vintages in recent years. I’ll admit to considerable concern on the ever-creeping harvest dates – and this year seems like a return to more “normal” harvest dates, perhaps. Although, this year, late-season rain was pretty stressful.
What’s the most important thing to you about your chosen vocation as a winemaker?
The way I see it, winemaking is an amazingly real occupation in a world where it feels like we are becoming more disconnected by the minute. Each year, we make something tangible that has taken a whole year for nature to create in our amazing location. Then, you combine that with all the great people who visit for harvest from all around the world, who join us in converting the fruits of that harvest into world-class wines. The most important thing is getting to stand behind your wines, so you can say this is our body of work and we hope you’ll enjoy it.