A TRUE ORIGINAL
Our Market Development Manager and resident wine writer Tom Kline unearths the story of MJW – one steeped in legacy, terroir and a trusty pair of well-worn boots.
Beauty and dirt exist dichotomously in mainstream culture; the narrative is that the former looks down its nose at the latter with enmity and disgust. It’s an early and unavoidable indoctrination, engendered by fussing parents and ubiquitous advertising painting dirt as demonic and, well, dirty. And yet, as children, we’re endlessly drawn to it, allured to its potential for learning and making.
By all accounts, Michael Wright wasn’t one to conform to mainstream thinking, and when he looked down at the dirt surrounding his boot-clad feet in the pristine and undulating Stevens Valley, he saw eminent beauty and visceral promise.
Much has changed since those boots hit the ground in 1991, chief among them the replacement of herbicides, pesticides, and fungicides with blood, sweat and tears, ensuring a vineyard rich in living, organically-tended soil. It’s the purest expression of these soils and the Stevens Valley terroir that Voyager Estate strives to capture in a bottle. And at the very apex of that expression sit the MJW wines, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, meriting the inscription of the founder’s initials. A homage to his vision.
Naturally, it was more than just the soil that caught Michael’s eye. A staunch advocate for data gathering and statistical analysis, he’d done his research and taken his myriad of notes and observations, fastidiously indexed and legible only to him and perhaps his tenacious assistant. Among the simplest observations was the repute of neighbouring producers, the potential for growth, and the idyllic location in which this dirt resided. He also wasn’t acting alone.
“I had to go under the fence to get the first soil samples before we owned the vineyard,” says Alexandra Burt, when recounting the early days with her father. “He said, ‘You’re smaller, you go get it’, and sent me trespassing with a jar,” she laughs. Statute of limitations aside, clandestine visits like these spoke to Michael’s broad curiosity, his unquenchable thirst for knowledge, and his abundant joy in its subsequent application.
Today, the MJW range is emblematic of these traits, of Michael’s quest for excellence. The range has seen vast evolution since its inception in 1992, the first vintage under Michael's stewardship. As was common to the time, ‘Reserve’ was its first moniker, before a change with the 1995 vintage to ‘Tom Price’ in honour of a man Michael very much admired. Not one for self-aggrandisement, Michael would never have allowed a label bearing his initials. However, some honours are too felicitous to ignore, and, two years after his passing, the 2014 flagship wines were labelled ‘MJW’. “I just asked for his forgiveness quietly on the side,” recalls Alexandra. “Even if he had disagreed, I would have gone into bat for it incredibly hard.”
It’s not just the name that has evolved, however. The wines themselves have morphed over time, not only aligning with the increased understanding of the vineyard, but also with the maturation of the range’s identity. “In the beginning, we felt that the wines needed more power to stand out above the rest of the range,” says Winemaker and Winery Manager Travis Lemm. “The first couple of vintages were richer and more opulent within the context of our style. The wines have since evolved dramatically, and now it’s about absolute purity, detail, structure, and finesse.”
2018 will go down in Margaret River’s history as one of the greatest Cabernet Sauvignon vintages on record, and with the 2018 MJW Cabernet Sauvignon recently hitting the shelves, the team at Voyager is buzzing with excitement. “2018 was so even and consistent across the blocks,” says Travis. “It was the perfect summer. We had amazing ripening conditions; it wasn’t too hot which suited Cabernet as it doesn’t mind some extra hang time. We also didn’t have any major rain events, and yields were moderate.”
The fruit for the 2018 MJW Cabernet Sauvignon came from two blocks. Old Block V9 is a legacy vineyard that was planted in 1978. Rooted in orange clay with heavy dark soil, it puts forward pretty, floral, and delicate Cabernet that expresses red fruit and violet notes. North Block U12 sits on a gravelly hill with a rocky ridge through its centre, allowing it to be more free draining. Its gravelly loam soils produce fruit in a more muscular spectrum, resulting in savoury characteristics such as dried herbs, briar, anise, chocolate, and blue fruits. The blend of these two sites has resulted in a wine of power and finesse, presence and grace.
The 2020 MJW Chardonnay was comprised of fruit from three blocks. Broadvale Block 6 is Voyager’s smallest vineyard at one hectare but holds immense importance in the Chardonnay program. Perched atop a gravelly hill, it slopes gently towards the east, capturing the morning sun with protection from westerly winds. The vines are rooted into granite and flinty chalky rocks, which contribute lean minerality and line.
The neighbouring Broadvale Block 5 has a large west-facing aspect exposed to the westerly winds and sunshine. Depending on the season, this vineyard can put forward wines of high acidity or intense fruit power. “We had pretty low yields on Chardonnay,” says Travis. “The 2020 vintage favoured the Block 5 site as the fruit had such great intensity.”
Voyager 12 sits on a sandier profile. It’s a low-yielding terraced vineyard that steps its way down into the Stevens Valley, receiving good air ventilation through the canopy, which helps to preserve acidity. The sum of these parts is a powerful Chardonnay with great fruit intensity and impact, supported by fine acidity and vineyard detail. Like so many visionaries, Michael Wright was enigmatic, engaging and highly singular. His prodigious imagination and irreverence towards conventional thinking forged the path that led to Voyager Estate.
Theodore Roosevelt once said, “Keep your eyes on the stars and your feet on the ground.” In true form, Michael kept his eyes on the ground and saw stars at his feet. “He didn’t see dirt as dirty,” recalls Alexandra. “He saw dirt as something functional and useful and something that you work with to create beautiful things.”
Beauty and dirt exist harmoniously at Voyager Estate, and they’re captured best in a bottle of MJW.