Cathy Howard, Whicher Ridge

Single variety, single vineyard, single region wines – that are produced sustainably – are Cathy Howard’s passion. Meet one of Western Australia’s, and the nation’s, true fabulous ladies of wine.

cathy howard


 

When, why and how did you first enter the wine industry?

I grew up in Hobart, and spent all of my spare time with horses from my late teens. I thoroughly enjoyed any work as long as it was a combination of indoor and outdoor work, and preferably in a rural area. I worked for the Tasmanian Department of Agriculture for a few years as a Technical Officer, then at the CSIRO Marine Laboratories for a short stint. It took me a while to find out what I wanted to do, but a chance visit to Roseworthy Agricultural College in 1986, was the catalyst! My light bulb moment came when I was being shown around the College winery and vineyard.

I studied oenology at Roseworthy in the late 1980’s, graduating in 1991 with my first vintage experience being at Plantagenet Wines, WA in 1990.

Where has your career taken you so far?

Following my second vintage at Pipers Brook Vineyard, TAS in 1991, I then worked for a number of years at the iconic Cascade Brewery in Hobart as Cidermaker, Lab Manager and then Brewer.

I recommenced my winemaking career in 1995, upon moving to the Barossa Valley where I worked first for Orlando Wines, then St Hallett Wines.

I moved to WA in 2002, after meeting Neil through a mutual friend, and worked for the next few years at Watershed Wines.

In 2003, after much searching, we had found just the right property and planted our own vineyard the following year. We went on to launch our Whicher Ridge brand in 2008, built a winery in 2009, and we followed that up by building and opening our cellar door in late 2013. We are currently developing a wine sensory garden which will add a point of difference for our wine tasting experience here. The garden will be open in late Spring 2014.

From 2007 onwards, I have also been working as a winemaking consultant, which has taken me to Mildura, as well as to many locations around the South West of Western Australia, from Margaret River through to the Geographe region, up to the Swan Valley, down to Pemberton and across to Frankland River.

What led you to start your own winery, Whicher Ridge?

Neil and I wanted to do our thing, and to establish our own business doing something that we were both skilled at and enjoyed. Neil is a highly experienced vineyard manager, and I had a similar level of experience in winemaking. We had a shared vision of where we wanted to go, we were passionate about our industry, we didn’t mind hard work, and we wanted to grow our own grapes and make our own wines just the way that we wanted to, and to make the very best wines possible. Our aim is to be seen one day, as one of the iconic small wine producers – not just in WA but in Australia.

What’s the winemaking philosophy at Whicher Ridge?

We believe that a particular grape variety should be grown in a location that best suits that variety, and our wines are all single variety, single vineyard, single region wines. Add to this, a very generous amount of passion for what we do and you have Whicher Ridge Wines.

In the vineyard we follow sustainable, biological practices and earlier this year, we started making compost from our winery, garden and vineyard green waste to use back on the vineyard and across the farm.

In the winery, we do notinterfere unnecessarily with the wines, preferring them to be a natural expression of the unique sites and regions that the grapes come from.All our wines are handcrafted by the two of us, using hands on, traditional winemaking techniques.

What wines do you currently produce? And how and where can people find them?

We produce 7 wines, four whites and three reds.

Riesling – from Frankland River grapes, textured dry style, predominately lime and lemon flavoured with a minerality running through it typical of the region

Sauvignon Blanc – from our own vineyard in the Geographe region, European in style, 25% barrel ferment, 12 months on yeast lees

Chardonnay- from a vineyard in the northern part of Margaret River, 100% barrel fermented and matured in barrel on lees for 12 months

Viognier – from our own vineyard in the Geographe region, wild yeast fermented, matured on yeast lees in barrel and tank for 12 months also

Redtail Sparkling Shiraz – our Cellar Door only wine. Has 12 % viognier blended in to the shiraz ferment. 2 Years in barrel prior to going into bottle methode champenoise and staying on lees in bottle for another 2 years.

Shiraz – from Frankland River grapes, fermented in open topped fermenters, partial barrel fermentation and pressed off skins using a basket press. Then into barrel for 2 years, into a mix of new to 3 year old oak barrels.

Elevation Cabernet Sauvignon – from our own vineyard. Similar to our shiraz, fermented in open topped fermenters, partial barrel fermentation and pressed off skins using a basket press. Then into barrel for 2 years, into a mix of new to 2 year old French oak barrels.

Our wines are available at our Cellar Door, we’re open from Thursday to Monday from 10am to 5pm. Other option is on-line at www.whicherridge.com.au, by mail order, and if you live in Perth, we have some of our wines in three independent bottle shops, so please contact us for details.

Do you have a current favourite amongst the wines you make?

I do get asked this question a lot, and it’s a hard one to answer. Each of my wines can be a favourite at different times, for different occasions and for different reasons. The wine that I am most proud of is our Elevation Cabernet, our flagship wine. We planted this block, and each year the flavours and structure of the resulting wine just keeps on improving markedly. 

You worked in Tasmania and South Australia before moving to WA. What’s so great about making wine in the west?

It has to be the climate and soils, although as I’m writing this today, it’s wet, cold and very windy here, which is very common in Winter and Spring. The wind actually can be a negative as well as a positive. Strong change of season winds in Spring can affect flowering and set of the grapes, and subsequently yield, and wind can also dry the canopy out after rain or a dewy night reducing the disease risk too.

But it’s the general consistency between one season and the next which makes it a wonderful area to grow grapes and make wine. We don’t tend to have great temperature extremes and we don’t usually have vineyards stressed due to insufficient water and hot dry growing conditions, or conditions that are too cool and wet for adequate ripening.

We receive a good annual rainfall of around 950mm, mainly in Winter and Spring. Occasionally there are some heavy rain events during Summer due to cyclonic activity in the NW of the State. Summertime temperatures are warm and we do not usually experience extended periods of hot weather. Night time temperatures where we are in the Whicher Range, are generally fairly mild, often quite cool as we benefit from cool winds coming off the Southern Ocean during summer, which in turn cool down our vineyard over night. This means that our grapes retain their natural acidity levels and flavour development is slow and steady over the season leading to full flavoured wines with finesse in their palate structure.

What is your absolute favourite wine and food pairing?

Riesling and freshly shucked oysters!

As a woman working in the wine industry, have you faced any particular challenges where your gender has ever been an issue?

In recent years, no I haven’t. There have been no issues when I have been working as a consultant, as winemaker and owner in our business, and on various wine industry committees and working groups that I have been involved in.

However, when reaching senior winemaker and winery manager levels in larger wineries, yes there have been some occasions that I was treated differently compared to if I had been a male in the same position. I look back on these instances and wonder why, and a common factor seems to be the younger age of the male winemaker or cellar hand who was presenting me with that challenge.

What’s your number one wine tasting tip?

Ask lots of questions – winemakers love being asked about their wines, we have a lot of knowledge to share. It’s a fantastic way to learn about wine and grape growing, and to find out about food and wine matching.

Remember that there are no wrong opinions about wine tasting, only opinions as to what you like or dislike.

If there was one thing you could tell the sisterhood of wine-lovers out there, what would it be?

A Jancis Robinson quote from 1997, which I quite like, and which is very relevant for us and for many other small wine producers. In a nutshell – be adventurous with your wine tasting, taste as many different wines as you can as this is THE best way to learn and to extend your knowledge of wine:

“So one final piece of advice; if you come across a name that is completely unfamiliar to you on the wine list, or on a shelf, it’s almost certainly worth trying.

It’s probably only there because someone passionately believes in it.

Just as I passionately believe that every time you take a sip of wine you can enjoy history, geography, botany, psychology, and an intense amount of sheer pleasure.”


 Congratulations Cathy!

wine companionGreat news has just come in!! Seven (7!!) of Cathy’s wines just scored 93 points and above in the brand new 2015 James Halliday’s Wine Companion.
· Frankland River Shiraz 2010: 96 points
· Frankland River Riesling 2011: 94 points
· Frankland River Riesling 2012: 94 points
· Margaret River Chardonnay 2012: 94 points
· Frankland River Shiraz 2011: 94 points
· Geographe Sauvignon Blanc 2011: 93 points
· Frankland River Redtail Sparkling Shiraz 2009: 93 points
· Elevation Geographe Cabernet Sauvignon 2010: 90 points