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THINGS didn’t go according to plan in the first year or so after the entrepreneurial Phil Sexton bought the property that was to become Devil’s Lair in 1981.

One of the influences behind the iconic Matilda Bay Brewing Company, Mr Sexton found the going tough when he started planting vines, with the first few years providing little reward. It was only in 1985 – after he bought an adjacent plot of land and built a dam on it – that the first vines took hold. Those original four hectares of vineyard has now grown to 128ha, and is now under control of Southcorp Wines.

The name Devil’s Lair was taken from an archaeological site not far from the vineyard’s location, about five minutes south of the township of Witchcliffe. It is believed the Devil’s Lair Cave was used by the area’s Indigenous inhabitants and archaeological digs have unearthed finds of thylacine bones and suggestions of giant wombat bones. It is one of the most recognised wine labels in the Western Australian wine industry, created by Roland Butcher.

In 1990 Devil’s Lair released its first wine, a cabernet sauvignon made at the Plantagenet winery in Mt Barker. The wine was named the best wine of the show at the SGIO awards the following year.

The first Devil’s Lair chardonnay was released the following year, as was the first of the curio wines released by the winery, a riesling from purchased fruit. Another curio released under the Devil’s Lair label was a 1994 sauvignon blanc, again from purchased fruit.

These days Devil’s Lair produces only four wines – the cabernet and chardonnay remain estate wines and the popular Fifth Leg red and white wines (introduced in 1996) are produced from fruit sourced from only South West vineyard sites. The chardonnay and cabernet-based wines remain the focus. The winery this year crushed approximately 700 tonnes of estate fruit in a total of just more than 1,900t.

Devil’s Lair also used to produce a pinot noir, which in 1993 repeated the success of the cabernet and collected the wine of the show at the SGIO awards. The pinot noir is a wine that still attracts interest from consumers at trade exhibitions, even though it has not been produced since 1997.

Graduate winemaker Karen Cole, who presented the Devil’s Lair wines at the recent Western Australian road show in the eastern States, said: “I couldn’t believe the interest in pinot, we would be asked about it almost daily”.

The last vintage of the pinot noir coincided with the takeover of the winery by Southcorp in January of the same year, after appraisal from winemaker and journalist, James Halliday. 

It became apparent when visiting each of the Great Estate wineries that there has been little change in the winemaking staff. Devil’s Lair has only had three winemakers since the opening of the winery onsite.

Janice McDonald was brewing beer for Matilda Bay when Phil Sexton offered the winemaking role at Devil’s Lair. She remained in control of the wines until David Thompson assumed the mantle for a brief period in 1994. Ms McDonald returned for a second stint before handing the baton to current winemaker Stuart Pym in 2000.

The styles of the two estate wines created by Ms McDonald are now being nurtured and fine-tuned by Stuart Pym.

“The cabernet is continuing to evolve,” he says. “It [the cabernet] is beginning to, and will continue over time, become more perfumed and display less over ripe characters, driving more towards the red berry, briary fruits that are found in the fruit from the southern end of Margaret River.”

The development of the chardonnay, which Mr Pym says “really began in 1997 with Janice”.

“This was when the wine started to obtain more restraint and looked at applying the subtleties of the region, seeking to highlight the flinty, mineral elements and greater textural complexity, white burgundy the benchmark,” he says.

Since 1997 the chardonnay has continued to impress pundits around the country. The 1999 was one of the highlights at the annual Cullen International Chardonnay Tasting, and the 2001 has collected a swag full of gold medals, both nationally and overseas.

Devil’s Lair will present a barrel of the 2003 chardonnay at the Great Estates auction in November. As regular readers of this column will know, I have worked at Devil’s Lair the past couple of vintages, and consequently it is difficult for me to comment totally objectively on the 2003 chardonnay.

As part of this series I tasted through a number of barrels, finding a distinctive theme of white peach and nectarine flowing through in each. The oak is slowly integrating into the wine, and although the wine has some time to go before it is bottled in the early part of the next year, you see from the samples the wine is displaying depth of flavour and tight acidity. Stuart Pym suggests that the “barrel sample gives a good indication to the quality you will see in the finished wine.”

Mr Pym also is eager to make contact with anyone holding bottles of the 1994 and 1998 cabernet, as the winery is chasing some museum stock. In recent years the auction market has provided a good opportunity to collect stock of Devil’s Lair, with most vintages making appearances at prices that vary according to vintage. Most trading has been on the cabernet.

 

Devil’s Lair Margaret River Red 1995 rating 19/20

Displaying aromas of black cherries, chocolate, cassis with slight cedar/tobacco touches. The palate shows redcurrant fruits, which are soft, elegant, ripe and sweet, yet shows some restraint. This wine still has plenty of life and shows the strengths of the vintage.

 

Devil’s Lair Margaret River Red 1996 rating 17/20

A relatively warm vintage. The rainy spring means this one didn’t quite get the depth of flavour. Aromas are formed around cedar, blackcurrant and blueberries, perfumed with an edge of cigar box and black olive. The palate, while rich, has less depth of flavour than the 1995. Redcurrant and blackberry fruits sit on top of soft elegant tannins – a sound wine with elegance .

 

Devil’s Lair Margaret River Red 1997 rating 16.5/20

The vintage season had plenty of rain and harvest began much later than usual. This wine showed the structure of a cooler vintage. Restrained redcurrant fruits with tobacco hints, fleshy palate with mint and chocolate entwined with red berry fruits. The palate has quite lively acidity and a core of red berry fruits. Showing length of flavours, it is not a generous fruit driven wine.

 

Devil’s Lair Margaret River Red 1998 rating 18.5/20

With some cyclonic activity this one’s from another relatively late vintage. An unusual vintage with a bit of botrytis affected fruit around. I am led to believe that a fair bit of good luck rather than good management prevailed with this vintage. This is a powerful wine with redcurrant, chocolate (mint), prunes and cedary aromas. Tantalising fruit on the palate that is soft and supple. Cassis, plums, redcurrant and mint flavours dominate. Shows length of palate and indicates the wine still has plenty of time on its side.

 

Devil’s Lair Margaret River Red 1999 rating 19/20

Great vintage conditions for reds throughout Margaret River. This is a stunning wine that is powerful and elegant. Aromas are complex with briary, cassis and savoury dark chocolate notes. The palate ignites powerful viscous fruit that shows structure and balance. Complexity flows through the wine. There is seamlessness to this generous wine that will be around for some time.

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