Devil’s Lair Vineyard, Margaret River Simon Robertson

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Established in the 1980s, Devil’s Lair have been making wine from the classic hero varieties of Margaret River since the first release in 1990. The vineyard is situated in the south of the region, surrounded by karri and jarrah forest and fanned by ocean breezes. It’s a cool site marked by variations of aspect in the blocks that lend the wines complexity and a certain elegance, which is further enhanced by clonal diversity. Viticulturist Simon Robertson has cared for the site for 30 years, which has been registered with Sustainable Winegrowing Australia since 2010 and certified since 2013.

Devil’s Lair was founded in 1981 by the entrepreneurial Phil Sexton (Matilda Bay Brewing, Giant Steps, Little Creatures, Innocent Bystander). Purchasing a property of cleared farming land and remnant forest, he established what would become an iconic Margaret River brand. The name he chose has both personal history and ancient local history.

The Devil’s Lair Cave is a significant archaeological site near Witchcliffe that Sexton visited while studying the discipline at university. It is home to artifacts and animal bones, with some dating back 48,000 years. Amongst the bones, those of what we now call Tasmanian Devils were found, hence the name.

The first release didn’t come until 1990, when the iconic label of the devil with a fifth leg debuted. Back then, Janice McDonald moved across from Sexton’s Matilda Bay Brewing, swapping brewing for winemaking. Sexton sold the business in 1996, with McDonald staying on until 2000. Today, Ben Miller is the senior winemaker (since 2017), and Simon Robertson heads up the viticultural team. He knows the site better than anyone, having been employed by Sexton in 1993.

The hero variety at Devil’s Lair is chardonnay with 33.5 hectares planted to it. Cabernet sauvignon and merlot account for about 25 hectares, with the remainder of the 86 hectares under vine divided between sauvignon blanc, semillon and shiraz. There’s near to another 100 hectares of the property, including 10 hectares of wetlands and 50 hectares of native forest, with imposing stands of marri, jarrah and karri trees.

There are also numerous creeks and waterways on the property, which feed into the wetlands and their vast 14-hectare dam. Located in Forest Grove south of the township of Margaret River, the property is varied, with the vineyard planted across undulating slopes, which is a combination that makes the wines very distinctive.

“The Devil’s Lair site is located southerly compared to other Margaret River vineyards, giving it cooler character aspects than what the region’s chardonnay is renowned for,” says Robertson. “The abundance of slopes gives rise to multiple parcels of fruit for future considerations, in conjunction with clonal diversity, this gives rise to fantastic chardonnay.”

That clonal diversity sees the classic Gin Gin (Mendoza) joined by a trio of UC Davis clones. The fruit goes to making both the Devil’s Lair Chardonnay and premium ‘9th Chamber’, which is only made in exceptional vintages. “Devil’s Lair chardonnay is renowned for its powerful fruit flavours, excellent minerality, great length, structure and subtle oak influences,” says Robertson.

There’s a cabernet pair to match those wines as the emblematic estate releases, with a suite of other ranges that feature both estate and grower fruit. “Devil’s Lair cabernet sauvignon is typically complex and layered with lively aromas, fine tannins and subtle oak characteristics,” notes Robertson.

The fragile gravelly loam soils are friable and prone to erosion, which is exacerbated by the high rainfall of the area. Permanent swards have been established to bind the soils and increase organic material. “Periodically, certain blocks are reseeded to reintroduce grasses and clovers,” says Robertson. “These cover crops are then applied under vine once lignified or seeded to assist in nutrient and soil moisture retention and weed suppression. No soil tillage is undertaken due to the risk of erosion.”

Management of the soils on non-vineyard land is also key, says Robertson, with an active program to preserve and enhance biodiversity. “The management included fencing of remnant vegetation to prevent grazing, controlling environmental weeds and feral animals, rehabilitating areas using local native plant species, protecting vegetation from phytophthora dieback and connecting individual pieces of bushland by creating vegetation corridors for wildlife.” That ongoing work also includes replanting watercourse and fencing them to prevent the 700 head of sheep they agist on the property from damaging the fragile banks.

Composted winery waste is applied under vine and the soils are tested regularly for nutrient level, with basalt and coal added to boost magnesium and zinc. Wastewater from the winery is also incorporated into the composting program. Irrigation is applied based on soil monitoring probes and is controlled remotely for precision application.

Robertson notes that their location comes with an upside for wine quality, but there are challenges. “The climate in Margaret River makes it a high-risk region, especially in the south, so maintaining consistency for the winemakers is a daily task,” he says, noting that it’s the symbiotic relationship between viticulturist and winemaker that guides the work. “The team work closely together to obtain the best product and we’re constantly undertaking trial work in a highly labour-orientated vineyard to enhance and retain fruit consistency.”

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