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Lake's Folly - daring to be different

Hunter Valley winery Lake’s Folly turned 50 this year, not that you’d know. No party, no press release, no fanfare. Zip. Business as usual.

It was typical of how this 30 acre (12.2 hectare) icon in prime Hunter Wine Country goes about its business. There’s low key – and then there’s Lake’s Folly.

As a matter of fact it’s hard to think of any winery anywhere in the country that has dared to be as different. Not that it has suffered, mind you. Lake’s Folly has a fiercely loyal following of mailing list customers, and its 5000 cases sell out every year in a matter of months – at a not insignificant asking price of $700 a dozen.

And did I mention no single bottle sales? That’s right, cases only… $700 please. Discounts… special deals? Forget it. And when they’re sold out, as they invariably do, the “sold out” sign goes up on the gate and the little winery closes to the public until the next ­vintage is ready for sale.

And one more thing: while the Hunter is renowned for its shiraz and semillon, Lake’s Folly produces ­neither. It only does cabernet and chardonnay, both seriously good.

The chardonnay is probably not a surprise. While the Hunter isn’t exactly renowned for its chardonnay, it nonetheless produces some outstanding examples – and the number is certainly growing. But the cabernet is a different story altogether. Cabernet and Hunter in the same sentence? It’s a bit like Charlie Sheen and common sense – they’re words you don’t hear together too often.

Yet Lake’s Folly, with its gently sloping site on Broke Road, somehow produces a wine of undoubted ­pedigree, with wonderful ageing potential that is keenly sought by ­serious collectors, and which sits alongside the very finest produced in the country. Its current vintage, the 2011, is a stunner, and sure to sit alongside their very finest.

Rod Kempe is the winemaker, only the third in the winery’s 50-years after founder Max Lake and then his son Stephen. So what’s the secret? “Well, I can tell you what it’s not… it’s not advertising or marketing,” he says. “In 50 years Lake’s Folly hasn’t spent a single cent on either.”

And nor will you see their bottles adorned with little gold or silver stickers from awards won in wine shows. The reason is that in 50 years they have only ever entered one wine in a show – and it was earlier this year as a matter of fact. But I’ll come back to that.

So, to recap: no advertising, no marketing, no show entries, no discounts, no single bottle sales. Oh, and no buses at the cellar door, either. They must be crazy.

“From my point of view when I came here 13 years ago, I thought if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” Kempe said. “I think at the end of the day the quality of our wines speak for themselves. They have to because we have nothing else to fall back on.

“Yet our wines sell out every year, we have a loyal customer base and we have a style that screams Lake’s Folly. While other wineries have followed trends over the years – bigger wines, oakier wines, whatever was in style at the time – we have always produced a house style that remains unchanged.

“We make elegant, sophisticated wines, medium bodied with great ageing potential. Our customers know what they’re getting every time.

“There are very few wineries around the country that you would say have a house style – some Penfolds, Mount Mary in Victoria, but we’re certainly one. The French cottoned on to it hundreds of years ago. You go to their top wineries and know what to expect. It might not be your preferred style, but they remain true to it.”

The other thing of course is the vineyard itself, which produces fruit of remarkable consistency – a gentle slope of cabernet that runs down to the flat where the chardonnay thrives.

“All around the world, year in, year out, the best vineyards produce the best fruit,” Kempe acknowledged. “And we have a site here that produces outstanding fruit. We don’t tinker with it too much. We want our wines to be an expression of our vineyard.”

Who can argue with their philosophy? Wine storage company Wine-Ark releases a poster each year that shows the top collected and cellared wines of Australia. It shows that the Lake’s Folly has the most collected cabernet in the country (and third most collected wine overall) and the second most collected chardonnay behind the dazzling Leeuwin Estate Art Series from Margaret River.

So what of the one wine competition they have entered? It was the annual Six Nations Challenge where a respected wine writer from each nation – Australia, New Zealand, United States, South Africa, Argentina and Chile – hand-picks wines to represent their nation. The wine writers themselves become the judging panel.

Sydney Morning Herald wine critic Huon Hooke picked the Australian team and asked Lake’s Folly if they would break with tradition and enter their outstanding 2011 chardonnay. They did. And they won, against the finest chardonnays from six nations.

Hooke described the wine as “a refined, modern chardonnay that had generosity and richness of flavour with impressive length”.

So, seeing as they broke with tradition once, did Lake’s Folly do it again and produce a special press release trumpeting their win, or maybe a call to the local paper? Or what about a little gold medal label on their bottles?

“Nah … it’s not us,” Kempe said. Business as usual.

RA This article was initially published in the Maitland Mercury on November 23, 2013