Western Australia is miles apart from the country's other wine regions – and its wines are made in a distinctly different style. SUSAN KEEVIL pays a visit.
In a sense, linking Western Australia wine with the region’s omnipresent surf culture isn’t a bizarre concept. Peek round the door of many a Margaret River winery and there’ll be a crew of spaghetti-strapped, hipster-jeaned or Hawaiian-shirted cellar rats tending the presses, rather than the usual motley band. The same is true statewide – if the sea’s not in sight, the cellar crews pine for it.
It isn’t that every West Australian wine is made by surf-fiends, it’s just their distinctive laid back approach seems to pervade the industry. There’s no race to build super-size wineries, or to make enough Chardonnay to supply the world. No million-litre vats. No urgency to find the most cost-efficient blend, but instead, an overwhelming desire to nurture the best from the maritime environment. Eddie Price of Amberley Vineyards puts it like this: ‘For most of us, the ocean is only five kilometres away, and it’s the breezes that come off it that make this a clean, green land and give the grapes the freshest varietal characters. Look to the sea and there’s nothing out there until you get to South Africa.’ John Durham, down the road at Cape Mentelle, feels the same: ‘You can’t escape them! The sea breezes blow away the stifling heat other Australian wine regions get. This means we get warm-climate structure and cool-climate flavour because the temperature drops by 10–15?C at night. It makes life easy for us.’
The flavour differences also come from the fact that Western Australia is two days’ drive away from the rest of the country – five days away from Sydney, or four hours by air. In comparison, Beaune is just a few hours’ drive for Londoners, and just as there’s no small palate variation between Burgundy and Breaky Bottom (for example), Western Australian wines taste different from those of Victoria or New South Wales. Take Cabernet Sauvignon: from Coonawarra, Clare and the McLaren Vale over in South Australia the wines are relentlessly blackcurranty; from WA there’s less blackcurrant, more blueberry and prune. Semillon in WA has grapefruit and grassiness with a touch of orange; Barossa’s has big, bold blowsiness, and the Hunter’s a Chablis-like citric bite. There is also a wealth of tangible regional differences in WA wines. The Swan Valley – around Perth, the original WA wine region – is warm enough to give an almost sweet ripeness in the reds and whites, which are smooth and soft. Along the coast, heading south from Perth, Mandurah’s sandy soils give bold rusticity to the wines; then in ‘Geographe’, a little further south, the Donnybrook and Capel Vale sub-regions have richer soils but are cooler, and good for crisp, fragrant whites and light reds.
Further south again, Margaret River is Australia’s answer to Bordeaux. Just as geologist John Gladstones predicted, Margaret River Cabernets are sensational, but other grapes are jostling for attention too. Inland, the Blackwood Valley around Bridgetown is cool and boutiquey, like a budding Australian Sonoma with the craft stores and poised Chardonnays to match. Down on the south coast, there’s Pemberton; right in the corner of Australia, this is cool Chardonnay, Sauvignon and Pinot territory. To the east a bit, in Great Southern, Frankland and Mount Barker turn out Riesling and increasingly fine Shiraz. But it’s the people that put all the physical factors together and make the wines what they are. WA pioneer Denis Horgan, who set up Margaret River’s Leeuwin Estate in 1974, explains that quality has always come first, and that there’s never been a need or a desire to produce wine on a large scale: ‘The five great founding wineries that put this region on the map were set up by people for whom wine was a creative outlet. They were totally passionate about it, but not competitive. ‘The big guys today spill as much as we produce. Rosemount and Southcorp crush 300,000 tons of fruit a year, the whole of WA only crushes 40,000. We saw, and still see, ourselves here for generations so we are in no hurry to plant more and more.’
Many of the first winemakers in WA were doctors looking for artistic recreation (and financial sidelines), which is another reason why most estates have remained small-scale. Mike Peterkin set up Pierro in 1979 and still practises as a GP in Busselton. He spent the 2000 vintage dodging the cranes and trucks that were constructing his new winery – literally, as each tank was built, it was filled with fermenting wine. In between grape loads, Mike would pop down the road to the surgery to check on his patients. If he worked on a bigger scale, the logistics wouldn’t have worked: ‘It’s all about having a “can do” policy!’ he says casually. ‘I was the first Roseworthy-trained winemaker to come into Western Australia, but I wasn’t the only one who wanted to do things really well. Everyone did. We were only interested in quality.’
Vanya Cullen’s parents were also doctors – her mother Di still supervises proceedings at the Cullen estate. Vanya today continues the creative work that they began. ‘I don’t believe in pushing the wine into something it’s not,’ she emphasises. It’s important for Vanya that her vineyards are run as holistically as possible, without pressurising young vines. Prolific plant growth and pest life mean there are very few parts of Australia where Vanya’s kind of gentle organic viticulture is possible; WA is one of the few, and there’s little doubt that her wines benefit from such attention. Naturalness is very much part of WA thinking. ‘When I first came over from New South Wales I thought it was the Wild West,’ exclaims John at Cape Mentelle. ‘The hippies, the surfies, etc. I thought they were a load of mad nutters. But I’ve adjusted I think. I like the way things are done here – the fact that as long as you pick at the optimum time, the climate is gentle enough that you can avoid artificial acid additions or powdered tannin.’ Mike Peterkin agrees: ‘There’s a lot of heebie-jeebie talked about organic wines, but wine is a food and we like to keep things natural. I don’t particularly want to filter all of that character out of our wines for example, so the coarser the filter the better. We use stockings – don’t ask me what denier, we just use “clean ones”!’
Five factors, then, make the difference to WA. Diverse and characterful regions, cool maritime conditions, the scope to keep things natural, small-scale production, and ‘can-do’ creative people. In the Blackwood Valley, Stephen Bullied has a small winery in his tractor barn. ‘Making wine is hard work – it’s better than throwing your money away, but only just,’ he says. Stephen is a pioneer in a new wine region, with new and individual flavours. That’s what Western Australia’s about. Ignoring the rest of the pack, and enjoying being different.
Susan Keevil is a former editor of Decanter.