Western Australia may not be the country’s biggest wine producing region. It may not even be its most renowned. But, says RAY JORDAN, feel the quality.
The Western Australia wine industry is but a minnow in the sea of Australian wines. It makes up little more than 3% of the total annual crush, though that will probably grow in the next few years. But in quality terms it is a big fish, making about 20% of the country’s super and ultra premium wine.
The Australian wine industry’s success story is based largely on its ability to produce significant volumes of full-flavoured, fruity, value-for-money wines. Western Australia entered the modern mix in the mid to late 1960s and 1970s, and from the outset it has established a point of difference based on the wines’ – and winemakers’ – personalities. There has been an almost frontier-style approach as winemakers push into new areas. The individuality of the wines (and makers) has done much to cement the concepts of quality and style, as well as making the wines highly marketable.
The wines of Western Australia in general reflect a modern interpretation of traditional Australian wine styles. With so many regions and sub regions in Australia, it is difficult to generalise, but there are some fundamental differences between WA wines and most of the big-volume wines of southeastern Australia.
Although vineyards of some size have been planted in the south of the state, to provide access to bigger quantities of quality fruit and produce wines at lower price points, in the main it has been viticulture on a small scale. In general, Western Australia producers have all but shunned competing in the big-volume, budget end of the market, put off by a combination of the high cost of planting vineyards and producing wine, and the power of the big companies already active in the rest of the country.
Instead, from the time the modern era of the Western Australia wine industry began, the focus has been on premium wine. This has been driven by the development of the new vineyard areas in the cooler climates of the southwest corner of the state. Broadly speaking, this area is made up of the general regions of the southwest and the Great Southern, although it is broken into other designated smaller regions.
Zones such as Pemberton and its near-neighbour Manjimup show immense promise, while sub-regions within the Great Southern, such as Denmark, Mt Barker, Frankland and the Porongurups are showing potential as producers begin to understand the suitability of specific varieties to defined areas.
Until the 1960s, most of the state’s wine production was based in the warm climatic region of the Swan Valley, on the eastern edge of Perth. The Swan Valley had been the traditional home of the state’s industry for the best part of 130 years, but the quality of wines had been inconsistent. With a handful of exceptions, it was largely a migrant-driven cottage industry, with most of the wine sold in bulk from cellar doors. The area’s reputation was largely built on fortified wines – the choice of most Australians until the 1960s.
About the time Australians were discovering table wines – mainly as a result of the strong European migrant influx – cool-climate areas in Western Australia were identified as being suitable for grape production. The state government pushed for the Great Southern region, and eventually a site at Forest Hill, just out of Mt Barker, was chosen to plant vines. Meanwhile, two landmark papers by noted agronomist and scientist Dr John Gladstones pointed to the southwest (and Margaret River) as being suitable for viticulture.
Those papers helped change the course of viticultural history in WA. They were read and digested by a number of people, and led to the first steps in a new era of winemaking. Concurrently, an experimental planting at Forest Hill showed great promise, and within a few years outstanding wines started to emerge. A number of early wines sourced from this vineyard remain the most awarded wines in the state.
In the years since, these areas have come to dominate grape production of Western Australia, which in 2003 reached 52,000 tonnes. Of this, Margaret River produced around 22,000 tonnes and the Great Southern around 10,500.
By Australian standards, the regions are cool climate, although by normal world standards, this verges on the warmer side of cool. There are several distinct variations. For instance, Margaret River is generally warmer and more reliable, providing a vintage consistency almost unmatched in the state.
In general, the Great Southern’s cooler climate gives a longer ripening period. However, it is more susceptible to vintage variations as a result of climatic variability, which can dump rain bang in the middle of the vintage.
In terms of quality and profile, not to mention natural beauty, Margaret River is unmatched by any other region in the state. It was Cabernet and Cabernet-based wines from Moss Wood, Cullen, Cape Mentelle and Vasse Felix that built its reputation. But the emergence of a truly iconic wine in the great Cullen Cabernet-Merlot shows the evolution from raw, rustic early wines to refined, stylish recent vintages.
In the early 1980s, Chardonnay was planted with fantastic results. The most spectacular was Leeuwin Estate’s Art Series, which has come to be regarded by connoisseurs as Australia’s finest Chardonnay. The grapes come principally from a small plot called Block 20 that provides fruit of rare intensity and power.
Since then, Chardonnay plantings have been prolific. Over the last few years, winemakers have refined the styles in line with a modern Australian interpretation of Chardonnay, which has done much to enhance Margaret River’s reputation as Australia’s finest Chardonnay district.
Another recent phenomenon is the emergence of Semillon-Sauvignon Blanc – the so-called ‘classic blend’. Both varieties were successful as varietal loners, but when blended the sum far exceeds the parts. Producers such as Lenton Brae, Pierro, Vasse Felix and Houghton produce exceptional SSBs.
The Great South
The Great Southern is one of the biggest viticultural regions, covering an area 150km from north to south, and 100km from east to west. The areas closer to the coast benefit from this maritime influence, and while the potential is only now beginning to be tapped, there are some limitations elsewhere as a result of insufficient water and soil salinity.
The variations in climate and topography mean that a wide range of varieties is grown. Even now it seems that certain varieties are only starting to find a home in specific areas.
Witness Mt Barker district, home to excellent Riesling, Pinot Noir, Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon; Denmark, some outstanding Chardonnay and Pinot; Frankland River’s Riesling, Cabernet and stunning Shiraz; Albany for Pinot, Chardonnay and promising Cabernet Franc; and the cool climes of the Porongurups, where steely Rieslings show enormous potential.
The area around Mt Barker has grown steadily, though not quite as spectacularly as Margaret River. The punishing distance both from Perth and between vineyard locations made establishing the industry in this part of the state a lot tougher. These days, the Great Southern can justifiably claim to be one of the three great Riesling areas of Australia, rivalling and in some years surpassing those of South Australia’s Clare and Eden Valleys. Chardonnay also seems adaptable here while varieties such as Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc can reach great heights.
Of the reds, Shiraz and Cabernet seem ideally suited. Shiraz in particular can be spectacular, with the combination of soils and climate contributing to a warm, fleshy, deliciously fruity style resembling the great wines of the Rhône. Shiraz from Frankland River may eventually be recognised as Australia’s greatest, with wines such as Houghton Gladstones Shiraz and Alkoomi’s Jarrah Shiraz reaching exceptional heights.
Cabernet too has been a great success, and while it lacks the raw power and intensity of Margaret River, it more than makes up for that with elegance and style. That original vineyard at Forest Hill has supplied fruit to a number of high-profile WA and national producers over the years, resulting in some of the greatest Cabernets ever made in this state. Other premium producers such as Goundrey and Plantagenet have also produced outstanding Cabernets that introduce a refinement and varietal fruit expression which sets them apart from the more powerful, concentrated wines of Margaret River.
One of the state’s most impressive producers, Howard Park, had its genesis in the Great Southern. It now has a substantial vineyard in Margaret River, which has provided the ability to blend across regions, especially with Howard Park Cabernet, a wine that has risen to great heights.
The state’s biggest producer is Houghton, now owned by Cellar Door, the premium brands division of the giant Constellation Wines. For breadth and depth of range – from value-for-money wines to the ultra-premium Jack Mann blend, the wines are superb.
Pemberton in particular is shaping up as one of the state’s most exciting areas. This is where Moss Wood’s founder Bill Pannell makes wines under the Picardy label, using special Burgundy clones for Chardonnay. Pannell, Salitage and Houghton are also making exciting inroads with the variety.
But it is with Sauvignon Blanc that the area might achieve its greatest fame. This variety, which has enjoyed limited success in Australia, rises to a new level at Pemberton, with a smoky savouriness and subtle tropical fruit combining into a compelling flavour mix.
With the exception of the Swan Valley, the other areas in the state are still finding their feet. Geographe is clearly suited to Shiraz and the S-SB blend, while a number of identified hot spots may well provide the ideal site for varieties like Tempranillo.
The Blackwood Valley in the south and the Perth Hills surrounding the capital city are still trying to find the right formula, and Peel, just south of Perth, is still largely untapped. (Peel Estate, with its quirky Chenin Blanc and stylish elegant Shiraz, is impressive.)
Western Australia’s wine industry has been through a period of phenomenal growth. The challenge now is to see how it performs and continues to grow as a mature wine-producing area.
Ray Jordan is the author of Guide to West Australian Wine 2003/2004 (West Australian Newspapers).
Written by Ray Jordan